1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 6 The Bear, by William Faulkner

Having recently read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I can see how the first half of Faulkner’s The Bear may have served as a heavy influence, certainly the two share a very similar spirit thematically speaking. The two are very much about humanity’s struggle to coexist with nature, and even more so about the struggle for humanity’s struggle with its own pride and ignorance, and both narratives employ an aged man with much experience serving as a mentor to a young boy entering manhood as they learn about morality through nature, though Faulkner’s differs from Hemingway’s masterpiece in that the narrative both focuses on the boy, rather than the old man, and that it also contains with it an additional narrative, one in which the moral lessons absorbed through humanity’s interaction with nature are then employed in the practical world, and it in this portion of the novel that Faulkner’s narrative disjunction (employed famously in his work The Sound and the Fury) appears to articulate some moral themes concerning the birth and progression of America as a nation, some ethical themes that challenge the American world view of entitlement via inheritance and ownership.

Isaac is the narrative’s protagonist, and plantation owner in training. Each November he goes on a hunting expedition where he learns, with a Sam Farthers, a man with both Chikasaw negro-slave blood (as Faulkner puts it), serving as his mentor, of hunting and humility. It is a group of plantation owners who lead the expeditions each year, but Faulkner notes that the boundaries of perceived race and class were not entirely present throughout the hunting trip as they were in the ‘civilized’ world, In the woods 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”. It is one’s abilities and character that defines them while they are hunting for “Old Ben”, the mammoth bear who seems to have inspired his own unique mythology among the men who hunt him, and in turn, like the Mariner in Hemingway’s work, has earned a great deal of respect from the men who are hunting him. It is this idea of humility that Isaac most closely aligns himself with and in turn forces him to question the concept of inheritance, property and ownership in the latter half of the narrative.

In the first portion of the narrative, Faulkner speaks of animals as though they each have virtue, and each define themselves by those virtues, be they fortitude, or bravery, and it is not only Old Ben who warrants his own mythology, but Lion, a wild dog that is half-tamed by Farthers with the aim of hunting down Old Ben. By projecting such virtues onto animals, Isaac becomes more in tune with nature. He does not indulge in prejudicial beliefs based on perceives race, and in being witness to nature, and seeing how the animals share living spaces, and how the concept or property simply isn’t present in nature, he in turn adopts a humble approach to what will become his inheritance in the latter part of the narative.

Before abandoning the more conventional and linear account for the narrative disjunction for which Faulkner is often associated with, Faulkner subtly touches on several branches of literary theory. He makes allusion to Plato’s concepts of representational thought and symbols. Isaac, for example, receives a rifle during his apprenticeship as a huntsmen, and it is said that he would own the rifle for close to seventy years, “through two new pairs of barrels and locks and one new stock, until all that remained of the original gun was the silver-inlaid trigger-guard”. The trigger-guard has engravings in it, which for Isaac seems to be the guns only defining attribute. All other pieces of the gun are interchangeable, and as long as that trigger-guard remains, then the gun he holds in his hands remains the same one that it was when he had first fired it, though through the course of time almost everything about the gun becomes only a symbol of what it had been. Faulkner also touches on some existentialist theory, in one passage he describes how the men ate meat that had been “cooked by men who were hunters first and cooks afterward”, a clever delineation which subtly hints a humanity’s ever changing nature, how we are not now what we may have been ever a minute ago, how the men who were hunters first lost that title as they roasted the meat they had caught and traded it for a role in the domestic sphere as a cook, suggesting it is the things we are that define us, and the things we did define not who we are, but who we were.

In the second part of the narrative, Isaac, and the young and idealistic age of 21, becomes the owner of the plantation which has been past down for several generations, through the male heirs. Isaac goes through the books pertaining to the plantation and its business dealings and through that builds an understanding of the narrative that has brought the plantation into his hands. He notes that his grandfather came into possession of the land and that the patriarch had a son and a daughter, but gave his property solely to his son. Isaac, acting under ideals that have strong feminist overtones without every really entering the debate (which is odd within the narrative since women are nearly entirely absent from this narrative), believes that his cousin, who is the last offspring of that patriarchs female line, has as much right to the property as he does, and so makes his cousin, who he notes shares the same amount of their patriarchs blood, renounces the plantation and gives it to his cousin, making the implication women are as entitled to ownership as men.

Still, the concept of ownership does not sit well with Isaac, and he sees, through the plantations ledgers, that the land did not come into the possession of its patriarch without sin, nor was it cultivated and tamed, and brought to turn a profit without the exploitation of slaves, and so Isaac sees that accepting the product of sin, implies that he must also accept responsibility for those sins, sins that include not only the raping of slave women, but also the incestuous sexual exploitation of the product of the initial rape. It is these sins which Isaac does not want to accept along with the plantation that encourages him to renounce it, but still Isaac, in leaving the plantation to his cousin (who he insists is no less than a brother), Isaac aims to make some sort of restitution by delivering to the slaves and their own offspring, what he feels is there own share in the plantation. The concepts and ideals which Isaac adopts carry some heavy implications to American history and culture. To accept the product of a sin, makes one guilty of that sin, or certainly responsible for it.

Isaac also projects romanticised feelings about the descendants of the African slaves. He sees them as being not unlike the bear, Old Ben, who himself had been shot (more than a score of bullets were found beneath his fur when he was finally killed), and he had even been maimed in a bear trap. Yet still he endured, and this treatment of the bear is perhaps a metaphor for how the peoples of various European nations treated those people of African descent. Faulkner is bold in this assessment, writing that those exploited by the colonizers “will endure” because they “are better… stronger” than their European counter parts and that their vices are only ones that have been “aped from the white man” and have been taught to them through bondage. He even notes that the stereotype which suggest that the descendants of the African people are lazy is a misinterpretation, that it is not “laziness” but “evasion”. such passages were refreshing for me to read personally, because there are times in reading Faulkner, where he employs pejorative terms for those same people he praises in this novel, so I found it reassuring that the sometimes uncomfortably frequent employment of such terms seems to be the efforts of an artist trying to recreate the tone of a generation, and not one seeking to perpetuate prejudices and hate.

There are three passages which I found particularly profound. The first being when Faulkner writes: “Apparently there is a wisdom beyond even that learned through suffering necessary for a man to distinguish between liberty and licence”. the idea that the freedoms that are given to people, the choices they have, are merely those that are allotted to them by the state, and that there is a difference between true freedom, and those choices that are assigned to you by the state.

The second passage: “We are born lost.” This reminded me of the phrase “you can never go back”, but it is a fresh interpretation of that popular cliché, one that carries the implication that were are always searching for a home from the moment we take our first breaths in this world.

The third passage: “The vanity of faith”. This is so simply and obviously profound it seems odd that it was not already a cliché at the time Faulkner wrote it. The vanity of faith is something dangerous, something that has given faulty reasoning the ability to wage wars with confidence, and one that perpetuates xenophobia and hatred for the other. My commentary on this though is insulting simple for a passage so purely insightful. If these simple four words were read, understood and put into practice by every person on this planet, the world would be instantly transformed into a better place.

If you like this:

The Old Man In The Sea, by Earnest Hemingway: Faulkner and Hemingway were often regarded as polar opposite throughout their respective careers, but in first half of The Bear, Faulkner, though still employing a uniquely vast mastery of the English vocabulary, trades in the more challenging forms of prose for by which he is often identified with, for a more conventional narrative, and one that shares many themes with Hemingway’s The Old Man In The Sea

Absolom, Absolom, by William Faulkner: This narrative serves as a parable for birth of America, much as The Bear, most especially in the latter half, serves as a parable of, or perhaps a blueprint for how, America had continued to grow. The exploitative nature of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas and the prose is a subtly beautiful as Faulkner’s finest works.

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy: In both Faulkner’s The Bear, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, we see Man vs. Nature unfold into narratives that are about humanity’s internal fight. In McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, there are passages in which man must learn to exploit nature to his benefit (and I say man because the troop of peoples is exclusively male), but rather than hunting a idealized animal such as a bear or a mariner, man is hunting man. It tone and prose are not unlike Faulkner’s, but this novelisation of the traditional epic verse serves to expose humanity’s barbarous nature and the conflict of interests that exists when wars are fought for profit.

The Crossing, by Cormac McCarthy: In this novel a young man learns the nuances of hunting as he seeks to hunt down a she wolf that has been destroying local livestock, and the novel’s protagonist comes to grow a keen affection for the vicious animal and finds that he cannot simply kill animal once it has been caught. Like Faulkner’s The Bear, the hunting of the animal takes up only half of the narrative, and the novel then goes on to tell the continuing narrative of the young man as he comes to terms with the adult world around him.

The Hard Goodbye, by Frank Miller: This graphic novel seems to tell a narrative that is not entirely unlike Faulkner’s The Bear, but from the point of view of a humanized bear, a beast of a man named Marv who like the bear seems impervious to pain and bullets, and the romanticized mythos behind the character creates a stark juxtaposition between reasonable, natural survival instincts, and the barbaric and brutal nature of what America (and perhaps humanity on the whole) has come to represent.



Long list of words again, so the definitions get their own note:

Fatuous: unintelligent.

Ciphers: A written code.

Deadfalls: A trap in which a heavy weight falls on the intended victim.

Shoats: A young pig that is past the stage of weaning.

Punily: Southern colloquialism to describe something small, from puny.

Reft: Past tense of ’reave’, meaning to take away by force. Archaic, or, no longer used in contemporary language.

Attrition: Weakening of surface, or weakening after repeated attacks, or a loss in staff/employment, or sorrow in sin.

Novitiate: From the root novice, speaks to a probationary period set upon one who is a novice (or beginner).

Immemorial: ancient.

Flank: The side of, either beef/torso, military formation or field.

Epitome: From the Greek, originally meaning to cut short, now used to describe something that is a typical example, or a summary of a written work.

Apotheosis: Translated from Latin, it means to obtain god like stature, but in English is used to describe something that has attained a high level of power.

Abjectness: Miserable or humble.

Moiling: Drudgery. To work hard, from the French meaning to soften or moisten.

Bay: A land with curving hills around it, or a curved inlet of the sea. In the book the bear is kept at bay, meaning trapped within the confines of such a geographical area.

Effluvium: The smell of fumes.

Hemmed: Folded fabric.

Timorous: Showing fear or hesitation.

Lambence: Effortlessly bright or brilliant.

Limbo: State of oblivion, or a neutral area between two regions (such as heaven and hell). From the Latin which means border.

Patrimony: What one inherits from one’s father.

Brunswick: A vegetable and meat stew.

Dappled: Spotted.

Evanescently: Fleeting.

Scut: A short, erect tail.

Gambit: A stratagem, or opening move in a game such as chess, or opening dialogue in a conversation.

Abrogated: To do away with something.

Inviolable: Secure from attack, or unbreakable, from the Latin root “violabilis” which means may be injured.

Coalesced: To merge or unite things.

Progenitor: Ancestor or originator.

Cypress: A coniferous tree which is often a symbol for mourning.

Foaled: A young horse.

Feint: A deceptive action.

Exultation: To feel happy or triumphant.

Hant: Southern American variation of haunt: To visit continually, often with the intend to cause discomfort.

Airedale: A breed of large dog.

Malevolence: To wish harm.

Malignance: A cancerous growth.

Tousled: Tangled, often used to describe tangled hair or fur.

Hearth: The floor of a fire place.

Improvident: Unconcerned of future needs, without foresight.

Peremptory: Dictatorial, or express ding urgency, or closed for discussion.

Towsacks: A burlap bag, also called a gunnysack.

Caboose: A ship’s kitchen from Dutch, also used to describe the rear, guard van of a freight train, also where the train’s crew eats and cooks.


Cuspidors: North American variant of spittoon, a receptacle for spittle.

Scot-free: Without punishment or payment, from the old English word sceot, meaning tax, no actual relation to Scotland.

Carbine: A short rifle.

Clamoured: To demand loudly.

Jouncing: To move whilst bouncing.

Statuary: The art of making statues.

Quinine: a drug used to treat malaria.

Pedagogue: Used to describe a teacher who focused on pedantic (rules) or theology, later used as applied to all teachers and teaching in general.

Unannealed: A heat treatment that alter material.

Scoriations: Lacerations.

Bequeath: From the old English meaning to ‘speak out’. Now means to leave some to prosperity or in a will.

Impalpable: Hard to understand, or physically unable to touch.

Sufferance: Endurance of pain or difficulty, or a tacit allowance of something.

Suzerainty: Controlling.

Bagnios: In English denotes a house meant for bathing in, from Turkish for a prison bath house.

Progenitive: Begetting offspring.

Apocryphal: Doubted, or questioned, used frequently to describe works excluded from the Christian canon.

Edifice: A building or structure, from the Latin ’to build’.

Gelding: Castrated horse! Poor bastard!

Amortized: To transfer a property, or to reduce payment.

Manumitted: To have been freed from slavery.

Obfuscate: To make something confusing.

Acquiescing: Passive agreement (see Nevil Chamberlain).

Rheumatism: Stiffness of muscles and/or joints.

Incognito: In disguise. From the Latin words incognitus meaning ‘unknown’ and cognoscere, meaning ‘get to know’.

Awry: Crooked or amiss.

Embryo: The initial stages of human growth within the womb, from the Greek ‘embruon’ meaning to swell.

Selfprogenitive: a word employed and created by (as far as I can see) by Faulkner, speaking to one’s ability to create offspring.

Jerrybuilt: Something built questionably. May have a pejorative origin as the term ’jerry’ has been used as an insulting term for Germans, so it may call into question the quality of something by comparing it unfavourably to things built by Germans.

Mazed: To be confused.

Paramount: Of greatest significant, from the Anglo-Norman words meaning ‘by’ and ‘above’.

Immolation: To kill as a sacrifice.

Chautauqua: North American; to describe a summer school where teaching is often done outdoors.

Regalia: Royal insignia, or distinctive clothing.

Pristine: Unspoiled.

Cajolery: To persuade somebody gently.

Adjuration: To command solemnly, ot by an appeal, from the Latin origin meaning to make an oath.

Crises: A turning point, applied in a social context, and also applied to diseases.

Covey: From the French meaning brood, a group of game birds or the like, such as people or other animals.

Astuteness: Clever.

Horde: From a Turkish word meaning ‘army camp’, describes a moving group.

Aghast: Horrified.

Deluge: A sudden heavy down poor, from the Latin meaning wash.

Acumen: From the Latin meaning sharp, describes one who is sharp of mind.

Mellifluous: Pleasant to hear.

Rapine: To plunder, from the Latin, meaning to rape.

Sutlers: A civilian merchant who sells military equipment.

Sloven: One who is careless in respect to personal appearance.

Pariah: An outcast, from the Tamil meaning “festival drummer”, who was, in their society, outside of the caste system.

Apothecary: Like a pharmacist.

Bucolic: Of the country, often speaking of a person’s origin.

Derivation: A source of formation of words, or in math, a proof.

Heresy: Unorthodox opinion, from the Greek word for choose and group.

Aggrandisement: Improve or exaggerate one’s status.

Genuflect: To kneel or show excessive respect.

Indubitably: Not to be doubted.

Stereopticon: A projector that moves images very slowly.

Itinerant: Travelling on the job.

Sop: Food dipped in liquid, or something given to satisfy a discontented person.

Glinting: A brief flash, or slight indication.

Mintage: The minting of coins, or the fee for minting.

Illicit: Illegal, or unacceptable by social standards.

Uxory: Could not find a definition.

Citadel: Fortress or defending body, translates from the French as ‘little city’, from the Latin for city.

Dipsomaniac: An alcoholic person.

Tremens: An acute episode of delirium.

Insatiate: Greed.

Cachinnation: Convulsive laughing.

Immemorial: Ancient, since before recorded time.

Subterfuge: Some designed to deceive, from the Latin for ’secret flight’.

Demijohn: Large wine bottles sometimes encased wickerwork. From the French for Dame-Jeanne (or lady Jane), after whom it was named, or at least how it was referred to.

Crossties: Intersecting railroad tracks.

Creosote: A wood preserver or antiseptic.

Ballast: A stabilizing weight.

Puerile: Silly, relating to childhood.

Brier: A type of tobacco pipe, or a thorny plant.

Athwart: Something across or opposing to.

Garrulous: Being wordy or over talkative.

Tumescence: Swelling.

Maelstrom: Turbulent situation, or a whirl pool.

Singly: Without help, or by oneself.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind