Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ is a story that depends in a large part on the relationship between humans and environment. The contrast between the security of the plantations and houses and the discomfort and danger of the wilderness plays a central role. Indeed, the environmental setting plays a significant role throughout the story. The story’s two settings provide binary oppositions of human/nonhuman, habitation/wild, as well as providing two competing notions of the interaction between these oppositions.
Isaac McCaslin, the protagonist, is in a constant mutual-respect struggle with the natural world, acting as a steward of sorts, not so much struggling against the natural world as working with it in many ways.
The other hunters, especially Cass and Boon, see the wilderness as a challenge that they should win. The relationships between these characters and their natural surroundings reveal a dual cultural approach to nature, which is mirrored by a dual approach to racial equality. Boon, Cass, and the other hunters represent the attitude that the environment, and other humans, are hostile and need to be ruthlessly conquered or destroyed.
On the other hand, Isaac represents an opposing approach: humans should be custodians of the environment, working with and respecting it as they do each other.
In ‘The Bear’, Isaac McCaslin is the perfect example of a person in spiritual union with nature. He achieves this by obeying the ancient laws of the hunt taught to him by Sam Fathers and discovers his identity as a true hunter in sync with the wilderness.
Isaac absorbs the values of the true hunter: patience, endurance, humility, respect, and skill. Isaac joins the hunt when he is ten, and quickly learns the ways of the woods. Under Sam Father’s guidance, Isaac struggles to be modest, patient, and respectful as a hunter should be. As John Lydenberg notes, he ‘learns how to retain his purity and bring himself into harmony with the forces of Nature’ (66). During the first week in the woods, he learns humility: ‘The humility was there; he had learned that’ (Faulkner 202). In the second week, he learns patience: (And he could learn the patience) (202). Next Isaac learns the skills of a woodsman: eventually, he can walk for miles without the use of a compass or watch.
After stripping away his civilization-bound instruments (his watch, gun, and compass), Isaac seeks the ancient balance between hunter and hunted by leaving his ties to civilization. He allows himself to be taken by fear as he ‘relinquished completely to it’ (212). Isaac becomes one with the wilderness because of his adherence to the ancient laws of the hunt. By learning the values of equality, oneness, humility, patience, and skill from the hunt and surrendering completely to the wilderness, he becomes in harmony with the wilderness and enjoys ‘the best of all breathing and forever the best of all listening, the voices quiet and weighty and deliberate for retrospection and recollection and exactitude…’ (198). He becomes so in tune with the woods that he can hear the voices in nature carrying great meanings and memories.
At the center of the story, and the woods, is Old Ben, the great, old bear who has dodged the hunters’ efforts for years, gaining both their respect and their fear. To Isaac, Old Ben represents the very embodiment of the ‘apotheosis of the old, wild life’ (199). Within the story, he comes to represent the wilderness itself. When Isaac first enters the woods, he cannot see the bear. Only once he learns to become a true hunter is he able to see Old Ben. Faulkner describes:
Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity…It didn’t walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wildness without motion as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink back into the dark depths of its pool and vanish without even any movement of its fins’ (213).
The bear is described as one with the woods, motionless and calm. He is the woods themselves. Isaac sees Old Ben in this way and realizes that the killing of the old bear would also be the killing of nature. On the contrary, the bear’s life and Isaac’s chase for him give Isaac a new horizon of maturity and manhood. Old Ben’s death, six years later, puts the end to that wilderness and to Isaac’s quest.
Isaac’s humility is key in his understanding of the natural world. He sees the wilderness as sacred and pure, a place out of all time and history. Despite being tainted by his very existence as a human being of the modern world, Isaac recognizes the connection between himself and that wilderness. It is this same humility that also enables him to see past the racist values of his family and society. Isaac defends African-Americans to his racist companions, telling Cass that black men are more enduring and stronger than white men and that they have virtues like endurance, pity, tolerance, forbearance, fidelity, and love of children(287). Just as he can identify himself with nature, he can identify himself with members of another race.
However, the influence of his family’s tainted history is an inescapable burden, deep-rooted in the land itself. While Isaac remains on his family’s plantation, he cannot escape from the shadows of racism, slavery, and violence. In ‘Faulkner’s Ecological Disturbances’ Mathew Wynn Sivils demonstrates that there is ‘a strong connection between environmental abuse and human suffering’ in Faulkner’s work (489). Patricia Yaeger concurs; as Sivils cites in ‘Faulkner’s Ecological Disturbances’: ‘Place is never simply a ‘place’ in southern writing, but always a site where a trauma has been absorbed into the landscape’ (489). Here, the family’s plantation carries with it the family’s dark history and represents all the crimes they have committed both against nature and their slaves. For Faulkner, the two are clearly intertwined.
This conflict comes to a head when Isaac discovers the terrible incestuous acts committed by his grandfather. Isaac then refuses to accept his inheritance because he will not take part in making both people and nature suffer more. He refuses to repeat the same crimes. His speech to his cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, articulates this human and social commentary:
I can’t repudiate it… it was never mine to repudiate. It was never Father’s and Uncle Buddy’s to bequeath me to repudiate but was never Grandfather’s to bequeath to them to bequeath to me to repudiate… [God] made the earth first and peopled it with dumb creatures, and then He created man to be His overseer on the earth… not to hold for himself and his descendants’ inviolable title forever, generation after generation, to the oblongs and squares of the earth, but to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood. (254-55)
In Isaac’s eyes, the concepts of ownership and property, whether it be towards land or other people, are evil and profane, defying God’s will. By refusing his inheritance, Isaac frees himself from the burdens of this past. He also paves the way for others to see the land as a communal place, bridging the gap between the different races and classes.
On the other hand, hunters like Boon and Cass lack true hunter’s qualities. Their values represent the evil side of society and play a great role in the destruction of the wilderness. Each year on the annual hunting trip, the group of men highlights the incompatible opposition between civilization and nature. The hunting party, and their determination to defeat Old Ben, essentially represents man’s persistent need to control nature. Although there is a strong sense of nobility and tradition within the hunt itself, Lydenberg indicates that ‘as Southerners… their original sins have alienated them irrevocably from nature… What might in other circumstances have been right, is now a violation of the wilderness and the Southern land’ (64). Isaac and Sam are examples of the ‘other circumstances’ in which the hunt can be noble. The rest of the group, however, follows the problematic ideals of traditional Southern society, thereby tainting the hunt itself.
Cass, for instance, clearly lacks the qualities of the true hunter. When General Compson compares Isaac to the rest of the hunters, he acknowledges Ike’s competent skill in the woods, which none of the others have. Additionally, Cassis only interested in making money on the farm and saving money in the bank. General Compson told him once, ‘You’ve got one foot straddled into a farm and the other foot straddled into a bank’ (The Bear, 249).Cass’ desires evolve solely around material wealth, and he does not seek to understand nature, just to possess it. Faulkner illustrates that when the wilderness is possessed by a man like Cass, the possession of the wilderness can only lead to its destruction. Cass also violates the notion of equality because he is extremely racist. Cass claims blacks are characterized by ”Promiscuity. Violence. Instability and lack of control. Inability to distinguish between mine and thine” (288). When Isaac argues that black people had several virtues, Cass refutes this by saying, ‘So have mules… So have dogs.” (Faulkner 288). This comparison between other humans and animals shows Cass’ contempt and lack of respect for African-Americans.
Boon also lacks the qualities of a true hunter. First, he is not a skilled hunter. He has terrible problems with his aim:’Boon had never been known to hit anything. He shot at the bear five times with his pump gun, touching nothing…’ (227). Additionally, he is immature mentally, and a raging alcoholic. Unlike Isaac and Sam Fathers, he is a technology man. He believes in technology as an essential aspect of civilization, as embodied in the hunting dogs and guns. He uses these tools of civilization as a weapon in the face of nature.
However, this technology proves ineffective in confronting nature’s wildness and anger. Boon kills the bear by cutting his throat with a knife, a primitive way of killing the mythic bear. During this event, Boon, Lion, and Old Ben become like one being; Faulkner describes the three as a single unit, writing ‘man dog and bear’ without commas, linking them together. This is a union between the bear, nature, Boon, civilization, and Lion, who is a mix between the two. After all, when they first get Lion, Boon says, ‘We don’t want him tame. We want him like he is’ (222). Boon uses his untamed dog, as he uses the primitive knife, to tame nature. In doing so, however, he also becomes one with nature for a short while. Boon cannot accept this unity, so although he defeats the old bear, he himself goes insane as he tries to cling to his misguided ideals. After the fight, Faulkner repeatedly describes him as ‘calm’: ‘his face which was no longer wild but was quite calm’ (241); ‘that calm voice’ (241); ‘in that calm voice, his face quite calm’ (242); and ‘his face was still calm’ (243). This focus on an uncanny calmness is the first sign of Boon’s imminent mental breakdown.
In Boon’s final scene, he is sitting under the gum tree, trying to frantically kill squirrels with his malfunctioning gun. ‘Don’t touch them! Don’t touch a one of them! They’re mine!’ (320), he cries, in defiance refusal to acknowledge his dispossession of the wilderness. His mad screaming springs from his frustration because he is not, and cannot be, in harmony with the wilderness. Eventually, his attempt is useless because he can neither possess nor protect the land or the squirrels and he is nothing more than the ‘steady savage somehow queerly hysterical beating of metal on metal, emerging from the woods’ (319). Boon’s technology has turned against him, and he has descended into madness.
Here once again, Faulkner alludes to slave society as well as violence against nature. As Julia Rogers notes, ‘The sweet gum is probably more closely linked with plantation life in the South than any other tree’ (275). By placing Boon under a gum tree for this act of insanity, Faulkner emphasizes the established relationship between violence against nature and violence against African-Americans within Southern society. For Boon, both have led to madness.
Faulkner also contrasts Boon’s frantic relationship with squirrels to Isaac’s earlier interaction with the snake. Unlike Boon, Isaac does not feel like he has to control or destroy the snake. Instead, he greets it respectfully, ‘speaking the old tongue which Sam had spoken that day without premeditation either: ‘Chief,’ he said: ‘Grandfather” (319). Isaac once again proves himself to be a true hunter and a good friend to nature. The contrast with Boon could not be more clear, as Faulkner ends the story with Boon shouting ‘Get out of here! Don’t touch them! Don’t touch a one of them! They’re mine!’ to Isaac (320). This implies that Isaac no longer belongs to this world.
At the end of the story, Isaac also finds that most of what was once the woods has been sold, and is now being used for a logging company. He looks around in a ‘grieved amazement’ at the mill in construction, at the ‘miles and miles of stacked steel rails red with the light bright rust of newness,’ and at the ‘wire corrals’ which now section off the wilderness (308). He feels disappointed when he sees how civilization has invaded nature. Of course, this destruction of nature was foreshadowed in Ben’s destruction. Being closely tied to the wilderness, both Isaac and Sam had realized that Old Ben was doomed and that the woods as a whole would follow. Although he cannot admit it, Sam predicts the killing of Old Ben, ‘Somebody is going to, some day.’ (216). If Old Ben is doomed, the wilderness is undoubtedly doomed. At a very young age, Isaac alludes to
…that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name. (199)
Although he values the wilderness, he knows his society does not and, most likely, never will.
Ultimately, this story presents a heartbreaking vision of nature’s eventual fate. In the end, Isaac stands alone as the last representative of true hunters. Sam, Old Ben, and even the woods themselves are gone, destroyed by civilization’s violence towards nature. Isaac’s qualities of respect, humility, tolerance, patience, and skill are not reflected in the remaining characters. These other characters, especially Cass and Boon, represent everything that is wrong with Southern society: violence, greed, impatience, intolerance, and disrespect. Isaac realizes he cannot change his society and is forced to leave it behind.
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Beidler, Philip. ‘Re-reading William Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’, on salary.’ Midwest Quarterly 50:2 (2009) 120-36. Published.
Lydenberg, John. ‘Nature Myth in Faulkner’s ‘The Bear”. American Literature 24 1 (Mars 1952): 62-72. Published.
Meyer Jr., William E. H. ‘Emerson Dines on Bear; Or the Eradication of Nature in Faulkner’s South. The Southern Literary Journal 29 2 (Spring, 1997): 32-44. Published.
Rogers, Julia E. ‘The Witch Hazel and the Sweet Gum.’ The Nature Library. Vol. 11. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1905. 270-77. Print.
Sivils, Mathew Wynn. ‘Faulkner’s Ecological Disturbances’. Mississippi Quarterly:The Journal of Southern Cultures 59 3(Summer-Fall 2006): 489-502. Published.