Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

“The Big Bear of Arkansas” strongly resembles other Old Southwest humor tales published in Spirit of the Times and similar gentlemen’s magazines of the 1840’s. Ostensibly its theme is a democratic glorification of the frontiersman’s individualism, as he triumphs over genteel society. Entering a cabin filled with travelers more sophisticated than he, Doggett immediately captures everyone’s attention; even the aloof narrator becomes interested in his accounts of his hunting prowess. Doggett’s attractive appearance and good humor overcome the passengers’ initial anger at his contemptuous remarks about “green-horn” city dwellers who cannot raise a crop of turnips or hit a barn door with a rifle shot. At first Doggett appears to be a loud, somewhat crude braggart, and several passengers express doubts about his tales, but he knows his listeners’ expectations, and in each case he has an answer that both silences the questioner and reinforces his image as frontiersman and hunter.

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From the beginning, the narrator seems disdainful of his fellow passengers; he hides behind his newspaper to avoid conversing with them. Doggett’s arrival creates a type of social interaction, however, making the narrator also part of the storyteller’s audience. Nevertheless, the narrator remains contemptuous of fellow passengers such as the cynical Hoosier, the “live Sucker” from Illinois, and the “timid little man”; only the “gentlemanly foreigner,” presumably an Englishman, seems to gain his respect. Unlike those passengers who challenge Doggett, the narrator amuses himself by encouraging the hunter to spin an even more fantastic yarn. The narrator’s condescension toward Doggett, implicit in the way he requests a story, becomes clear when he refers to Doggett as simple and speaks of frontiersmen as “children of the wood” who react with “superstitious awe.” On the other hand, Doggett’s comments, when he praises the narrator’s willingness to learn and compares him with a litter of promising pups, raises the possibility that he may be subtly mocking the narrator.

Although the narrator somewhat sentimentally calls Doggett a child of the wood, the hunter’s attitude emphasizes conquest and exploitation. For example, he seems to treat the timber and rich soil as resources to be consumed for his convenience. As his stories reveal, Doggett considers himself master of his land at “the Forks of Cypress,” but he prefers hunting to farming. Like many frontiersmen, he raises hogs because he can allow them to forage in the woods and they require little or no care. Likewise, his story of the neglected beets and potatoes suggests that cultivating the land is not especially important in his lifestyle. Although the narrator may consider him a creature of nature much like the bears and wild turkeys Doggett hunts, Doggett clearly does not see any such kinship; he seems to derive satisfaction from the number and size of bears he can chase and kill, and even though the “creation bar” proves a worthy adversary, he is still merely a part of the nature Doggett wants to defeat.

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