Monday, July 28, 2008

Coming of Age in William Faulkner's The Bear

Faulkner's The Bear begins as a hunting expedition told from the young boy Issac (Ike) McCaslin's point of view. The first three parts of the narrative can be summed up with the interactions of the hunting party and Old Ben, an mystically ancient bear. At the end of the third part, the bear meets his end, as do two other major characters: Sam Fathers, a descendant of an African slave mixed with a Chickasaw, and a wild dog named Lion. In part four when Ike is 21 years old, Faulkner paints an almost biblical account of heritage marks Ike's lineage. This retreat into Ike's heritage is the only part of the novel outside of the hunting camp. In the final part of the novel, Ike, as a man returns to the camp, many years later, after the land has been sold to a lumber company. A coming of age story generally includes a traumatic event which moves a character from their youth to adulthood. The same is true here, the conquer of Old Ben, the bear is the event for both Ike, and society.
After the deaths of the bear, Lion, and Sam Fathers, the rest of the hunting party lays their fallen heroes in graves in the forest. The deaths represent a few aspects of this coming of age story. For Ike, directly after the deaths, he has a long dialog with his cousin Cass, which is the entire fourth part. In this part, he is well aware of the curse on the south as he learns the truth about his grandfather's personality as a slave owner. For Ike, the knowledge of his ancestry is a haunting account of what 1865 means in his modern day. Perhaps the awakening is as haunting as it is because of Ike's relationship with Sam Fathers, who even after his death has Ike thinking more like an Indian. Ike's early beliefs are of the earth being communal, and yet as he ages, after the death of the bear, he understands the importance of maintaining the plantation. Even Faulkner describes the plantation as man's need to slowly chip away at the wilderness to tame it, and plant something that eventually can be translated into money.
As the bear represents the wilderness, the killing of the bear, in essence, is the killing of wilderness. However, the death of the wilderness is less poetic in the final part of the novel. “He went back to the camp one more time before the lumber company moved in and began to cut the timber,” (Faulkner 301). As Ike moves through the wilderness, the descriptions of the lumber company's rails, and creosote soaked ties, and rust is an unnatural addition to the woods which are doomed to vanish. Using the death of Old Ben, Sam Fathers, and Lion as the traumatic event, perhaps the hunting party had accomplished what they needed to, and after the death of the bear, there was nothing more in the wilderness for them.
On a macro level, The Bear is set not long after the civil war, and as a coming of age story, the Ike character is analogous to American life. The death of the bear, as the death of the wilderness, is symbolic only as humans move forever into the wild simply to tame it. Feeling the weight of ancestry, the guilt of work, and the responsibility of land ownership, the coming of age for the wilderness is the act of destroying it and the development of farms.

Faulker, William. The Bear. The Famous Short Novels. Vintage Books: New York, 1966.

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