The Themes of Wilderness and the White Man in William Faulkner's The Bear The Themes of Wilderness and the White Man in William Faulkner's The Bear
William Faulkner's The Bear is bilateral in subject and plot. The first half of the story looks at the wilderness and the virtues man can learn from it. The second half applies these virtues to civilization, exposing the white man's corruption and misuse of the land. A careful look at the interaction of these two halves reveals a single unifying theme: man must learn virtue from nature. Faulkner believed humility, pride, courage, and liberty would be almost impossible for man to learn without the wilderness to teach him.
The first half of the story tells a bittersweet tale of a boy who wished to learn humility and pride in order to become skillful and worthy in the woods but found himself becoming so skillful so fast that he feared he would never become worthy because he had not learned humility and pride though he had tried, until one day an old man who could not have defined either led him as though by the hand to where an old bear and a little mongrel dog showed him that, by possessing one thing other, he would possess them both. (283)
The "old man" is Sam Fathers, "son of a Negro slave and an Indian king." While he "could not have defined either" pride or humility, he nevertheless understood them through his Indian and Negro heritage. The boy is Isaac, or Ike, McCaslin, the protagonist who learns virtue from the wilderness and repudiates his grandfather's corrupt inheritance. The above passage describes the high point of the first half of the story in which Ike saves his little dog from the crush of the towering bear. Ike is so close to the bear he can see "that there [is] a big wood tick just inside his off hind leg." This act gives him courage, the "one thing other" he needs to "possess them both." Faulkner uses the theme of wilderness and the virtues man can learn from it to point at southern civilization, its treatment of Negroes, and its part in the Civil War.
Chapter four is centered on a long conversation between Ike (now 21) and his cousin, McCaslin. Ike explains his intention to repudiate his inheritance originating from his grandfather, Carothers McCaslin. Cleanth Brooks writes,
The course of his argument takes him into family history, the history of America, the history of the South and the meaning of its participation in the Civil War, the relation of the Negro to the white and of man to nature.
During this conversation, Faulkner inserts several flash-backs, including Ike's memory of reading the McCaslin family ledgers which reveal his grandfather's carnal sins against his slaves, and the boy's lessons hunting in the woods which taught him the virtues his grandfather lacked.
Chapter four ends with Ike caving in to his wife, who wants to move into the house and land of his inheritance. Chronologically coming after the fifth chapter, Ike is removed from the wilderness. Chapter five tells of the hunting ground's final decline. Without the support of the wilderness, Ike is unable at the end of chapter four to maintain the virtue needed to repudiate his inheritance in the world of man. Faulkner communicates in Ike's single "Yes" to his wife that in destroying the wilderness, man loses the virtues he was once able to learn from the land.
The opposing forces of wilderness and the white man are represented in each half of the story by the martyrs of the two themes: Old Ben and Carothers McCaslin. Each causes, in the scope of the story, everything that happens in their realm. Faulkner uses these two martyrs to further establish the virtues to be learned from the wilderness, and lacking in the white man's civilization. Old Ben, "taintless and incorruptible," contrasts with old Carothers who raped his slaves, committed incest with and impregnated his illegitimate slave child, and began the cycle of destruction of the land which was not...
Cited: Brooks, Cleanth. William Faulkner: Toward Yoknapatawpha and Beyond. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.
Evans, David H. "Taking the Place of Nature: 'The Bear ' and the Incarnation of America." Faulkner and the Natural World: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, 1996. Ed. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999.
Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” Uncollected Stories of William Faulkner. Vintage: 1997.
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