Point of View
While ‘ ‘The Bear” is a third-person narrative, it is told from the point of view of Ike McCaslin. Yet not all that Ike knows is told. For example, neither Ike nor the narrator ever actually confirms that Boon killed Sam. McCaslin makes this assumption, and Ike, the only witness, lets his statement remain uncontested. Even more complicated are the conjectures of Ike and McCaslin about Eunice’s suicide. It is here that the narrator is demonstrated to be not omniscient (all-knowing), but a more limited, and experimental, version of the traditional third person narrator.
Set in Faulkner’s fictitious Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, “The Bear” covers different time periods during Ike McCaslin’s youth. Although the first section begins while Ike is age sixteen, most of the section covers Ike’s first hunting trips during the fall of 1877 and the summer of 1878. The second section details events of 1879 (Lion’s capture) and then two years later (when he nearly bayed Old Ben). Old Ben’s death the following year is the subject of the third section. Section four moves from the pre-war days of Carothers McCaslin and forward, through Ike’s relinquishing of his estate, to his childless marriage and austere life. The narrative of this fourth section is molded into a fairly understandable order by the events of Eunice’s life. A slave bought in 1807, Eunice gives birth to Tomey in 1810 and commits suicide in 1832. Chapter five moves backward in time to Ike’s final trip to the hunting camp in 1882.
The most prominent symbol in ‘ ‘The Bear” is, of course, Old Ben. Symbolizing the natural world of which he is a part, Old Ben, by dying, also symbolizes the destruction of nature that the railroad and the foresters bring. Ben’s killer, Boon Hogganbeck, represents modern man seeking to wrest nature to his advantage with blind brute strength. Though Boon does succeed in killing Ben, he is finally defeated by a tree full of frantic squirrels, suggesting that the blind destruction of modern man must eventually end in frustration and misery.
As with much of Faulkner’s work, Biblical allusions in “The Bear” are numerous. Sam Fathers, for example, has been viewed as a Christ figure whose teachings provide a set of absolute truths that Ike must follow. Buck and Sophonsiba are a modern Abraham and Sarah, and Ike functions as the unlikely child born during their old age. This allusion heightens the irony of Isaac’s choosing to reject their inherited truths for the teachings of Sam Fathers. Some references are only subtly presented.The woods full of snakes that Ash warns Ike of in section five depicts an Eden no longer innocent, but only partially pure. The snake, an important symbol in Chickasaw myth, is also hailed as ‘ ‘Grandfather” by Ike. A familiarity with the Bible may help readers understand certain allusions, but the combined effect of these references creates the sense that ‘ “The Bear” discusses issues that are not particular to a time and place.
The phrase ‘ ‘And so he should have feared and hated Lion” recurs several times in section two of “The Bear,” and serves as a foreshadowing of Lion’s role in the hunt for Old Ben. The frequent repetition of the phrase is a constant reminder of how the story will end. To read that Lion is to be hated and feared each time readers are told of his strength, competence, and courage is slightly misleading, but it is not Ike or humans who need to fear the dog. Why should Ike hate and fear Lion if he is the best possible dog for helping Ike and the others achieve their goal? The answer is not within the foreshadowing itself, but within the later knowledge of how the story actually does end. Though the men hunt Ben for several years, his actual death signals the beginning of the end of many things. With Ben’s death comes the end of the hunting club and the hunting grounds, the end of a wilderness untainted by development and civilization, the end of traditions and rituals carried on by Sam Fathers and others. “And so he should have feared and hated Lion” presents readers with a “20-20 hindsight’ ‘ perspective in which knowledge of the future influences looking back at the past.
Faulkner’s works fulfill several expectations for modernist literature. Modernism is a term used to describe an international artistic movement that began near the start of World War I and continued through World War II. Modernism broke with the traditional narrative forms of realism and naturalism. The modernists played with narrative form and dialogue, attempting to approximate subjective thought and experience. The movement experimented with new ways of seeing things and new ways of communicating. In the art world, this movement was appropriated by painters like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. One of the most striking characteristics of Faulkner’s works, and of modernism in general, is the experimentation with narrative time. While the first three sections of “The Bear” seem fairly straightforward, section four moves back and forth in time with little indication of where the story is going next. Section four also presents a shift in technique. Instead of the fairly simple sentences used in the other sections, section four uses long confusing sentences that may span several paragraphs as well as different time periods. In fact, the whole section takes up almost half the story and yet contains only one hundred sentences. These passages approximate interior monologues, as if the narrator and the characters were talking to themselves without bothering to make sense to any listener. Because of these experiments, some find Faulkner’s work frequently difficult to read and understand. Many readers have concluded this confusing technique represents Faulkner’s views on the complexity of modern life.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.