Bear and His Daughter

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Since his debut as a novelist with DOG SOLDIERS in 1974 which won the National Book Award for fiction, Robert Stone has concentrated on the themes which he feels are central to the presentation of what he calls “my subject . . . America and Americans.” His often grim but hardly solemn vision of “American reality” has been based on characters (usually male) who are essentially alone, often angry or rootless, tempted or touched by violence, and inclined toward or deeply involved with alcohol and/or drugs. The seven pieces in BEAR AND HIS DAUGHTER retain this focus on people who have suffered some severe loss or debilitating disappointment, but Stone’s manic wit, deft satirical touch, superb powers of description—especially in moments of action—and ability to craft convincing dialogue give his shorter fiction the same “qualities that make Stone’s novels so harrowing, exhilarating, and impossible to forget,” as Paul Gray puts it.

The first two stories, “Miserere” and “Absence of Mercy” function as a kind of frame for the collection. The first title is both a specific reference to the familiar prayer which asks for “Miserere nobis”—mercy on us—and a linguistic suggestion of the depth of misery that the protagonist, Mary Urquhart, has experienced. Her spiritual recovery, if tenuous, is set in direct contrast to Mackay whose psychic desolation is partially the product of the absence of mercy which has him wondering “just how...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Bear and His Daughter

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

While discussing such novels as Dog Soldiers (1974), A Flag for Sunrise (1981), and Children of Light (1986), which have secured his reputation as one of the leading writers of fiction in the United States, Robert Stone has insistently proclaimed that “my subject” is “America and Americans.” Stone’s capability as a writer has been recognized since Dog Soldiers won a National Book Award, but his manner of depicting American experience has drawn a mixed response, including such negative assessments as the comment that there is “not a hint of a whiff of a shred of a trace of a clue about what is best about America” in his novels. Stone himself has somewhat sardonically summarized his own work as “heavy, lugubrious, life is dreadful, nothing’s funny, just one long plaintive wail unrelieved by brio,” a dryly self-mocking acknowledgment of some of his preoccupations, as well as a reproach to those critics who have not been able to separate situation and circumstance from Stone’s characters and their attempts to grapple with hardship.

The six short stories that originally appeared in journals such as The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Esquire, plus the semi-novella “Bear and His Daughter,” which provides the title for the first collection of Stone’s shorter work, cover familiar territory. Their central characters are in their middle years, people born during World War II who reached adulthood in the 1960’s and whose lives are wrenched and troubled. Lacking direction and a clear sense of purpose, they are all heavily involved with alcohol and/or drugs; whatever their temperaments, they are touched and tempted by violence. Nevertheless, as Stone has observed, “I’m critical, sometimes bitterly critical, but I love America.” This apparent contradiction, a kind of disjunction between the psychic condition of his protagonists and his professed love for America, is illuminated, if not resolved, by his statement that “The national promise is so great that a tremendous bitterness is evoked by its elusiveness.” Here, Stone is speaking to the utopian dream that formed the first concept of a “Brave New World” that F. Scott Fitzgerald saw as “the light on Daisy’s dock” and that Allen Ginsberg celebrated and lamented as “the lost America of love.” In his short stories, as in his novels, Stone is writing with a kind of deep sympathy for, but a clear eye on, people whose possibilities of a smooth course for their lives were destroyed by a chain of personal and political events beyond their ability to control.

The first story, “Miserere,” has a title that resonates with “that prayer sung over and over” in Latin: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, Miserere nobis. The final phrase of the prayer, which asks “the Lamb of God” to “have mercy on us,” might also be heard by the English-speaking reader as misery. Mary Urquhart, fifty years old, has emerged from the paralyzing depression of “widowhood and recovery,” from abject misery, to serve as a source of strength and encouragement for troubled friends in the grimy, decaying rust-belt city where she lives. Stone generally locates his stories in (or near) the narrative consciousness of a male protagonist but has always tried to make the women characters in his work as vivid and singular as the men. As critic James Woods has pointed out, these men seem “halved, severed, emotionally divorced. Certainly his [Stone’s] men feel alone.” Following the most profound human loss, Urquhart experiences the kind of isolation that can literally destroy a person’s will to live. Her recovery is a function of her innate compassion for other people’s pain, of her delight in recalling apt quotes from classical literature to reinforce her instinctive responses to the images of beauty she sees amidst urban blight, and of her awe-driven faith in an almost abstract, if mysterious, God/Creator: “the ancient Thing before whose will she stood amazed.” It is this combination of deep feeling for another human being, an appreciation for the powers of language to ratify a version of reality, and an awareness of some cosmic force, mysterious but strangely exalting (often exemplified by the ocean in Stone’s writing), that gives Urquhart and other characters in these stories the will and desire to resist misery. As Stone has said, his characters are “lost,” and his intention is to “write to give them courage, to make them confront things as they are in a more courageous way.”

One of the reasons that moments of courage in Stone’s work are so affecting is that the world he describes is often marked by an “Absence of Mercy,” the title of the second story whose placement is clearly designed as a commentary on “Miserere.” In what he says is his only autobiographically based work of fiction, Stone established the psychology of perception of a man raised essentially as an orphan because of his mother’s incapacity, and who finds himself without a social connection or foundation or any affiliation beyond the enclosure of his mind and his reflective assessment of his life’s course. With some degree of distress, he realizes that most of the memorable aspects of his life have been ordered by violence, or its threat, in the exercise of power, and in...

(The entire section is 2192 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In his Introduction to the Best American Short Stories of 1992, which he edited, Stone noted that "the most significant development in...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In spite of Stone's continued insistence that "I love America" even if he is "sometimes bitterly critical," and that he regards himself as "a...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Whenever Robert Stone has discussed his work, he has emphasized his abiding interest in what he calls "my subject. America and Americans."...

(The entire section is 1205 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ernest Hemingway's short stories cast a long shadow over the work of the writers who followed him, but the inevitable revision of a...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The protagonists of Stone's novels, Strickland in Outerbridge Reach (1992; see separate entry), Hicks in Dog Soldiers (1974;...

(The entire section is 158 words.)