"The Bear,"


William Faulkner's (1897-1962) short story (1935-1942).




Old Ben"A dark record of human exploitation and environmental degradation is revealed by the complicated relationships which Faulkner weaves into his convoluted narrative strands." [1]


The opposition between civilization and nature in the work of William Faulkner.


In the description of "Old Ben" and the attitudes expressed by the story's characters for this bear's elusive presence, Faulkner so entwines the bear with this terrain so that the hunt becomes but a parable of the human endeavor to use and ultimately lose in the utilization of nature to defeat natural elements.

Sam Fathers tracks the beast with cunning and skill, only to share in the climactic end; two souls one destiny. The bear is at once the great woods and the woods are what is literally the bear not for any mystical or intentional reason but because they inhere in one another, coexisting each for the other. Neither the bear nor the woods possess integrity without one another's presence. Clearly human destiny is for Faulkner entwined with a truly present past and a common end; not to the liking of human or beast in the struggle to possess the land and its impossible to possess features, facets and functions. We are locked in an eternal .


"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."

page 13, The Bear.

Author's voice

Here is a recording of William Faulkner reading passages from his other book: As I Lay Dying




Robert Penn Warren has noted that Faulkner associates "the right attitude toward nature" with "the right attitude toward man." '  Revealing "a special and significant ...attainment of spiritual maturity."


The story is woven deliberately by "Complex relations of character, narrative and style... Isaac McCaslin's initiation & maturation through the archetypal rituals of the hunt."

pp. 95-96.

Isaac's father reads Keats Ode on A Grecian Urn to Ike during the hunting party

Keats: " Forever wilt thou love and she be fair."



McCaslin Edmonds says "He had to talk about something. He was talking about truth."

p. 197 in Go Down Moses GDM


He builds out a theme of the constancy of human character in the mutability of history & natural history?


Faulkner quotes:


"Habet too.  Because that's it: not the land but us."


"Sam Fathers set me free" from this legacy of interracial descent and ownership (300 GDM)


Ike recalls of Sam Fathers:

"There was an old man, son of a Negro slave and an Indian king, inheritor on the one side of the long chronicle of a people who had learned humility through suffering, and pride through the endurance which survived the suffering and injustice, and on the other side, the chronicle of a people even longer in the land than the first, yet who no longer existed in the land at all save in the solitary brotherhood of an old Negro’s alien blood and the wild and invincible spirit of an old bear." 


"The plantation did not determine the fate of the families who live upon it, but their failed stewardship has transformed the fecund wilderness into a "ravaged patrimony" (298 GDM)


GDM is Go Down Moses, a novel by Faulkner.


Rowan Oak

Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi.


Symbols of the universal human fate that overtakes people (165-166 Go Down Moses, GDM)

Page 104.


Excerpts and William Faulkner's own words.

"Bigger and older than any recorded"


Sam Fathers "not black, nor white, nor red."

"The wilderness the old bear ran was his college and the old male bear itself…was his alma mater." (GDM 110)

page 108.

Immobile, fixed in the green windless noon's hot dappling." (GDM 209)

The bear is a superannuated[2] imagery


"the realistic narrative of the hunt..."

reveals the use of a style called ekphrasis [3]

"to show the circularity and universality of human history."

Faulkner’s "diction projects a sense of myth and epic, and ultimately of tragedy."

"the apotheosis of the mortal 'Old Ben' into an immortal spirit of the wilderness."


"The last act of a stage set"  for the bear and the great woods.


"Then he was in the woods, not alone but solitary; the solitude closed about him, green with summer. They did not change, and timeless, would not, any more than would the green of summer and the fire and rain of fall and the iron cold and sometimes even snow.

pp. 88-89.

...He couldn't tell when he first began to hear the sound, because when he became aware of it, it seemed to him that he had been already hearing its foe several seconds–a sound as though someone were hammering a gun-barrel against a piece of railroad iron, a sound loud and heavy and not rapid yet with something frenzied about it, as if the hammerer were not only a strong man and an earnest one but a little hysterical too."

p. 96.

"he was somewhere near the edge of the clearing where the Gum Tree was"

pp. 96-97.

The Encounter

He had not been going very fast for the last two or three hours. He went no faster now, since distance would not matter even if he could have gone fast. And he was trying to keep a bearing on the tree where he had left the compass, trying to complete a circle which would bring him back to it or at least intersect itself, since direction would not matter now either. But the tree was not there, and he did as Sam had schooled him—made the next circle in the opposite direction, so that the two patterns would bisect somewhere, but crossing no print of his own feet, finding the tree at last, but in the wrong place—no bush, no compass, no watch—and the tree not even the tree, because there was a down log beside it and he did what Sam Fathers had told him was the next thing and the last.

As he sat down on the log he saw the crooked print—the warped, tremendous, two-toed indentation which, even as he watched it, filled with water. As he looked up, the wilderness coalesced, solidified—the glade, the tree he sought, the bush, the watch and the compass glinting where a ray of sunshine touched them. Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear; it was just there, immobile, solid, fixed in the hot dappling of the green and windless noon, not as big as he had dreamed it, but as big as he had expected it, bigger, dimensionless, against the dappled obscurity, looking at him where he sat quietly on the log and looked back at it.

Then it moved. It made no sound. It did not hurry. It crossed the glade, walking for an instant into the full glare of the sun; when it reached the other side, it stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder while his quiet breathing inhaled and exhaled three times.

Then it was gone. It didn’t walk into the woods, the undergrowth. It faded, sank back into the wilderness as he had watched a fish, a huge old bass, sink and vanish into the dark depths of its pool without even any movement of its fins.


An interpretation of The Bear

J. V. Siry, 2011-12-15


In the denouement, the description of the squirrels in the tree are but one indication of how Faulkner infuses inspiration into a story of an annual hunting party. He does this – not as Earnest Hemingway does in a solo fishing trip described by Hemingway in Big Two Hearted River, where a war veteran seeks solace angling just above a swamp – in a more complex manner. In the story set by Faulkner in the "big bottom…wilderness" where he unravels multiple stories in one entire narrative of a young boy recollecting his past as part of a national heritage. Faulkner's are the tales of families, forgotten southern history, the lies of cultural superiority, and ultimately the gnawing away of this apparently real, but otherwise false pastoral past by the enduring demands of industrialism ever encroaching on the great woods.


In contrast to Hemingway's solitary veteran returning to his Minnesota woodlands to fish, Faulkner peoples this hunt with sufficient characters to uncover the original, essential, and inevitable contradictions of southern life. Civil War veterans, Negroes, descendants of Chickasaw native peoples, and young men all come of age in these annual hunts of the late fall in "the Big Bottom." An ever more rare landscape we call the bottomland hardwood swamp. These characters of the "new" South are as unable as the bear in the great woods to live without the fantasies of ownership and control of the events leading to their very own demise.




Faulkner comes to my mind with The Bear as a coming-of-age story. His instructive narrative (didactic) is told retrospectively by Ike who has made wholly adult choices not to follow in the traditional footsteps of all those preceding him. For me, like John Knowles' A Separate Peace, the story has meaning for an older people, or those elders of a different generation from mine, brought up to hunt. However in retrospect (as in Twain's Huckleberry Finn) there is much in these narratives that transcends a mere coming of age or hunting story. In Faulkner there is the haunting discovery. In the unearthing of a boy's unknown ancestry we are faced with our own personal, cultural, and national inability to understand other races and what we owe to the past in which we are held captive and from which we have never emerged unless we hunt down our elemental relation to the world of our surroundings.


These are narratives about how people by regarding nature in such a new way –as the authors in defining the settings– force us to reexamine our prejudices and reliance on our biased senses, trained incapacities, and enduring prejudices. They beset the characters with challenges so that any outcomes of these tests of will and perseverance that all of these stories explore in ways that invite us to redefine the future as a break with the past, reveal to the reader that we are no longer able to justify our actions as a mere innocent continuation of the cultural domination of natural forces.


Even in the respect shown in the burying of the dead bear Old Ben, there is more than a mere reverence for things past or dying. Clearly the Bear, "old Ben" is not a bear for Faulkner, nor the hunt a mere stalking of an old, terrifying, bothersome, and elusive creature–but an immemorial pursuit of the passion that always eludes yet instructs us about our own failings. Faulkner's hunting stories are recollections of narrations with cultural, historical, and societal overtones that bring the full panoply of prejudices from the past into the confrontation with present exigencies.

Meaning split land the Yoknapatawpha county as the setting of this allegorical story is both split by the railroad and lumber company that eventually occupy but perhaps never own the Big Bottom and in a metaphorical sense these places are imaginatively split in two by the human ideals that never quite match the the underlying wild necessity of these places that escape all but Faulkner's prescient recollections.

"He went back to the camp one more time before the lumber company moved in and began to cut the timber," as Faulkner simply begins part four, "Then he was in the woods, not alone but solitary; the solitude closed about him, green with summer."(88) Here in the transformed property of Major de Spain, Ike realizes in contrast with his life's calling as he walks into the Big Bottom recalling the hunting trips thinks still the woods would be his mistress and his wife." (92) At the end of this recollection walk Ike realizes "whoever the man was and and whatever he was doing, he was somewhere near the edge of the clearing where the Gum Tree was and where he was to meet Boon." As Ike is mesmerized by the squirrels like the same varmints he once hunted, he looks, Then he saw Boon, sitting, his back against the the trunk , his head bent, hammering furiously at something on his lap." Here Faulkner reveals to the reader a perplexing realization that Ike sees Boon amidst a post-mortem perhaps of the weapon. "The rest of the gun lay scattered about him in a half dozen pieces while he bent over the piece in his lap his scarlet and streaming walnut face, hammering the disjointed barrel against the gun-breech with the frantic abandon of a madman." (97)

The contrast with the great tree (of life) and the squirrels transforming this Gum Tree and "like a" madman-like Boon banging out the dying cadence of an industrial intrusion in the form of a broken gun barrel sitting amidst the parts of the whole instrument strewn beneath the far older tree. And then the double (split) meaning of his words–ostensibly to Ike about the gun's parts: "Get out of here! Don't touch them!" (97) But, I suspect that currently as Marshall of the town, Boon who was the slayer of Old Ben with his knife, is now driven mad with abandon beating the gun's "disjointed" barrel on that old weapon's breech, represents how powerfully the land splits people apart as surely as human endeavors seek –yet ultimately fail to split in two– the abiding landscape prevailed.

This story is an epic of the dying old South, whose citizenry seek to keep alive a custom that confronts them with their own tortured past and their unwanted destiny; the end, at their own hands of all they had ever tried and failed to cherish.

In this respect the Leo Marx book may be a guide with a way to frame some of TArpon Springsyour very able and fine interpretations of your readings. Nature in Florida may be elusive but it may also be allegorical in a way that surpasses this "simple pastoral" morality play of a fall from grace and a besmirched Eden. The pines depicted here under the Gulf wind by George Inness when forests dwarfed the human scale of buildings, reveal a altogether suitable site for living because the land here is slightly higher and drier, unlike its surroundings.


Florida's landscape is in many ways a primal physical duel between fire and water where only inches make huge differences in the vegetative cover and hence any subtropical terrain's primeval denizens. Alligators and apple snails yearn for water as much as gopher tortoises burrow deeply into the dry sands and blue jays take to the wide-dry scrub to mate for life and raise families.


In the more complex sense–Florida as that terminal extension of the Mississippi and Appalachee rivers into the Gulf of Mexico–seems to me to be beyond our vision of the myriad features and all too malleable landscapes that comprise the beauty sufficient to seduce the indolent and industrious alike.

The spirit of these wet 'n' dry woods, breached bottom springs, prairie swamps and disappearing streams alike is elusive, illusive and delusive all at the same time. From the diversity of the state's trees to the salt water forested isles and the twisted strangler figs that choke the life out of the host trees Florida's and Mississippi's woodlands are the bear–that is the wildlife upon which civilization crushes its weight to the full extent of the law so that it may extract profit from the promise of eternal youth.


But what place is not elusive, illusive and delusive? This is not a special quality of mirages and mirage landscapes–of which Florida is but one in a world of deception run riot–but may be inherent in the fact that humans are nature hiding from itself in a million year old riddle of our emergence.


Florida is that southern terrain so hidden from our sensory expectations that between the mosquito and the snake-bites as among the willows and the scrub oak thickets the reality is lost among the humid, sun soaked, hum of insects and the sounds of their winged predators momentarily suspended above the mud, current swirling sands, and periphyton algae that bring from the rotten all this riotousness of unappreciated life.


The Southern terrain is the "It" of this Faulkner story. Far from just one setting or piece of place, the terrain becomes the essential it, not some plain pronoun of indeterminate scope in spacetime.

It eludes our easy grasp and depth of understanding because it is so vast.

It creates illusions in the minds of its investors and residents alike. 

It leads to delusions in what we hope to achieve because we lack the lateral line's sensitivity of a fish, the ability to soar as an Everglades kite, or to linger like a bear over a cabbage palm after eating eating its soft heart.

For those reasons we are "out of it," in the most basic, double edged, and lasting way.




American Quarterly   >   Vol. 2, No. 4, Winter, 1950   >   Cultural Primitivism...





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[1] Millichap, Joseph R. . A Backward Glance: The Southern Renascence, the Autobiographical Epic, and the Classical Legacy (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009) p. 98

[2] cause to become obsolete through age or new technological or intellectual developments : superannuated hunting and fishing equipment.


Go Down Moses, is GDM.


abiding landscape


the setting


[3] or ecphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.