Old and New Worlds in William Faulkner’s The Bear
In The Bear, William Faulkner uses specific depictions of the wilderness and the main characters of Ben, Ike, and Sam Fathers to represent much more than just a group of guys going on a bear hunt once a year. At first, this book seems like a simple story of a bear hunting adventure, but in reality, it is much more than that; the wilderness and the way the characters act and change in the book represent changes in society during this time in the history. Through analysis of the setting, characters, and symbols, it is obvious that The Bear conveys an intriguing story of a bear hunt that turns into a much deeper story about the wilderness and the societal change during the upbringing of the New West during the 1800’s. As an overall theme, Faulkner uses the wilderness as an important symbol throughout the entirety of the book.
The story begins with the introduction of the long-standing tradition of the annual hunt of the bear, Ben. Ben lives in the wilderness, which Faulkner describes as the “…doomed wilderness” on page 193, instilling fear instantly in the mind of the reader. He also describes the wilderness as “…solitude…” on page 198, drawing a very specific image of an extremely dark and lonely place. The bear has become so infamous in the wilderness as a symbol of fear for hunters that he even earned himself a human name, Ben, and Ike grew up in fear of this bear his entire life. Faulkner continues to use very specific word choice when describing the wilderness in order to ensure the idea that men feared the wilderness and whatever was in it, including Ben, the bear. Another example of this is how Faulkner always describes the wilderness as “…the big woods…” (page 192), making it obvious that the wilderness is a key factor of this story. Additionally, Faulkner describes the wilderness as “…tall and endless…” with a “…wall of dense November woods under the dissolving afternoon and the year’s death, somber, impenetrable…” (page 194). This is important because he is showing the audience how the men of this time period felt about the woods and the wilderness as they embark on their yearly hunt into the woods.
After the first chapter, however, it becomes clear that the wilderness becomes an affront to Ike’s success; if he wants to make it as an entrepreneur and planter in this time he must be able to defeat the wilderness, which could, potentially, include killing the bear. As the book continues, it becomes obvious that the wilderness has more to it then just being a scary place, and we begin to understand exactly why Faulkner describes the wilderness in this way. One of the most significant ideas to understand about this story is that even though the first half of the book is based on the annual bear hunt, that is not what they are actually doing. Instead, they are carrying out a tradition, which is important because Ike loves to hold onto tradition, especially when he realizes that the traditional way he lives his life in the Old World is changing as the New West is born. Every year, Ike, Sam Fathers, his cousin McCaslin, as well as a few others, all go hunting for Ben, but it turns out to be more of a tradition than an actual hunt. This is shown on page 200, where Faulkner explains how Ike finally understands how the tradition matters more than the hunt, writing “…he realised that the bear…was a mortal animal and that they had departed for the camp each November with no actual intention of slaying it…” This is a key moment in the story, as it is the moment in which Ike finally understands the deeper meaning behind the annual bear hunt, beginning the transformation from the Old World to the New West. Additionally, Faulkner writes that Ike realizes that “…they were going not to hunt bear…but to keep yearly rendezvous with the bear which they did not even intend to kill” (page 194). This is important because it also shows how the annual hunt for the bear is not really a hunt, but rather, a tradition of old times before all the change that eventually comes with the rise of the New West. This is a key moment in the book because it shows us that the wilderness is used to describe the entire situation of the change of society from Old World to New West, and the shift of priorities for men in this time period to more superficial ideas, such as money and success, rather than what has always been viewed as important to the people of this time. Ike has the hardest time with this transformation, so this is extremely important to note as a moment when Ike first understands that times are changing, and not necessarily for the better. The bear, Sam Fathers, and Lion, the dog, all become clear symbols of the wilderness in chapter 3 because when they die, society shifts and Ike begins to see this change happening right in front of him for himself.
The moment in which the whole story shifts from a story of a hunt to an even bigger story of change into the New West is when Sam, Ben, and Lion all die at the end of chapter 3. After more than 11 years of the annual hunt for the bear, the boys embark on the journey into the wilderness yet again. Out of all people, Boon ends up shooting and killing Ben, and just like that, the bear is dead, after all these years. On page 239, Faulkner writes how the bear’s “…guts are all out of him” when Boon attacks him on the hunt and finally kills him. This is a turning point for the story because for so many years this hunt had been just a tradition and more like a game than an actual hunt. Then, after the bear dies, Sam Fathers dies suddenly, possibly of a stroke or old age. This is another striking moment, which shocks everyone in the group because he is the old man who has been in charge for what seems like ever. Especially to Ike, Sam Fathers was like a father figure. Sam taught Ike everything he knew about hunting, and Ike would not be one of the best “…woodsman…” (page 235) and hunters in the group if it weren’t for Sam Fathers’ guidance and teachings. Everyone is extremely upset when Sam Fathers dies because he is such a key figure that has had a positive effect on almost every character in the story, when McCaslin (Cass) screams at Boon, asking, “Did you kill him, Boon?” (page 251). It is clear here that Sam symbolizes the Old World and the wilderness, as Sam was basically the last one left that believed that the woods and wild should be shared and not be taken over by man with the rise of the New West. Finally, Lion, the hunting dog, dies as well, and it is very obvious at this point that when the bear, Sam Fathers, and Lion all die, the wilderness dies along with them as society switches to the New West.
When the wilderness dies and the Old World disappears with it, Ike begins to see the New West taking over and how it is going to negatively affect the way he knows to live his life, abiding by tradition and customs, as opposed to change and superficiality. This is when it becomes clear that Ike represents the Old World while his cousin, Cass, represents just the opposite; the New West. Ike is all about tradition, and does not want to own or sell anything, does not want to be in control of other humans, while Cass is all for modernizing, moving forward, making money, and being successful in the New World. On page 254, Ike states that not only does he not want to inherit his family legacy and land, but that he believes that “it was never Father’s and Uncle Buddy’s to bequeath [him] to repudiate because it was never Grandfather’s to bequeath to them to bequeath to [him]” on page 254. Ike thinks that the land was taken and cleared many years ago from the Indians in an unfair way, so the land isn’t even theirs to be able to take over and control, so he doesn’t want any part of it. Ike also uses the bible as evidence in saying that if you read the bible right, you will see that men were never intended to own the land. We see the divide in Ike and Cass here, as Ike stands with the wilderness and lower class characters like Boon, when he stands with him at Sam Fathers’ grave site, not wanting to be associated with his family heritage and land and the money of old McCaslin. However, Ike finds his family ledger books in the commissary in chapter 4, and a new, important symbol is created. These ledger books are where Ike reads about the family history of how they first obtained the land, had slaves, and cleared it, which is what strikes Ike’s fury and dedication to old times and tradition. Through reading the ledgers, Ike learns that his grandfather committed terrible things, such as incest, which lead to the deaths of other people and a whole other black side of the family which is usually kept as a secret for the McCaslin family. On page 255, Cass responds to Ike by stating that “…nevertheless and notwithstanding old Carothers did own it. Bought it, got it, no matter; kept it, held it, no matter; bequeathed it…” stating that their family bought the land so that makes it theirs to own and control. Here, Cass also responds to Ike’s biblical evidence, stating that “He made the earth first and peopled it with dumb creatures…” and if it were really bad for them to own the land then God would have done something about it by now. This part is important because it alludes to the bible and religion a lot, by also connecting it to the story of Eden and how men have always had a question of ownership as they were kicked out of the first place they lived (in the Garden of Eden). Cass thinks Ike is being an idealist, saying that he didn’t invent land ownership or slavery, and that they are not doing anything different from their ancestors have done for so many years before them. Cass tries to explain his discovery of the New World to Ike on page 254 by stating that it is a new world but that we do the same things; people still own land and slaves, it’s just how the world works. This moment is important because it emphasizes the divide between Ike and Cass, or the Old World and the New World/West, which is the main point of the entire story. This is also important because it shows how Ike is against all the change going on in society around him and how hopeless he feels during this transformation, as a man of the past.
The last important part of the story which helps show the way the world is changing from old times to the New West are all of the racial relations in the book. As the only white male heir, Ike is supposed to inherit the land and money, but Ike finds this wrong, and makes a point to get Tennies Jim and Lucas and all of the black side of his family a $1000 inheritance as well. Additionally, when reading the ledgers, Ike realizes that his family used to own and mistreat slaves as well, and that this is not right. Then, Ike, and perhaps even Faulkner, begins to accept the idea that it was good to end slavery, but that it should have been done differently. On page 290, Ike says that “…what [black people] got not only not from white people but not even despite white people because they had it already from the old free fathers a longer time free than [them] because [they] have never been free…” stating that he feels that the black race is better than the white race. Ike thinks that the way slavery was ended was too abrupt, so former slaves were not prepared to live as independent adults who needed to work for money, and so white people tried to reassert their power. Because of the way northerners fleeted to the south and how unprepared slaves were for life after slavery, Ike feels as though he must protect all of them and take care of them. Then, Ike presents his idea that African Americans will, and should, inherit the south. He believes that it is the African American race’s turn and that they are better than the white race anyway, so they should be able to lift the “curse” (page 294) that Ike believes their families brought to the land all those years ago when they took it from the Indians and took control. This is important to the story as it shows the final idea that Ike has about the change into the New World. Everything around Ike is changing, Sam, Ben and Lion all die, the wilderness dies, and it is time now for a different kind of change. Instead of the change into the New West, Ike wants to change for the better. Instead of working for success and money, Ike thinks they should be changing things like who is in control of the land, as he hates the idea of modernization and change in the society away from the wilderness and towards technology and the New World.
The Bear by William Faulkner begins with a chase for a bear in the woods, but turns into a more complex story of the hunt, which is actually a metaphor for a larger story about how the south changes and how the wilderness goes away. When the bear, Sam Fathers, and Lion all die, this loss symbolizes the loss of the wilderness, which is an even bigger symbol for the loss of the old south and all of its societal ways. When the wilderness dies, we see nature being replaced by commerce, as people used money to purchase property, people, and goods, and stopped caring as much about the nature and wilderness, as Ike did. In the end, Ike goes back to the woods for one last time before Major De Spain sells it all to a lumber company. This moment symbolizes the end of the wilderness and of the old world, and, therefore, the acceptance that the world is changing and the New West is coming. In the end, it is obvious that Ike is so opposed to change and the New West because he hates worldly vanity and all that comes with it. Although Ike’s ideas about the world are nice and seem great, he is just an idealist, while Cass is a more realist thinker. Ike wants things to be as they should be, not as they are, and wants to be free from all the vain people in the New World who are only focused on money and achievement rather than what has always been thought of as important to Ike in the Old World; family, freedom, and equality. Ike says “I’m free” in the last 2 chapters of the book many times, meaning he is free from this type of worldly vanity. As things are changing in society in the south, Ike wishes to be free from the shallowness and superficiality which he believes all people possess in the New West and wants to continue to live life in the Old World, doing as he has always done. In the end, however, Ike ends up married to a woman who is only with him for his money and inheritance, which is clear on page 309, when she asks Ike to “promise” that he will give her his land and money. It is ironic that this happened to Ike because he is the only one who still stands by the wilderness and ways of the Old World once Sam Fathers dies. Throughout the entirety of the story, Ike is a heroic figure, standing up for what he believes is right and fighting for his ideas as societal views shift to New World ideas. However, even after all the fighting for old ways and standing up for what he believed was right, the New West still proved victorious in the end, as society transforms and welcomes the New World, leaving all of the traditions that Ike stood for in the dust, never to look back upon again.
Faulkner, William. Three Famous Short Novels. New York: Vintage, 1961. Print.
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