(Short Story Criticism)

"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 Characters

Set 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.

Major Themes

"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.

Critical Reception

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."

John Lydenberg (essay date 1952)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nature Myth in Faulkner's The Bear" in Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice, University of Nebraska Press, 1966, pp. 257-64.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared in American Literature in 1952, Lydenberg explicates the symbolism of the nature myth informing the meaning and structure of "The Bear."]

William Faulkner's power derives in large part from his myth-making and myth-using ability. The mythical aspects of this work are twofold. One type of Faulkner myth has been widely recognized and discussed. Probably the best exposition of this appears in the introduction to the Viking Portable selections, in which...

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W. R. Moses (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Where History Crosses Myth: Another Reading of The Bear'," in Accent, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1953, pp. 21-33.

[Below, Moses describes the conflict between the mythic patterns and historical realities of "The Bear" in terms of the character development of Isaac McCaslin]

This reading is made in terms of the following simple propositions: Myth does not rationally "explain" anything and perhaps does not even justify anything, but it does dramatize the human situation, appealing to and flattering the various non-rational interests that principally make us men. People live by it, or may do so. History—the brute sequence of events—lacks dramatic structure;...

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William Van O'Connor (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wilderness Theme in Faulkner's The Bear'," in William Faulkner: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Frederick J. Hoffman and Olga W. Vickery, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960, pp. 322-30.

[In the essay below, which originally appeared in the periodical Accent in 1953, O'Connor analyzes the wilderness theme of "The Bear" in relation to the theme of racial injustice, and notes differences between the original and revised versions of the story.]

Inevitably, as Faulkner has grown older, the problems of his region have become more and more profoundly intertwined with his own commitments and ideals. To a reporter who interviewed her about Faulkner at the...

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Blaise Hettich (essay date 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Bedroom Scene in Faulkner," in Renascence, Vol. VIII, No. 2, Winter, 1955, pp. 121-26.

[In the following essay, Hettich explains the meaning of the bedroom incident of "The Bear" in relation to the bear-hunt plot.]

By the time "The Bear" appeared in Go Down, Moses, it had been considerably expanded and developed from Faulkner's earlier magazine stories. The complexity of the enlarged tale and the difficulty in reading part IV were recognized by Malcolm Cowley in his note introducing "The Bear" in the Viking Portable edition, but on the same page Cowley calls it "in many ways the best" of Faulkner's stories. This may seem a bold claim for a...

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Lynn Altenbernd (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Suspended Moment: The Irony of History in William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXXV, No. 7, November, 1960, pp. 572-82.

[In the essay below, Altenbernd discusses the thematic significance and the historical implications of section IV of "The Bear" in relation to the hunting story.]

Explications of William Faulkner's "The Bear," by now fairly numerous, have made clear that the novelette is a kind of parable of the American experience, and that, while it is in no sense intended as literal history, it does mythically reconstruct history and comment upon it. Yet the precise nature of Faulkner's comment on history has not been...

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Melvin Backman (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wilderness and the Negro in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in PMLA, Vol. LXXVI, No. 5, December, 1961, pp. 595-600.

[Below, Backman examines the themes and structure of "The Bear" with reference to the other related stories of Go Down, Moses, illuminating Faulkner's representation of African-American culture.]

The heart of Go Down, Moses (1942) is "The Bear." The most widely acclaimed story of the seven in the volume, "The Bear" has received a variety of interpretations. One critic has emphasized its New Testament spirit, others its romantic and transcendental character, and still others its primitivism and myth.1 The...

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H. H. Bell, Jr. (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Footnote to Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 3, December, 1962, pp. 179-83.

[In the following essay, Bell clarifies several genealogical, chronological, and interpretive enigmas of Faulkner's story.]

Faulkner's story "The Bear," in its various forms and under its various titles, has been alternately patted and mauled by critics since it first appeared in Harper's magazine for December 1935, under the title of "Lion." It has been widely studied in college classrooms and has proved puzzling to students and instructors alike. Because its details are so tangled, it is easy to make honest mistakes when speaking or writing about the...

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Richard E. Fisher (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wilderness, the Commissary, and the Bedroom: Faulkner's Ike McCaslin as Hero in a Vacuum," in English Studies, Vol. 44, 1963, pp. 19-28.

[In the following essay, Fisher correlates Isaac McCaslin's qualifications and limitations as a hero to the lessons Isaac learns from his family's history, his hunting experience, and his failed marriage.]

An evaluation of Ike McCaslin as a hero sheds light on a number of problems in Go Down, Moses, such as miscegenation, the conjunction of the slavery and wilderness themes, and the symbolism of Old Ben, Lion, and the wilderness. Ike's qualifications and limitations as a hero can best be seen as the...

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Leonard Gilley (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Wilderness Theme in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. VI, No. 4, July, 1965, pp. 379-85.

[Below, Gilley contradicts prevalent interpretations of "The Bear" that view the wilderness as romantic, showing instead that Isaac McCaslin "flouted the right use of the Wilderness."]

Critical analyses of William Faulkner's "The Bear" are more abundant than mosquitoes around a trout stream in June. Yet most of the analyses that I have examined concur in explicating the Tallahatchie hunting ground as an idyllic Eden; and although some analyses criticize the central figure of the tale, Isaac McCaslin, because he abnegates his responsibilities in...

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Richard Lehan (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Faulkner's Poetic Prose: Style and Meaning in The Bear," in College English, Vol. 27, No. 3, December, 1965, pp. 243-47.

[In the following essay, Lehan examines the descriptive language of "The Bear," explaining how Faulkner's verbal associations link characters and expand the story's theme.]

Faulkner's "The Bear," published in The Saturday Evening Post and in Go Down, Moses,1 has received its share of critical explication, and the pattern and meaning of the novel seems to have been thoroughly discussed. Certainly there is much that can be taken for granted: the bear is a symbol of nature; its death symbolizes the loss of...

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M. E. Bradford (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Gum Tree Scene: Observations on the Structure of 'The Bear'," in The Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 141-50.

[In the essay below, Bradford analyzes the dramatic significance and thematic implications of the concluding section of "The Bear."]

The scene that concludes William Faulkner's novella, "The Bear," provides both a summary of and a judgment upon the action preceding it. The theme of "The Bear" is the importance, to individuals and to societies, of their capacity to sustain that balance of "pride and humility" which Faulkner often calls "endurance." The episode in which the protagonist, Isaac McCaslin, comes upon a manic...

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Joyce W. Warren (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Role of Lion in Faulkner's The Bear': Key to a Better Understanding," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 252-60.

[Below, Warren discusses Lion's purpose in the narrative, describing the dog's similarities to Old Ben and the significance of their meeting in terms of the hunters' values.]

Since its appearance in 1942 as a part of the larger work, Go Down, Moses, "The Bear" has received more critical comment than any other of Faulkner's short stories. As yet, however, no one has clarified the position in the story of Lion, the "great blue dog" that ultimately brings about the death of the old bear. Most...

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Gloria R. Dussinger (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Faulkner's Isaac McCaslin as Romantic Hero Manqué," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1969, pp. 377-85.

[In the following essay, Dussinger perceives the structure and style of "The Bear" to be modeled on the Romantic quest story, which narrates the integration of private and public aspects of the hero's self-identity.]


Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1841 defined the transcendentalist by pointing to his peculiar affliction—double consciousness: the transcendentalist is aware of living two lives, of the understanding and of the soul; his anguish grows out of the fact that the two "show very little relation to each other."...

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Daniel Hoffman (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Faulkner: The Bear'," in Landmarks of American Writing, edited by Hennig Cohen, Basic Books, 1969, pp. 341-52.

[In the following essay, Hoffman explicates the principal themes of "The Bear. "]

William Faulkner's story, "The Bear," has come to occupy a place in his work similar to that held by "Billy Budd" in Herman Melville's and by The Old Man and the Sea in Ernest Hemingway's. All three tales are relatively brief, and were written after the major novels by these authors, works of which these stories seem to be epitomes. Faulkner's tale comes after most of the books in his Yoknapatawpha saga, following The Sound and the Fury (1929),...

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Sanford Pinsker (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unlearning of Ike McCaslin: An Ironic Reading of William Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Topic: A Journal of the Liberal Arts, Vol. 12, Spring, 1972, pp. 35-51.

[In the essay below, Pinsker considers the ironic implications of Isaac McCaslin's repudiation of his inheritance, suggesting that the character's ambivalence toward Southern mores reflects Faulkner's own attitude.]

Critics have approached Ike McCaslin from many angles, but always with a certain amount of reverence. To Jungian critics he is the archetypal Hero, to Christian critics he is (naturally) Christ, and to hundreds of Freshmen, he is the protagonist in an American...

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Gorman Beauchamp (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rite of Initiation in Faulkner's The Bear," in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 4, 1972, pp. 319-25.

[In the following essay, Beauchamp details the archetypal pattern of Isaac McCaslin's rite of passage to manhood in "The Bear."]

"Everywhere one meets with mysteries of initiation," writes Mircea Eliade, "and everywhere, even in the most archaic societies, they include the symbolism of a death and a new birth."1 Among primitive peoples, the initiation of the young boy into the secrets and beliefs of the tribe is an event of major importance, perhaps the most important event of his life, for the initiation has both social and religious...

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T. H. Adamowski (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Isaac McCaslin and the Wilderness of the Imagination," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 92-112.

[In the following essay, Adamowski finds that in "The Bear," "The Old People," and "Delta Autumn" Isaac McCaslin demonstrates a resistance to social assimilation. The critic attributes Isaac's nature to his formative experiences in the wilderness.]


Critics sometimes argue that Faulkner's Isaac McCaslin is a disappointment, not as a literary creation but as a moral agent. Their claim is that in Go Down, Moses Ike fails to bring to bear in his adult life certain values he learns in the wilderness...

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Malcolm Cowley (lecture date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Magic in Faulkner," in Faulkner, Modernism, and Film: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, ¡978, University Press of Mississippi, 1979, pp. 3-19.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture at a conference held at the University of Mississippi in 1978, Cowley detects evidence of magical or supernatural elements in "The Bear. "]

In April, 1953, when Faulkner was trying to finish his ambitious novel A Fable, he wrote a significant letter to his friend Joan Williams.

Working at the big book [he said]. . . . I know now—believe now—that this may be the last major, ambitious work; there will be short things, of...

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Marian Scholtmeijer (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mythic Inflation and Historical Deflation in Faulkner's 'The Bear'," in Animal Victims in Modern Fiction: From Sanctity to Sacrifice, University of Toronto Press, 1993, pp. 217-57.

[In the following excerpt, Scholtmeijer contends that a "nostalgia for the demise of the hunting ethos" conflicts with the mythic "sanctities of the hunt" in Old Ben's death scene.]

In 'The Bear,' William Faulkner equivocates upon the recognition that myth seeks to prove its authenticity in the victimization of living bodies. Faulkner loves myth and mourns the collapse of myth into history. He does, however, treat the physical death of the totemic bear which draws hunters to the...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Ackerman, R. D. "The Immolation of Isaac McCaslin." Texas Studies in Literature and Language XVI, No. 3 (Fall 1974): 557-65.

Addresses the significance of Faulkner's decision not to treat the intervening years of Isaac McCaslin's life between his youth in "The Bear" and old age in "Delta Autumn."

Aiken, Charles S. "A Geographical Approach to William Faulkner's 'The Bear'." Geographical Review 71, No. 4 (October 1981): 446-59.

Examines Faulkner's overt and symbolic use of geography in "The Bear," focusing on historical sources for the setting to explicate the story's theme of changing landscape....

(The entire section is 986 words.)