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

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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 h...


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...ty once had pride and humility in the wilderness, but abandoned it along with the wilderness. Faulkner illustrates these differences with the story's two contrasting themes. Yet by melding the two parts into one and tying them inseparably together, he effectively communicates the duality of grief felt by the boy. Isaac loses the wilderness he so loved and respected, and in doing so, the heritage he otherwise might have.

Works 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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