Rites of Passage
“The Bear” describes several important rites of passage for Ike McCaslin. The first rites of passage that readers encounter are the hunting rituals marking the various stages of his growth as a hunter. His first hunting trip at age ten, killing his first deer at age twelve, and other important landmarks in his hunting experience are described in the narrative. Ike is well acquainted with the normal progression of the hunter’s apprenticeship, and is able to anticipate his experiences before they occur: ‘ ‘It seemed to him that at the age of ten he was witnessing his own birth. It was not even strange to him. He had experienced it all before, and not merely in dreams.” Ike is prepared to follow the procedures of his apprenticeship: taking the worst hunting stand on his first trip; Sam marking his face and hands with blood after he kills his first deer; and the long evenings of storytelling. Camping and hunting with the men is itself an important right of passage, an ancient tradition of teaching and camaraderie that links men through stories of great hunters and legendary kills. Rites of passage preserve cultures for the next generation, and Ike’s experiences place him at the end of a long line of skillful woodsmen. Much of Ike’s apprenticeship seems to come from nature itself. The bear teaches the boy about the woods as much as Sam Fathers does. The death of Old Ben becomes a sort of graduation ceremony for Ike, indicating the end of this important period of learning in Ike’s life. After he returns home, Ike tries to apply his respect for the land and the life it upholds to the world in which he lives. He discovers that his training in the woods does not help him function in society; those lessons prove useless when it comes to dealing with his family history. Rather than forsake his mentors, Sam Fathers and Old Ben, Dee chooses to distance himself from the role his family has left for him in an attempt to emulate the’ ‘purer” life of a woodsman.
Race and Slavery
Like many of Faulkner’s works, “The Bear” confronts issues of race and slavery directly. Ike’s sense of personal responsibility forces him to evaluate not only his own actions but also those of his family. More than anything, the chronicle of slavery found in the commissary ledgers convinces Ike that he must make amends for his family’s past. Yet Faulkner does not leave readers with the impression that the social evils of slavery and racism can be righted in any simple way. Ike’s attempts to find Eunice’s descendants indicates that the struggle is lengthy and complicated. Even the restitution Ike offers is tainted by slavery. Furthermore, Ike makes no attempt to claim them as his kin, suggesting the preservation of racial divisions. Race remains an important part of Sam Fathers’s identity as well. Although Sam is highly respected as a hunter and a woodsman, his plight is that of any other freed slave: “For seventy years he had had to be a negro.” Sam’s situation indicates the degree to which being even part African American determines one’s role on the bottom rung of society. The irony of Sam’s situation is mentioned throughout the story, and perhaps most notably in the fourth section, where Ike tells McCaslin that Sam’s teachings are what enable him to reject his birthright— the land that is also Sam’s birthright. In this section Ike’s past runs together in a fragmented narrative style that serves to represent his thoughts as they occur in his mind. Ike’s thoughts focus on Sam’s mixed bloodlines and on his prior ownership of the land. The stream-of-consciousness narrative presented here reflects the complicated relationships between the native Indian race, the Arican—American slaves, and the white race. In this moment of self-examination Ike feels that the land is no longer rightfully his. His feelings about both the taking of land from the Indians and about slavery cause him to ultimately reject his birthright.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.