The Bear (1935 - 1942)


"...ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest"


"He entered his novitiate to the true wilderness. . . . wrapped in the damp, warm, Negro-rank quilt while the wilderness closed behind his entrance as it had opened momentarily to accept him, opening before his advancement as it closed behind his progress, no fixed path the wagon followed. . . ."

p. 15.

Originally his story is a chapter in Go Down, Moses (1942), following revisions of earlier versions published as "Lion" in Harper's Magazine in December, 1935, and as "The Bear" in Saturday Evening Post in May, 1942 and appeared in the Kenyon Review, Autumn, I95I.


Go Down Moses

He explores the dual themes --two periods of time-- age sixteen and the last six years of Ike's life-- of the gradual loss of the wilderness to frontier settlement and the racial tension arising from the exploitation of African Americans.

There is a deliberate allusion to the Greeks, via the recitation of Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn that evokes the very ancient role in that culture of the beast in both ceremonies of maturation and mystery religions among the cults of the Hellenic period. In ancient Greece, in whom southerners saw themselves as a modern embodiment, the bear represents the recurrent promise of resurrection and annual renewal and points to the direction of the sky in which no movement is detectable from the earth (pole star).

Author's voice

Here is a recording of Faulkner reading passages from As I Lay Dying

Narrative | Theme | Action's setting | Critics | Notes | Conclusion | His words




fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, from a Native American Chickasaw word, meaning: split land; fallowed, furrowed or tilled land, the earth.


Woodpecker"...he stood against a big gum tree beside a little bayou whose black still water crept without motion out of the cane-brake, across a small clearing and into the cane again, where invisible, a bird, the big woodpecker called Lord-to-God by Negroes, clattered at a dead trunk. It was a stand like any other stand, dissimilar only in incidentals to the one where he had stood each morning for two weeks, a territory new to him yet no less familiar than that other one which after two weeks he had come to believe he knew a littleŠthe same solitude , the same loneliness through which frail and timorous man had merely passed without altering it, leaving no mark nor scar, which looked exactly as it must have looked when the first ancestor of Sam Father's Chickasaw predecessors crept into it and looked about him, club or stone axe or bone arrow drawn and ready. . . . and saw yesterday in the earth beside the gutted log, the print of the living foot."

p. 23.



concerns the consequences of McCaslin's actions as they affect his descendants: primarily his abuse of the land, participation in slavery, and miscegenation, by which he sires a second, illegitimate family line that is unacknowledged and oppressed by his first family.



Ike McCaslin's hunting experiences and discoveries.
"But it was not for him, not yet. The humility was there; he had learned that.

And he could learn the patience. He was only ten, only one week.

The instant had passed....the buck, smoke colored, elongated with speed, vanished.

pp. 16-17.

And about whom much is spoken:

"So I must see him, he thought. I must look at him. Otherwise, it seemed to him that it would go on like this forever, as it had gone on with his father and Major de Spain, who was older than his father, and even with old General Compson, who had been old enough to be a brigade commander in 1865. Otherwise, it would go on so forever, next time and next time, after and after and after. It seemed to him that he could never see the two of them, himself and the bear, shadowy in the limbo8 from which time emerged, becoming time; the old bear absolved of mortality and himself partaking, sharing a little of it, enough of it. And he knew now what he had smelled in the huddled dogs and tasted in his saliva. He recognized fear. So I will have to see him, he thought, without dread or even hope. I will have to look at him.

It was in June of the next year. He was eleven. They were in camp again, celebrating Major de Spain’s and General Compson’s birthdays. Although the one had been born in September and the other in the depth of winter and in another decade, they had met for two weeks to fish and shoot squirrels and turkeys and run coons and wildcats with the dogs at night. That is, he and Boon Hoggenback and the Negroes fished and shot squirrels and ran the coons and cats, because the proved hunters, not only Major de Spain and old General Compson, who spent those two weeks sitting in a rocking chair before a tremendous iron pot of Brunswick stew, stirring and tasting, with old Ash to quarrel with about how he was making it and Tennie’s Jim to pour whiskey from thedemijohn into the tin dipper from which he drank it, but even the boy’s father and Walter Ewell, who were still young enough, scorned such, other than shooting the wild gobblers with pistols for wagers on their marksmanship.



Each story coheres around the central themes of Go Down, Moses, and "The Bear" represents the emotional climax of the book. In it, McCaslin's grandson, Isaac ("Ike") McCaslin, confronts both his place in the natural world and the social responsibilities foisted on him by his Southern heritage. "All that remained of the original gun" were the trigger and the name plate that also bears the date 1878. The boy is young but the characters in the story fought in the Civil War and the railroad is the principle means of their getting from the hunting area to Memphis and return. The story is set in the life of a boy as he becomes a mature and then older man in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.



The Story (Narrative)


"The Bear" primarily recounts the adventure and exploits of an annual, late autumn hunting expedition in the wild lands of the Tallahatchie River region in mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Told from Ike's perspective in simple, straightforward language, the narrative is divided into five sections.


The first three sections comprise an account of the pursuit of legendary Old Ben, a huge and elusive ancient bear with a mutilated paw. As the tale unfolds, the adolescent Ike learns to hunt under the guidance of expert tracker Sam Fathers, a noble huntsman who is the son of a Chickasaw Indian and an African slave. Sam also trains a fierce, woodland dog called Lion, and together they track Old BenŠor more revealing Ben tracks the hunting party year after year as we better learn to see the great bear's marks left throughout the narrative.


When the dog eventually engages the bear in a death-struggle in the third section, however, another part-Indian member of the hunting party, Boon Hogganbeck, enters the fray and slays Old Ben with a knife-jab to its heart.


Simultaneously, Sam suffers a seizure and later dies; fatally wounded, the dog dies as well. At this point, the hunting narrative breaks off, and a seemingly different one begins. Omitted from the version of "The Bear" that appears in Big Woods (1955), Faulkner's last story collection published during his lifetime, the fourth section is a lengthy, convoluted dialogue between Ike and his cousin Carothers ("Cass") Edmonds in which Ike repudiates his inheritance of the McCaslin plantation upon discovering miscegenation and incest in his family's history.


The Bear:


A principal theme of "The Bear" concerns Ike McCaslin's attitude toward the land.

"It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document:Šof white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it.É"


On one level, Ike shares the Native American view that the land belongs to no one but instead exists for communal use—a lesson Sam teaches him.


Ike also sincerely believes that the land itself has been cursed by slavery, especially when he learns that his grandfather impregnated one of his slaves and then sexually abused their daughter, driving the mother to suicide.

For Ike, the only way to escape the curse—and the guilt that he sees as his heritage—is to relinquish the land bequeathed to him by his grandfather.

Ike's decision illuminates the development of his moral character, which, for some critics, integrates the themes of the fourth section with narrative elements of the hunting story; in other words,

Ike's ritualistic initiation into the mythic world of nature by his participation in the hunt mirrors his coming-of-age into society via his discovery of the truth about his heritage.


In addition, Ike's predilection for nature and his alarm at its progressive ruin by humans symbolically correspond with the connection between Sam and Old Ben and the deaths of the animals, who embody the spirit of the wilderness.


The thematic patterns of "The Bear" extend beyond the hunting narrative to implicate multiple tensions that have defined American life, including the conflicts between the wilderness and civilization, Native American ethics and European exploitation, freedom and slavery, pagan values and Christian duties, innocence and knowledge of sin.




Critical concerns


Some scholars have claimed that this part illuminates Ike's moral development—a central theme of "The Bear"—and contains important analogies to thematic concerns in the rest of the story.


To other critics, however, the fourth section unnecessarily destroys narrative unity, especially if "The Bear" is judged as an independent story isolated from the context of Go Down, Moses.


"The Bear," then, is recognized not only as one of Faulkner's most impressive stories, but also as, in Hoffman's words,


"the greatest American hunting story of the twentieth century."


William Faulkner's narrative, excerpts for a critical exegesis.


"There was a man and a dog too this time. Two beasts counting Old Ben, the bear, and the two men, counting Boon Hogganbeck, in whom some of the same blood ran which run in Sam Fathers, even though Boon's was a plebeian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible."


"He was sixteen. For six years now he had been a man's hunter. For six years now he had heard the best of all talking. It was of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document--of white man famous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it had been his to convey; bigger than Major de Spain and the scrap he pretended to, knowing better; older even than old Ikkemotubbe, the Chickasaw chief, of whom old Sutpen had had it and who knew better in his turn. It was of the men, not white, nor black nor red but men, hunters, with the will and hardihood to endure and the humility and skill to survive, and the dogs and the bear and deer juxtaposed and reflected against it, ordered and compelled by and within the wilderness in the ancient and unremitting contest according to the ancient and immitigable rules which voided all regrets and brooked no quarter–the best game of all, 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 among the concrete trophies–the racked guns and the heads and skins–in the libraries of town houses or the offices of plantation houses or (the best of all) in the camps themselves where the intact and still warm meat yet hung, the men who had slain it sitting before the burning logs on hearths when there were houses and hearths or about the smoky blazing of piled wood in front of stretched tarpaulins when there were not."

pp. 11-12


"Thus it seemed to him on that December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whiskey."

p. 12.


"It ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it."


"It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print, shaggy, tremendous, red-eyed, not malevolent but just big, too big for the dogs which tried to bay it, for the horses who tried to ride it down, for the men and the bullets they fired into it, too big for the very country which was its constricting scope."

p. 13.

"that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with their 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, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed  and hacked at in fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies about the ankles of a drowsing elephant,–the older bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowed childless and absolved of mortality–old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons."

p. 13.

"depart for the Big Bottom, the big woods."

p. 14.

". . . moving through the skeleton stalks of cotton and corn in the last of the open country, the last trace of man's puny gnawing at the immemorial flank, until, dwarfed by that perspective into an almost ridiculous diminishment. . . ."

p. 15.




The narrative weaves between a number of years in Ike's life, from his first hunting trip at age ten to the current year.



The opening lines of the book introduce the reader to several important characters. The first character is Old Ben, a bear who has become infamous in the forest and has earned himself a human name. Second is a man named Boon who we learn later is the man who kills Old Ben. Next is Sam Fathers, a man that is a mentor to the narrator. Finally, we learn the name of Lion, who is the unloving dog that hunts Old Ben. Sam Fathers, Lion and Old Ben are described as taintless and incorruptible. The boy, Ike, narrating the story is sixteen, and we learn he has been hunting for six years. The boy describes the importance of the wilderness, the presence of alcohol on all of the hunting trips, and that the day in December when Old Ben is caught starts with whiskey.




As Ike ages, the elements of the trip that remain constant are the men he travels with—Major de Spain (owner of the land on which they hunt), General Compson, McCaslin Edmonds, Uncle Ash, Sam Fathers, Boon Hogganbeck, and Walter Ewell—and Old Ben, the "big old bear with one trap-ruined foot'' whom the hunters track. After this initial setting of scene, the narration returns to Dee's first hunting trip, where Sam Fathers teaches Ike the code of the wilderness. In one exercise, Sam forces Ike to watch game animals pass in front of him without shooting. Ike gradually learns more about the wilderness in the rest of the first section. One day when he ranges through the woods without a gun, a watch, or a compass, he finally catches a glimpse of Old Ben.

p. 11


"He was thirteen then."

The second section of this story begins three years later. Ike is thirteen and has now killed his first buck and his first bear. "By now, he was a better woodsman than most grown men," according to the narrative. During the hunting trip described in this section, the hunters lose one of their colts to a wild animal.

p. 31.


Boon is sent to town to get more whiskey and Ike is sent with him to make sure the whiskey makes it back.

The killing of Old Ben

p. 49.


Ike states God intended for man "to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood." Ike continues on saying that God wants men to care for the land and not to own it.

p. 80.

Later, Major de Spain sells the timber rights. Ike decides to go on a final hunting trip and visits Major de Spain in his office. Ike is struck by how differently Major de Spain dresses for his office from how he dressed for going on the hunting trips. Ike rides his horse to Hoke's and looks about amazed by the progress. Ike takes the train into the wilderness.



"The Negro lay hidden in the barn."

p. 99


Ike recalls how harmless the train had been in the past.


Narrative | Theme | Action's setting | Commentary | Critics | Conclusion | His words



The land is not ours to merely own, but to use–there exists an entailment of the landscape composed of the ecological beauty and inherent processes that essentially generate the necessities we must always have. For us to always use these entailed values unhindered, society must nourish the land in all its ecological entirety if we are to to thrive sustaining one another well and humanely in partnership with the earth.

JVS, Spring, 2011.