“The Bear” by William Faulkner

Allen Bramhall


“The Bear” by William Faulkner is a hairy reading experience. It is a difficult, provoking, and challenging story for several reasons. Primarily, it is a rattling experience because Faulkner writes with such relentless intensity, like it or not.

I should declare outright that I enjoyed “The Bear”. Faulkner offers a rare wildness in his fiction. He doesn’t make things easy for the reader, but that is okay. One always knows one has been through something after reading a story by Faulkner.

I understand why Faulkner puts people put off. He challenges the reader with his extreme style. His long run-on sentences will win no points from those who think the rules of grammar are sacrosanct. Faulkner is merciless in his use of the indefinite pronoun, seeming to believe the more indefinite the better. His subject matter is grim, even perhaps repulsive. One has to come to terms with all these points to read Faulkner with pleasure.

What makes Faulkner’s long sentences so beguiling is how they career along with such reckless momentum. Admittedly, sometimes, as he rattles away, he seems simply to be throwing in style, as Tom Sawyer would have it. I get a similar feeling from reading Whitman. Both Faulkner and Whitman, when they aren’t on their game, sound like they are full of malarkey. Their best writing, though, is astonishing.

I take Faulkner’s indefinite pronouns to be his way of getting the reader to puzzle things out. His themes are difficult, not easily explicated. He wants the reader with him, scratching around in the dirt for clues. There is no other way to get at the mysteries that Faulkner invokes.

Despite, misgivings, then, I am willing to ride the Faulkner train. But where does the train go? Right into a murky primeval forest. In “The Bear”, we meet an elemental sense of life at its most inchoate. The characters are all motivated by forces that they barely recognize, cultural forces as well as natural ones. Even the hunting dogs, crazily attacking the old bear, buckle beneath these elemental powers.

Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea came to mind as I read The Bear. I know that many people consider Old Man one of Hemingway’s best stories, but I find it rather silly. The battle between man and fish is unconvincing. Hemingway renders this battle like a sporting event. On the other hand, the battle between bear and man seems downright mythic. Faulkner is nothing if not intense.

The story seems simple enough, if not simply written. A boy of superior ability is allowed to join the hunt for the bear, Old Ben. Always respectful of the import of the adventure, the boy gains hunting skills over the years. The reader assumes that the boy will kill the bear.

What a surprise, then, when the bear is killed by the almost atavistic Boon; the boy is just a spectator. What a further surprise to discover that the story continues long after the bear’s demise. Here is where Faulkner builds mystery upon mystery, requiring the reader to negotiate the confused and troubled history of the McCaslin family.

The past is present. Rape and incest lurk in the McCaslin family’s past, as does slavery. These are thus in Ike McCaslin’s life. He bears a frightening bounty of guilt and confusion.

The past is ever-present in the story. When Sam Fathers is dying, he reverts to his original Indian tongue. A degraded little bear in the second part of the story brings to mind Old Ben, but in diminished form. Old Ben was a mythic creature worthy of battle, while this little bear is a butt of jokes. The past is dismayed!

In the latter part of the story, set years later, the primeval forest of the first part has been shrunk by money interests to a small patch. At this point, the railroad is the elemental force of the area, not the great old bear. A dismal sense of progress shines through in this diminishment.

Faulkner’s stories are set, as is well known, in a mythical Mississippi county of his own invention. I love the idea of creating this sort of parallel universe. Faulkner’s stories are fictional, yet there is history mixed in. Nathan Bedford Forrest shows up briefly, ominously, in “The Bear”. Forrest was a Confederate cavalry commander during the Civil War, and was instrumental in starting the Ku Klux Klan. One can see that for all the characters of “The Bear”, the war may be over but the battles continue. Such a relentlessly fateful sensibility could have sprung from the Greek dramas.

Faulkner’s sentences often ramble but they still pack a punch. It is hard to quote Faulkner, because passages seem to expand as you try to make a cut, but I will try. The following passage intensely describes the natural world that Ike tries to master:

He ranged the summer woods now, green with gloom, if anything actually dimmer than they had been in November’s gray dissolution, where even at noon the sun fell only in windless dappling upon the earth which never completely dried and which crawled with snakes—moccasins and watersnakes and rattlers, themselves the color of the dappled gloom so that he would not always see them until they moved; returning to camp later and later and later, first day, second day, passing in the twilight of the third evening the little log pen enclosing the log barn where Sam was putting up the stock for the night. "You aint looked right yet," Sam said.

I am almost lulled as I read the description in that passage, when Sam suddenly cuts in, redirecting Ike’s attention, as well mine, back to the story. One can wonder if it is Ike who is green with gloom or the woods, or question exactly what is meant by the awkwardness of “if anything actually dimmer than they had been in November’s gray dissolution.” It almost doesn’t matter. Faulkner’s work is not meant to be read in a word by word way, but rather in the great clumps of prose that he offers. Passages will capture you, if you have any sympathy at all for Faulkner’s writing.

In Walden, we are presented a world of observable process. The seasons are cyclic and generous in Thoreau’s transcendental view. In “The Bear”, however, we witness a world bubbling with atavism. Even the civilized Major de Spain and General Compson are driven by they know not what, hunting down Old Ben as a mysteriously transcendent rite. With the encroachment of the forest by the railroad, we see the primeval forces of nature replaced by the primeval forces of commerce. In both cases, people are pushed around by powers beyond them. It is a strange, terrible, and unsettling vision that Faulkner gives us.

I experience Faulkner’s work as discrete yet interrelated stories. He seems single-minded about his concerns. He focuses relentlessly on the land around him. He does not offer a pretty picture.

The landscape he describes has decayed because of some original sin. He really does write with such biblical intensity as to think of original sin. The nature of that sin includes slavery, rape and incest, as well as the rape of the land itself. In Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, we see an acceptance by Tayo, finally, of the land’s terms. The war is over for Tayo. We see no such thing in “The Bear”. Men battle bears in this story, motivated by some unnamed and unrecognized rite, or they plunder the land itself with no vision beyond the commerce that they keep. Slavery, incest, and rape are common impulses in the world of “The Bear”.

The heroes of the story, such as they are, are Ike, Sam, and Boon. The mighty dog Lion and the little fyce might be added to the list. These characters are either the active ones in the story, or the ones who took notice of their surroundings. Sam and Ike have wisdom, are open to the world around them. Boon, Lion, and the fyce represent direct action and courage, if headlong and blind. These are the ones who risk themselves, and don’t simply ride the system.

In the end, “The Bear” is about a collusion with dark impulses of which we are all a part. This monolithic collusion can only be fought by individuals, and it looks hopeless in Faulkner’s view. Yet small victories are noted, be it Ike’s abnegation of his ill-gotten birthright, or the absurd courage of the fyce.

“The Bear” is a clobbering sort of story worthy of rereading. I would, in fact, like to work my way through all of Faulkner. His vision of the world is idiosyncratic, crazed, and depressing. It is also intensely powerful. His vision is also intensely American, for he presents us with the idea that Paradise was lost before anyone got to see it. Don’t we all share that same conclusion?