Louisiana Black Bear
November 29, 2012


The Bear

Faulkner's story “The Bear” is actually the central story of what he considered to be not a story collection, but a novel, Go Down, Moses. The story, however, can be read by itself, and the individual parts of Go Down, Moses were published separately, as stories, prior to publication as a novel.

The story is divided into five sections that trace the growth of Ike McCaslin as a hunter and as a man. The bear of the title is Old Ben, a monstrous bear with a misshapen paw. At first he seems to have some of the qualities of Moby Dick, and his opponent, unlike the whale's in Melville's novel, is not human, but a dog, Lion, who, if the comparison with Melville were to be continued, would be the counterpart to Ahab. Unfortunately, the comparison doesn't hold. Old Ben, while symbolic, doesn't hold the emotional or spiritual weight that the whale does, and the dog is not the Ahab counter part.

The bear functions as a symbol of untamed nature, of wilderness, and his transgressions are those of a beast whose habitat is being impinged on by the humans. Lion's symbolic function, seems to be to represent strength. There may be an echo of Richard Coeur de Lion in his name.

Old Ben is tracked over a period of time during annual hunting parties. Because of his strength and agility he is able to overcome hunting dogs sent against him. One character says that it will take a special dog to bring Old Ben down, a dog with special characteristics. This sounds like a prophecy, and like it might echo Biblical prophecies or the messiah, but if it does, it doesn't exactly parallel the Biblical narrative.

Ben is brought down by Lion, but in the process both are wounded and die. Lion some time after Ben. Rather than being the end of the story, this is about the first third of the story. The remainder of the story, sections 4 and 5, are concerned with Ike McCaslin, and his story.

Ike, a few years after the death of Ben, turns 21, and is set to inherit property. He renounces the property in favor of his cousin. His renunciation is not from a desire to espouse "Lady Poverty" as St. Francis might, but because he believes that property is a departure from the Edenic condition of mankind. In a section that is long, and somewhat hard to follow, he indicates that property is linked with the idea of the fall. It is also tied up with the ownership of other men as property. As it moves along it becomes apparent that in the records of the plantation he has discovered events that hint at miscegenation and incest. He seeks to live apart from this, and takes up carpentry as a trade. He marries, and his wife seeks to get him to assert his claim on the property, which he refuses to do.

Years later he returns to the hunting camp, which has been sold to a logging company, and he visits the gravesite where Old Ben, Lion, and Sam Fathers, one of the hunting party, are buried. He sees that civilization is impinging on the wilderness, and that the wildness of nature is being pushed back. In a final passage he sees Boon, another member of the hunting party of long ago, trying to get squirrels out of a tree. Boon is shouting that the squirrels are his, an implicit attempt to claim not just the tree, but the squirrels in the tree, and by extension nature itself, as his, as property.

The crux of the problem in the story is the nature of property, and its relationship to man. Property is in some sense to be taken as a result of the fall, whether it was cause or effect is to be determined. Does Ike suggest that all men should renounce property, or just those who were involved in slavery? Does property in and of itself lead to slavery? Ike sees civilization as encroaching on the wilderness, and with that is a loss of the wild, the thin line that separates us from our ancestors who roamed the plains and savannahs of Africa. There should be a loss of habitat, and a decline of species. Yet, and Faulkner couldn't have known this in the 1940s when he wrote the story, or even in 1962 when he died, there has been an increase in habitat, and there are more deer and other game now than when the nation was first settled. Perhaps the wild is becoming more incorporated into the city?

Next up is a Flannery O'Connor short story, “Parker's Back.”