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 South ern 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 Ike 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 de Spain, 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 investigation into his family’s history and leads up to his decision to renounce his inheritance. The majority of the chapter takes place in the McCaslin family commissary, where Ike and McCaslin Edmonds discuss many topics. Their discussions include the Chickasaws, who sold Ike’s grandfather the land for his plantation, the legacy of slavery in the McCaslin family, and their convoluted family history. In addition, we see Ike working through his confusion about his own father: he cannot decide whether Cass, his grandfather Carothers, his spiritual father Sam, or Uncle Buck is his legitimate father.
Here, Faulkner is at his most ambitious. In this section, the past and the present co-exist almost without differentiation. In the same sentence, the actions of such figures as the Chickasaw chief Ikkemotubbe, Ike’s Uncle Buddy, and Buddy’s slave Tennie exert almost equal force on Ike. Similarly, Ike is ten, sixteen, and twenty-one, all in the space of a few lines. Faulkner uses this strategy to examine Ike’s reaction to the pressure of the legacy that has been left to him. Ike, at age twenty-one, is finally legally able to inherit the McCaslin plantation, but he refuses. He is haunted by his abhorrence of slavery and the fields he now owns “whose laborers it still held in thrall ’65 or no.” Similarly, he is disgusted by his family’s refusal to acknowledge that old Carothers not only fathered a daughter, Tomey, by his slave Eunice, but also incestuously fathered a son by Tomey. Finally he is deeply disturbed by the single-minded search for profit which the ownership of the plantation has fostered. Thus Ike refuses to take over the farm. By doing this, he hopes to cleanse himself of the stains that history has placed upon him.
The story is rich with meaning and resonance. Critics have drawn parallels of “The Bear” with ancient fertility myths, with the story of Christianity, and with Marxist critiques of modern consumer society. The connection of the hunt story to various myths is certainly an appealing one; many cultures have some type of a rite in which boys ‘ ‘come of age” by going off by themselves and hunting an animal. Ike learns not only how to ‘ ‘be a man” but also what man’s “proper place” is within nature when Sam requires that he go without his gun before he can actually begin hunting. Major de Spain and General Compson also believe in the inherent value of the hunt as a learning tool. For both of them, killing Old Ben is not really the ultimate goal; until Boon kills the bear, they view the stalking of Ben (which always takes place on the last day of the hunting trip) almost as a ritual. When Boon kills Old Ben, Sam—who symbolizes the old ways and the ideal relation of man to nature—also dies. Boon here represents the predations of the modern world, his act symbolizing the severed relationship between man and nature. At the end, as he smashes his gun, he seems to have reached the impasse which Faulkner suggests all men will reach without an understanding of the proper role of man in nature.The fact that Boon, the agent of the modern world, is sitting in the middle of a forest that is soon to be ‘ ‘harvested” by a Memphis lumber company demonstrates how the modern world, according to Faulkner, is willfully destroying itself.
To read ‘ ‘The Bear” as a Christian allegory requires us to view Sam Fathers as the Christ-figure. He shows Ike the way,’ ‘the code of the hunter as an alternative to the planation world.” Two critics, R. W. B. Lewis and Lewis P. Simpson, discuss whether Ike McCaslin’s choice is the “key to salvation” for a fallen man. Lewis sees Ike’s renunciation of his tainted family estate as a cleansing act in his essay in the Kenyan Review, but Simpson holds the contrary. According to Simpson’s article in Nine Essays in Modem Literature, Faulkner believes that man’s sins of slavery and of unquestioning faith in science and technology are of different moral types. He asserts that slavery, although a “curse,” is rooted in man’s inherent sinfulness, and is therefore less preventable. He further contends that our contemporary reliance on technology and belief in its power “separates man from both his sense of involvement with his fellow man and with nature and dehumanizes him.” Ike repudiates the first sin, but simply by virtue of his being a member of modern society he cannot fully repudiate the second. The destruction of the land for the sake of profit is such an integral part of his own existence that we cannot see him as a savior figure. Faulkner’s treatment of race is extremely complex. There are as many explanations for his attitude towards the racial situation in the South as there are critics. We can attribute at least two solid beliefs to him: he abhors slavery, which he feels is an enduring curse not only upon the three races of the South (he here includes the Native Americans) but also upon the very land of Mississippi. He feels that the white race bears some responsibility for the black race’s welfare (and this is epitomized by Ike’s need to make sure his black cousins obtain the legacy which Carothers set aside for them). Faulkner’s other belief is that he feels that the black race “endures.” Ike tells McCaslin that “they [African Americans] are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” ‘ ‘The Bear,” in many ways, is the story of Ike McCaslin’s coming to terms with the racial inequity that his family helped to construct. Although rooted in the particular historical conditions of post-Civil War Mississippi, Faulkner’s story reaches beyond the limitations of historical fiction. In “The Bear,” we have not only one of the greatest hunting stories in literature, but also a dissection of the condition of man in the fallen world. It is not necessary to agree with Faulkner on the pitiable condition of modern man to enjoy the story. However, the image of Boon ineffectually battering his own tools as he sits in a condemned wilderness speaks even more powerfully today than it did when Faulkner first created the scene.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Greg Barnhisel, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997