“The Bear” immediately introduces readers to numerous time periods simultaneously.’ ‘There was a man and a dog too this time,” Faulkner writes, and readers are alerted that at least two time periods are being described in the narrative. The story follows sixteen-year-old Ike McCaslin as he embarks upon his sixth year of an annual hunting trip and the experiences he undergoes during his two weeks in the hunting camp. The narrative weaves between a number of years in Ike’s life, from his first hunting trip at age ten to the current year. As Ike ages, the elements of the trip that remain constant are the men he travels with—Major de Spain (owner of the land on which they hunt), General Compson, McCaslin Edmonds, Uncle Ash, Sam Fathers, Boon Hogganbeck, and Walter Ewell—and Old Ben, the ‘ ‘big old bear with one trap-ruined foot” whom the hunters track. After this initial setting of scene, the narration returns to Ike’s first hunting trip, where Sam Fathers teaches Ike the code of the wilderness. In one exercise, Sam forces Ike to watch game animals pass in front of him without shooting. Ike gradually learns more about the wilderness in the rest of the first section. One day when he ranges through the woods without a gun, a watch, or a compass, he finally catches a glimpse of Old Ben.
The second section of this story begins three years later. Ike is thirteen and has now killed his first buck and his first bear. “By now, he was a better woodsman than most grown men,” according to the narrative. During the hunting trip described in this section, the hunters lose one of their colts to a wild animal. General Compson is sure that the predator is 2 Shor t Storie s fo r Student s The Bear a panther, but Sam Fathers—acknowledged as the most skilled woodsman of the group—is unsure of this. The party traps the animal only to find that it is a’ ‘fyce,” a wild mongrel dog. Sam decides to keep the dog, whom he names ‘ ‘Lion,” in order to help the party corner and kill Old Ben. In November of the next year, Lion tracks the bear down. General Compson shoots the bear and draws blood, but Ben escapes.
The third section of the story takes place the following year, in December of 1883. The weather is too unforgiving to hunt, so the men spend their time in the cabin drinking and gambling. When the whisky runs low, the men send Boon and Ike to Memphis to get more. While in Memphis, Boon and Ike stand out among the city folk because of their dirty hunting clothes. Boon, especially, looks like a wild man, and in the space of fourteen hours he gets drunk twice. The next morning, General Compson decides that Ike will ride the mule the next day because of Ike’s superior skill—the mule, unlike the horses, will not bolt at the sight of the bear. Lion tracks the bear and corners him; the bear fights back, and Boon leaps upon its back and stabs it to death. As the hunting party surveys the aftermath of the battle, they find that not only Lion, but Sam as well, are in grave condition, and both soon die. As the chapter closes, Edmonds confronts Boon about Sam, wondering if Boon has had some part in Sam’s death.
The fourth section recounts Ike’s learning about his family’s history. He and Edmonds, who has raised Ike since his father died, discuss their common ancestor Carothers McCaslin. Studying the family’s business documents in their commissary, Ike discovers that Carothers not only was his own grandfather, but also fathered a daughter, Tomasina, with his slave Eunice. Unacknowledged in the documents but obvious by context is the fact that Carothers also fathered another son, Terrell, by his own daughter Tomasina. Moving backwards and forwards in time, the narrative describes Ike’s efforts to track down Terrell’s children—his own second cousins, as closely related to him as Edmonds—and give them the thousand-dollar legacy left to them by Carothers’ will. He fails to find one of them (Tennie’s Jim) in Tennessee, but does find another, Fonsiba, in Midnight, Arkansas, where she has settled with her black Union Army veteran husband. Ike sets up a three-dollar-a-month pension for Fonsiba out of the legacy and returns to Mississippi. Thinking about the history bequeathed to him by his plantaWilliam Faulkner tion-owner grandfather, and disgusted by what he sees as his grandfather’s crimes, Ike finally, at age twenty-one, declines to inherit the land left to him in his father’s will. He thinks about the degraded life of the plantation owner and the pure life of the hunter and chooses the latter. As the section ends, Ike finds out that he does not even have the silver cup full of gold pieces that had been promised him; his uncle Hubert Beauchamp borrowed all of the pieces from the cup and then substituted the cup itself for a coffee-pot, leaving Ike with nothing but I.O.U.’s. His wife, introduced at the very close of the chapter, hopes for Ike to reclaim his inheritance. When Ike refuses to do so, she turns her back to him, symbolic of the chaste marriage which they will then have.
In the final section, Ike returns to Major de Spain’s land one more time. The Major has leased a section of the land to a lumber company, and the primeval wilderness that gave Ike his most important education will soon be gone. As the story ends, Ike meets Boon, the killer of Old Ben and the symbol of man’s disrupted relationship with nature, under a gum tree. Boon is ‘ ‘hammering furiously at something in his lap” that turns out to be the disassembled components of his gun.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.