27 pages 54 minutes read

William Faulkner

The Bear

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1942

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Bear”

“The Bear” is a work of short fiction by William Faulkner, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in May 1942. Faulkner subsequently expanded the story and included it in Go Down, Moses, a collection of related short stories sometimes considered a novel, published later that year. An abbreviated version also appears in his 1955 anthology, Big Woods. As historical fiction set in an imagined Mississippi county, “The Bear” traces a young man’s development in the context of an annual hunting trip, as well as his later attempts to reckon with his family’s fraught history of racial and other abuses. Citations in this guide correspond with the 1994 Vintage Books edition of Go Down, Moses.

In the fall of 1877, 10-year-old Isaac McCaslin joins his second cousin, McCaslin Edmonds, who is 16 years older than him and Isaac’s caretaker following the death of his parents, on an annual hunting trip hosted by McCaslin’s friend Major de Spain in a wooded area known as “the Big Bottom” (191). Under the guidance of Sam Fathers, an elderly woodsman born to a Chickasaw chief and an enslaved Black woman, Isaac learns to navigate and hunt in the wilderness; Sam also demonstrates a reverence for nature. Isaac learns about Old Ben, a powerful, seemingly immortal bear with a maimed foot known for terrorizing local farmers and hunters. Sam explains that they will only be able to kill Old Ben once they find the right dog. As is customary, the party devotes one day of their trip to hunting Old Ben. After the hunters spread out and take their places, Old Ben passes near Isaac. Isaac senses Old Ben watching him but doesn’t see the bear. In that moment, Isaac realizes he will never shoot Old Ben.

The following June, Isaac returns to Major de Spain’s camp. While Major de Spain and his friends relax, Isaac looks for Old Ben, though the others think he is hunting squirrels. Sam figures out what Isaac is doing and tells him Old Ben won’t let Isaac see him as long as he carries a gun. The next day, Isaac leaves behind his gun and travels farther into the wilderness than ever before. Realizing that he is “still tainted,” he then abandons his watch and compass. Now lost in the woods, Isaac finds Old Ben’s tracks and momentarily glimpses the bear, who looks back at him, then vanishes.

By the time Isaac is 13, he develops into an expert woodsman and a proven hunter. One day, he and Sam track and ambush Old Ben with a small, foolishly brave dog. When Old Ben turns on the dog, Isaac runs forward to save the dog, and the bear leaves. Afterward, Sam asks Isaac why he didn’t shoot; Isaac asks Sam the same question.

The next year, during Isaac’s summer vacation at the camp, a young horse is killed. While the others theorize that a panther, a wolf, or even Old Ben is responsible, Sam realizes the tracks left behind belong to a wild dog. Within three days, Sam captures the dog, which he names Lion. Over the next few months, he starves Lion into submission without fully taming him, intending to use him to hunt Old Ben.

In November, Isaac and the others return to the Big Bottom. Upon arrival, Boon Hogganbeck, a “violent, insensitive, hard-faced man” (209), takes an immediate liking to Lion, even allowing the dog to sleep on his bed. Lion tracks Old Ben but loses his scent in the river. A year later, Lion manages to stop Old Ben, allowing Major de Spain’s elderly friend General Compson to shoot and hit him, but after Boon misses several follow-up shots, the bear escapes.

The following year’s camping trip drags into December due to cold weather. McCaslin and Major de Spain send Boon to Memphis to get whisky, and they send Isaac to keep an eye on Boon. Though Boon drinks and leads Isaac on an unscheduled trip to the zoo, where he finds the bears to be no match for Lion, they make it back to the camp that night.

The next morning proves warm enough for Lion to make his annual run against Old Ben. Several locals eager to see the bear defeated join the hunt. At General Compson’s insistence, Isaac is assigned to ride Katie, the only mule unafraid to go near Old Ben. Lion quickly catches Old Ben’s trail. A while later, Isaac, Sam, and Boon catch up to Lion and Old Ben on the other side of a river. Lion latches on to Old Ben’s throat, while the bear claws at Lion’s stomach. Boon runs to Lion’s defense, stabbing Old Ben from behind. Old Ben rises momentarily, then falls to the earth, dead. Severely injured, Lion dies a few days later. More than 50 people whose lives Old Ben affected attend Lion’s funeral.

Sam, who fell during the hunt’s climax for no apparent reason, weakens over the next few days, though the doctor insists he is fine. Over McCaslin’s objections, Isaac stays at the camp a few days longer than planned. McCaslin and Major de Spain return to the camp to find Isaac and Boon burying Sam next to Lion; McCaslin asks Boon whether he killed Sam at Sam’s request. His face full of tears, Isaac tells McCaslin to leave Boon alone.

The narrative shifts to focus on Isaac’s developing attitudes as they relate to his heritage and inheritance. Over the next few years, Isaac becomes increasingly disturbed by his ancestors’ actions recorded in financial ledgers by his father, uncle, and grandfather. Reading between the lines, Isaac realizes his grandfather, Carothers McCaslin, not only had an illicit relationship with a slave named Eunice, who reportedly died by suicide, but also impregnated the daughter she bore him, Tomasina. Tomasina gave birth to a son, Terrel, to whom Carothers willed a $1,000 inheritance to be paid by his descendants. Isaac plans to offer the same sum to each of Terrel’s living children as well. After failing to locate Terrel’s son, Jim, he finds his daughter, Sophonsiba, who is living in a humble log cabin with her husband. Five months earlier, her then-fiancé boldly announced their marriage to McCaslin. Now, her scholarly husband appears unconcerned about the ruinous state of his farm. Isaac sets up a pension to be paid to Sophonsiba monthly. Terrel’s third living child, Lucas, settles in nearby Jefferson and requests his share promptly upon turning 21.

When Isaac turns 21, he becomes eligible to inherit his family’s plantation. Believing that ownership of land is impossible and immoral, Isaac argues at length with McCaslin, refusing to accept his inheritance. Isaac explains his belief that God intends for people to “hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood” (244). To him, land ownership and slavery are both cause and evidence of a curse upon the land. He adds that, although their ancestors’ actions may be reprehensible, each generation can move closer toward an ideal outcome. When McCaslin cites the Civil War as evidence of God’s absence or disdain, Isaac suggests that it was a terrible but necessary step forward, even given that racist views and practices undercut the newfound freedom offered to slaves for years to come. Isaac compares the “two threads” of Carothers McCaslin’s descendants to suggest that the Black line will “outlast” the white line because “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are” (280). McCaslin disagrees, comparing the strengths Isaac identifies in the Black line to those of “mules” and “dogs.”

Isaac recalls a night seven years earlier when he told McCaslin about his reluctance to shoot Old Ben. At that time, McCaslin helped Isaac understand that he was acting in accordance with his values and with truth as he perceived it. In the present, Isaac reaffirms his renunciation of his birthright, explaining that doing so sets him free.

Isaac also recalls his heritage from his mother’s side. Shortly after Isaac’s birth, his uncle Hubert Beauchamp set aside a silver cup full of gold coins as an inheritance for Isaac. Over the years, as his fortunes sank, Hubert removed the coins and replaced them with IOUs. He even replaced the cup itself with a cheap coffee pot. Upon reaching 21, Isaac shows little interest in cashing the notes, though he does ask for a small loan. McCaslin, however, sets up a monthly deposit into Isaac’s account.

After refusing his inheritance, Isaac rents a room in Jefferson and goes into business as a carpenter. He marries the daughter of his business partner. Once married, she tries to convince Isaac to reclaim his inheritance, even withholding sex. He refuses.

The story’s closing section relays an incident from a few years prior. After Sam and Old Ben’s deaths, Major de Spain calls off the annual hunting trips. Two year later, hearing that Major de Spain sold the land to a timber company, Isaac visits the Big Bottom once last time. Feigning busyness, Major de Spain declines Isaac’s invitation to join him but arranges for him to meet Ash, his Black cook, as well as Boon. On the way, Isaac reflects that the once “harmless” train, which in an earlier time stopped to rescue a young bear, now represents humanity’s growing impact on the “doomed wilderness” (305).

Arriving at the Big Bottom, Isaac is greeted by Ash, who informs Isaac of his planned mealtime that is not convenient or conventional. Years earlier, when Isaac killed his first buck, Ash grew frustrated and jealous, since he was always stuck on cooking duty; Major de Spain appointed Isaac to take Ash for a short hunt to mollify him. Now, Ash relays a message from Boon, who wants Isaac to join him by an old gum tree where they used to hunt squirrels. Before going to the gum tree, Isaac visits the clearing where Sam and Lion are buried and Old Ben’s paw is stored in a tin box. He leaves a few of Sam’s favorite things in another tin box nailed to a tree near Sam’s grave, reflecting that “death did not even exist” in the forest (311).

Isaac narrowly avoids stepping on a large rattlesnake, which he recognizes as “the old one, the ancient and accursed about the earth” (313). The incident reminds him of a time six years earlier when Sam described a passing stag in “the old tongue” as “Chief” and “Grandfather” (314).

Hearing a mechanical noise, Isaac makes his way to the gum tree, which is swarming with squirrels. At the tree’s base, Boon frantically hammers together pieces of his dissembled gun. Without looking up, Boon shouts, “Get out of here! Dont touch them! Dont touch a one of them! They’re mine!” (315).