Themes, Structure and Character Development
William Faulkner is generally regarded as the most important writer to be produced by the American South. A native of Mississippi, Faulkner wrote about the land where he lived for most of his life. The great majority of Faulkner's work is set in the fictional Mississippi county of Yoknapatawpha (which, in turn, is based on the actual Lafayette County, home to the city of Oxford and the University of Mississippi). The influence of the past, the relationships between men, and the difficulties brought about by change are all recurrent themes in Faulkner's novels and stories. "The Bear" is a good example of a story that embodies all of these themes.
"The Bear" was originally published in 1935. In 1942, Faulkner revised it and included it in his book Go Down, Moses. Later, he insisted that "The Bear" could not be fully understood unless it was read with the other stories in Go Down, Moses as a segment of a novel. In its seven stories, Go Down, Moses recounts many of the events in the life of Isaac (Ike) McCaslin, a member of one of Yoknapatawpha's three most important families. (The other families, representatives of which appear in "The Bear," are the Compsons and the Sutpens).
The complex narrative of "The Bear'' makes it difficult to sort out the family relations of the characters in the story. This is, of course, part of Faulkner's objective: through the tangled narration, he illustrates the often tangled genealogies of Southern families, especially those involving illegitimate children who were the offspring of white men and slave women. Ike McCaslin, the main character, is the grandson of one of Yoknapatawpha's settlers and founders, Carothers McCaslin. Carothers' sons include Uncle Buck and Uncle Buddy, who, upon the death of their father in 1837, move into a log cabin on their plantation grounds and moved the plantation's slaves into the "big house." Late in his life, Uncle Buck marries Sophonsiba Beauchamp and they produce Dee in 1867. Carothers also has a daughter married to an Edmonds, who is either the father or the grandfather (Faulkner does not say) of McCaslin "Cass" Edmonds. Cass, seventeen years older than Ike, in effect becomes Ike's father after Uncle Buck's death. In "The Bear,'' we see Ike and Cass together through much of the story, and in the fourth section Cass teaches Ike many of the family's secrets and much of its history. The other characters in "The Bear" include General Compson and Major deSpain, two of Yoknapatawpha's leading citizens; Sam Fathers, a hunting guide of Chickasaw descent, and Boon, another part-Chickasaw member of the hunting party; and Ash, the black cook for the hunting party.
The story recounts the efforts of Major de Spain's annual hunting party to track down Old Ben, an old and wily bear who is "ravaging the countryside." We see the hunt through Ike's eyes, and the first section of the story shifts in time through Ike's first expedition with the hunting party, in 1877, to the 1883 trip in which Old Ben is finally killed. Although the slaying of Old Ben is the climax of the story's action, it is not the story's focus. Instead, in the first half of the story we are confronted by the story of a boy's growing into manhood through learning the ancient ways of the hunter. On his first trip, the boy is not allowed to shoot his gun. On his second hunt, Sam Fathers teaches Ike that he must become a part of the wilderness before he earns the right to kill anything. That year, Ike discards his gun and goes off into the wilderness in search of Ben. Unable to lure the bear out of hiding, Ike leaves behind the trappings of civilization--his watch and compass--and is rewarded with a glimpse of the old bear. Subsequent trips bring the party closer to killing the bear, and in 1881 Sam captures a wild dog, whom he names "Lion,'' in hopes that he will help them corner the bear. Finally, in 1883 Lion and the hunters corner the bear. Ben kills the dog, but at the same time Boon jumps up on the bear's back and fatally stabs it. As the party prepares to return to town, Sam dies, and Ike suspects that Boon has "helped'' in this.
The story of the hunt, although exciting, only takes up the first half (the first three sections) of "The Bear." After Sam dies, the narrative shifts. The sentences become extremely long, a characteristic Faulkner technique, and the narrator begins to discuss the early history of the county. This fourth section, stylistically the most difficult of the five, recounts Ike's...
(The entire section is 1835 words.)