"The Bear" William Faulkner
See also "A Rose for Emily" Criticism.
Widely anthologized and acclaimed as a masterpiece of modern American literature, William Faulkner's "The Bear" is considered among the best stories written in the twentieth century. "The Bear" appeared in its fullest form as a chapter in Go Down, Moses (1942), following revisions of earlier versions published as "Lion" in Harper's Magazine in December, 1935, and as "The Bear" in Saturday Evening Post in May, 1942. Go Down, Moses, which contains some of Faulkner's finest writing and is variously considered a novel or a short story collection, explores the dual themes of the gradual loss of the wilderness to frontier settlement and the racial tension arising from the exploitation of African Americans. The narrative spans five generations of the white and the black descendants of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a Scotsman who purchased the family plantation in fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, from a Native American chief. Each chapter concerns the consequences of McCaslin's actions as they affect his descendants: primarily his abuse of the land, participation in slavery, and miscegenation, by which he sires a second, illegitimate family line that is unacknowledged and oppressed by his first family. Although the chapters do not follow a chronological pattern, share a common narrator, nor feature the same protagonists, each story coheres around the central themes of Go Down, Moses, and "The Bear" represents the emotional climax of the book. In it, McCaslin's grandson, Isaac ("Ike") McCaslin, confronts both his place in the natural world and the social responsibilities foisted on him by his Southern heritage. Interpretations of "The Bear" have frequently diverged depending on whether critics approach the work as an independent story or as a chapter of the novel, but most commentators concur that it is one of Faulkner's greatest literary achievements.
Plot and Major CharactersSet in the late nineteenth century after the Civil War, "The Bear" primarily recounts the adventure and exploits of an annual, late autumn hunting expedition in the wild lands of the Tallahatchie River region in mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Told from Ike's perspective in simple, straightforward language, the narrative is divided into five sections. The first three sections comprise an account of the pursuit of legendary Old Ben, a huge and elusive ancient bear with a mutilated paw. As the tale unfolds, the adolescent Ike learns to hunt under the guidance of expert tracker Sam Fathers, a noble huntsman who is the son of a Chickasaw Indian and an African slave. Sam also trains a fierce, woodland dog called Lion, and together they track Old Ben. When the dog eventually engages the bear in a death-struggle in the third section, however, another part-Indian member of the hunting party, Boon Hogganbeck, enters the fray and slays Old Ben with a knife-jab to its heart. Simultaneously, Sam suffers a seizure and later dies; fatally wounded, the dog dies as well.
At this point, the hunting narrative breaks off, and a seemingly different one begins. Omitted from the version of "The Bear" that appears in Big Woods (1955), Faulkner's last story collection published during his lifetime, the fourth section is a lengthy, convoluted dialogue between Ike and his cousin Carothers ("Cass") Edmonds in which Ike repudiates his inheritance of the McCaslin plantation upon discovering miscegenation and incest in his family's history. Written in a complicated, stream-of-consciousness style (for example, one long passage totaling more than eighteen-hundred words and spanning several pages incorporates quoted matter and several paragraphs yet contains no periods nor capitalization to indicate the start and end of sentences), the fourth section begins when Ike is twenty-one years old and outlines the social responsibilities and inherent guilt attached to his grandfather's legacy. The final part of "The Bear" resumes the hunting narrative. When Ike returns two years later to the place where Lion, Old Ben, and Sam died, he experiences an emotional reverie on the immortality of all life. Afterward, he presses deeper into the woods and encounters Boon, who hysterically orders Ike to leave him alone beneath a tree swarming with squirrels.
"The Bear' is at once so simple and so complex that it surrenders its meaning to the conscious mind only after repeated readings and much brooding," wrote Daniel Hoffman. Indeed, Faulkner's story offers a concentrated exploration of themes that recur throughout his writings, including questions about proprietary rights to the land, the cultural implications of miscegenation, incest, and maltreatment of African Americans, and the moral problems associated with pride, humility, and guilt. A principal theme of "The Bear" concerns Ike's attitude toward the land. On one level, Ike shares the Native American view that the land belongs to no one but instead exists for communal use—a lesson Sam teaches him. Ike also sincerely believes that the land itself has been cursed by slavery, especially when he learns that his grandfather impregnated one of his slaves and then sexually abused their daughter, driving the mother to suicide. For Ike, the only way to escape the curse—and the guilt that he sees as his heritage—is to relinquish the land bequeathed to him by his grandfather.
Ike's decision illuminates the development of his moral character, which, for some critics, integrates the themes of the fourth section with narrative elements of the hunting story; in other words, Ike's ritualistic initiation into the mythic world of nature by his participation in the hunt mirrors his coming-of-age into society via his discovery of the truth about his heritage. In addition, Ike's predilection for nature and his alarm at its progressive ruin by humans symbolically corresponds with the connection between Sam and Old Ben and the deaths of the animals, who embody the spirit of the wilderness. The thematic patterns of "The Bear" extend beyond the hunting narrative to implicate multiple tensions that have defined American life, including the conflicts between the wilderness and civilization, Native American ethics and European exploitation, freedom and slavery, pagan values and Christian duties, innocence and knowledge of sin.
Opinion about the meaning of Ike's renunciation of his inheritance has diverged widely. Many critics have considered Ike's stance heroic, even Christlike, and consequently attribute value to the patient suffering exemplified by Ike; they have argued that his decision represents a noble sacrifice and serves as a means of expiation for his ancestors' guilt. Other commentators, however, have pointed out that later in Go Down, Moses it is made known that the proprietary rights to the family plantation were not relinquished but merely transferred to Ike's cousin, Cass. Some contend that Ike's later acceptance of a monthly stipend from his cousin's plantation consequently negates his original intention. Therefore, Ike's repudiation and his subsequent behavior signify a weak moral character and an escape from his social responsibilities.
Another significant area of critical contention surrounds the unusual fourth section, which seems to interrupt an otherwise unified hunting tale. Some scholars have claimed that this part illuminates Ike's moral development—a central theme of "The Bear"—and contains important analogies to thematic concerns in the rest of the story. To other critics, however, the fourth section unnecessarily destroys narrative unity, especially if "The Bear" is judged as an independent story isolated from the context of Go Down, Moses. Despite the lack of consensus, commentators generally admire the complexity and emotionally moving style of this passage, conceding that its presence in "The Bear" largely accounts for the prominent place that the story assumes in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha cycle. "The Bear," then, is recognized not only as one of Faulkner's most impressive stories, but also as, in Hoffman's words, "the greatest American hunting story of the twentieth century."