“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