William Faulkner is one of the great American novelists of the 20th century. His works, mostly written in the state of Mississippi, made him to a very important writer of the so-called Southern literature of the United States. He is named together with the great Southern writers of that time, just like Mark Twain, Flannery O‘Connor, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty or Harper Lee. In his stories Faulkner often includes wilderness as space in which human beings act, react and experience. His wilderness, in most of the stories it occurs, is presented through accurate descriptions of woods, deep, wild and overgrown woods of the Mississippi area. In “The Bear”, the centerpiece of his highly regarded 1942 short story collection “Go Down, Moses”, which is often considered by critics as a complete novel and not just as a short story collection, four of the five chapters the story contains, play in this wilderness as well.
This paper highlights the affinity of Faulkner towards the wilderness exemplarily for his story “The Bear” and regard its function and meaning from different perspectives. It tries to find a category to put the story into and illustrates the fact that there are several functions the wilderness has and represents in the story. Those functions include the two main topics, the educational function and the aim for calling the reader’s attention to the destruction of this once untouched nature area. The following work will focus on this two main functions and tries to present them in an understandable way by giving references to in-text-quotations, historical background, and references to other examples out of Faulkner’s works.
During a first, superficial reading of the story, the reader could get the impression that he is reading a naturalistic work. The reason for this impression could be that if one regards the story from a naturalistic point of view, one can find elements of those particular type of stories in it. Naturalism is a term used for a school of writers who give a very accurate depiction of life and proceed by using a philosophy which contains elements derived from post-Darwinian biology. According to this philosophy, a human being, “exists entirely in the order of nature” (Abrams 304) and is, “a higher-order animal whose character and behavior are determined by two kinds of forces: heredity and environment” (Abrams 304). Furthermore naturalistic works often deal with the fight of men versus nature, their struggle for survival and the therefore connected theory of the survival of the fittest. The main plot of The Bear is a ritual bear hunt of a group of hunters, which takes place every year, each November. The bear they are hunting is not a usual bear. It is a huge black bear, bigger than his relatives. But it is not just bigger than his relatives it also seems to be wiser and cleverer than his relatives because it survived all those years of being hunted. The only damage it took from it is a missing claw on its right paw what makes its paw prints unique and recognizable for the hunters. Faulkner describes it as an “anachronism, indomitable and invincible” (Faulkner 136). This bear hunt can be seen as a naturalistic device. The men try to demonstrate, “the ability of human beings to master the brute forces of nature” (Lydenberg 160). Old Ben, the big bear, who was even given a name, functions as a, “preternatural animal that symbolizes for them (the hunters) their relation to nature and thus to life” (Lydenberg 161). The naturalistic elements are given by the scheme of man versus natural forces and their determination through their environment. But there are a lot of evidences that it would be too easy to just put the story in this type of category and disregard the other functions and meanings it might have.
There is the above mentioned name-giving of the bear and its unusual size. It seems more like this bear is a personification or a symbol for nature or the wilderness itself, which would be very unusual for a naturalistic work. As well naturalistic writers of that time, like for example Stephen Crane or Jack London chose protagonists who are, “helpless victims both of glandular secretions within and of sociological pressures without” (Abrams 304), and experience usually a tragic ending in which he, “disintegrates or is wiped out” (304). Although one might consider the end of the story as tragic, it is not tragic in the naturalistic sense, because it is the bear which is brought down by the hunters and not vice versa. So to answer the question of category and function one needs to go deeper into the topic.
To understand the meaning of the bear as a symbol for wilderness and its death as a symbol connected to the destruction of wilderness one should regard Faulkner’s background and the environmental background of the area the story is playing in.
Faulkner was a passionate hunter by himself. As a child he got to know the areas where his father hunted quite well and developed a deep connection to the woods. One could come to the assumption that Faulkner loved the woods.
The hunters in the story do not hunt with unmoral techniques. They are gentlemen and sportsmen, following moral hunting codes and representing ideals like honor, dignity, and courage. The wilderness is their retreat from society, and the ritual hunt of Old Ben is their way to, “regain the purity they have lost in their workaday world” (Lydenberg 161). But although those hunters are close to nature and see “the game” as their sport in which they have to follow certain rules, they are part of the Southern society which brought guilt upon itself. This guilt on the one hand is a result out the sin of holding men as slaves, on the other hand it is a result out of buying and selling a land and the therefore connected destruction of this land. Those themes of slavery, miscegenation and the doom of the American South are the main themes in many of Faulkner’s stories. The bibliographical and historical approach helps the reader to get an insight in this doom of the South.
Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpah County is pretty similar to Lafayette County, Mississippi and its county seat of Jefferson is pretty similar to the county seat of Oxford, Lafayette, Mississippi. It is located in Northwestern Mississippi and its borders are two rivers, the Tallahatchie River in the north and the Yoknapatawpha River in the south. This state of being bordered by two rivers is exactly how the real Mississippi Delta is shaped and gives the reader a direct reference to it. Although there are this obvious similarities between the real and the fictional country, one has to caution while trying to do an interpretation based on this fact. Noel Polk stated that, “one of the most egregious errors of Faulkner criticism is the glib and unquestioning acceptance of the idea that there exists a one-for-one relationship between Yoknapatawpha County and Lafayette County, Mississippi.” (Polk 324). So for the following analysis we have to keep in mind that all those similarities just work as symbols presenting the themes and grievances Faulkner wants to lead our attention to. It is not a one-by-one copy of a real Southern county it is more a fictional setting which symbolizes the South as a whole, a fictional setting from which conclusions for reality can be derived.
Faulkner was born and raised in the area of the Mississippi Delta and he lived and wrote most of his life there. During his lifetime lumber companies cut down most of the woods in the area for capitalistic interests. The Mississippi Delta was one of the last great sources of hardwood left in Northern America. Among the usual hardwood used for building houses, firewood, and so on, there where special types of expensive wood like black walnut or gum trees. Especially the red gum was of high interest. This could be a reason for the choice of a gum tree in the last scene of the story in which Boon Hogganbeck, the hunter who finally killed the bear, is sitting in front of this particular kind of tree, surrounded by squirrels. He is trying to fix his gun, and obviously went mad because he is screaming at Isaac that he should stay away and those squirrels would be his. This state of madness probably derived from the fact that he finally realized his taking part in the process of destruction. Further, he even completed it. He finally killed the bear, which seems to function as the last guardian of the wilderness.
The connection to the wood is clearly given by the metaphor of the bear’s death. “It fell all of a piece, as a tree falls” (Faulkner 66). This quote might be taken as a symbol for the deep connection between the woods and the big old bear. It is a direct proof for symbolity of the bear's death as determining factor of the destruction of the wilderness.
It is not just the wood that was of high interest, there was another way of making money by taking the advantage of the area. This way was the usage of the soils for growing cotton on it. In the Big Woods in which Faulkner’s most important stories about wilderness and the forest were republished in 1955, the opening sentence describes the soils with the following words, “The rich deep black alluvial soil which would grow cotton taller than the head of a man on a horse” (Faulkner 3). These Mississippi soils were just perfect for cotton industry. The removal of the original vegetation and an adequate drainage transformed, “these alluvial sediments with their ample available nutrients into highly productive agricultural lands” (Saikku 532). So the once completely wild land was turned in the nineteenth and early twentieth century into a “thriving New South cotton kingdom” (Saikku 533). Faulkner, deeply concerned with the environment of his lifetime area, observed this development and implemented his observations into his literature.
In a statement from Faulkner in the University a summarized and edited speech Faulkner gave at the University of Tennessee in 1957, he gave his perspective or point of view by referring to writers in general and summarizes the previous argumentation in his own words. “What the writer’s asking is compassion, understanding, that change must alter, must happen, and change is going to alter what was.