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Book review: “The Bear” by William Faulkner

“The Bear,” which was included in William Faulkner’s collection of seven fiction pieces in “Go Down, Moses” in 1942, has been called a short story. It’s also been labeled a novella. At 40,000 words or so, it is considered by many to be a novel. (Indeed, I read the piece in a collection titled, “Nine Short Novels.”)

To further complicate matters, “Go Down, Moses” has been thought of as a grouping of related short stories, but Faulkner contended that these stories, taken together, formed a novel.

I haven’t read the other six pieces in “Go Down, Moses,” but, about “The Bear,” I can say it’s something very much like an epic poem.

The Iliad is about a war. The Odyssey is about a journey. “The Bear” is about something internal, an inner rot, a peculiarly American sin, the Original American Sin, if you will — slavery.

This is the corruption that slavery wreaks upon the whites who see themselves as masters, and upon their children and children’s children — often, as in this story, brothers and sisters, cousins and kin of different colors.

And not just slavery, but that particular American skill of turning land into real estate, the soil into a commodity. Using Nature, employing Nature. The way that Africans and African-Americans were used and employed without regard to the requirements of, well, kinship. Of humanity, if not blood.

In the novel’s second paragraph, Faulkner writes of 16-year-old Isaac McCaslin listening, in 1883, to hunters talk “of the wilderness, the big woods, bigger and older than any recorded document; — of white man fatuous enough to believe he had bought any fragment of it, of Indian ruthless enough to pretend that any fragment of it had been his to convey…”

The novel rotates around the battle of a huge ancient bear, Old Ben, and a huge untamed dog, Lion. It rotates around Isaac’s growing awareness of the sins of his forebears and its taint on him. It rotates around the kinship of the hunt, and the kinship of the plantation, and the kinship of the town. It rotates around the question of freedom.

It has five sections, and they rotate around the fourth which takes up just about half of the novel and is made up of essentially a single continuous breathless sentence.

“The Bear” is a work to leave you breathless.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Dan
    Posted December 8, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    I started the story on a plane and will probably never finish it. It didn’t exactly put me to sleep, but was like running in mud. To say that slavery is the American sin is quite ridiculous. What about the long foreign history of slavery and all the other sins of man and Americans?

    • charlie
      Posted January 19, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      “Quite ridiculous” is too flip. Slavery is written into the Constitution of the United States (Article I, section 2). It’s a sin that was acknowledged to be sinful at its inception. To found a nation on liberty excepting those not white and male and property-owning, yes, that;s the American sin. Not ridiculous, simply sinful. It is the very definition of sin.

      Sorry you had to run in mud. Faulkner can be like that, until you slide into his southern idiom, which is lethargic but gracious.

      • Bob
        Posted March 27, 2019 at 1:31 am

        Charlie, hate to tell you, but Article 1, Section 2 has nothing to do with slavery. It has to do with the requirements to be elected to the House of Representatives as well as how representatives are to be apportioned based on the citizenry. You are likely mistaking the three-fifths element as an indicator of slavery – a common misconception. The three-fifths provision was actually a mechanism to limit the influence of the Southern states. The founders knew that slavery needed to end even though some were still slaveholders. Without such an abhorrent definition, the South, ironically, would have had greater influence than the North, which was generally anti-slavery.

        • Susan
          Posted July 6, 2019 at 11:41 am

          Bob, the three-fifths provision does indeed refer to slavery, i.e., slaves were to count in the census as only three-fifths of a person. The census determines how many representatives each state can have. If it was meant to limit southern influence, it backfired. Historian Jill Lepore writes, “In 1790, the first Census of the United States counted 140,000 free citizens in New Hampshire, which meant that the Granite State got four seats in the House of Representatives. But South Carolina, with 140,000 free citizens and 100,000 slaves, got six seats. The population of Massachusetts was greater than the [free] population of Virginia, but Virginia had 300,000 laves and so got five more seats. If not for the three-fifths rule, the representatives of free states would have outnumbered representatives of slave states by 57 to 33.” THESE TRUTHS, p. 125.

  • Kid NM
    Posted August 20, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    The only Faulkner Ive ever been able to read is his creepy short story “A Rose For Emily.” I love this story and read it often. Ive tried. As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and others have all put me to sleep. Maybe its just me and I hope it is.

  • Louis Dionne
    Posted August 23, 2020 at 9:14 pm

    It is just you.

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