William Faulkner’s The Bear

“The Bear” is not so much a long short story as it is a short novel…but in our meeting, we should be able to do justice to the depth and complexity of this work. “The Bear” is ostensibly a coming of age story, but the narration also probes the cracked surfaces of human relationships—between mentor and child-man, between slave and master, between hunter and prey…Equally potent are the relationships between man and the pulsing world: between the beast and man and the wilderness around and within him. Go Down Moses is the collection of stories that contain The Bear; the collection described as the most spiritual of Faulkner’s work.

While most of the five sections of this 100-page story center on the hunt and Isaac’s growth, it is the difficult fourth section that has attracted the most critical attention, ‘possibly of any work in 20th century fiction’. As Malcolm Cowley describes it,

“(The fourth section) is harder to read…in it Faulkner carries to an extreme his effort towards putting the whole world into one sentence, between one capital letter and one period. There is a sentence that occupies six pages…with a two page parenthesis…it is probably the longest sentence in American fiction, longer than any in English or Irish except for Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. In all this section of “The Bear” the reader may have difficulty in fitting the subjects to the predicates and in disentangling the subordinate clauses; and yet, if he perseveres, he will discover one of Faulkner’s most impressive theme: the belief in Isaac McCaslin’s heart that the land itself had been cursed by slavery, and that the only way for him to escape the curse was to relinquish the land.”
—Editor’s note, pg. 226 The Portable Faulkner(Viking Press, NY 1965)

Charles McNair, aka The Booky Man, writes of “The Bear” with not a little Faulkner dripping into his review. The whole essay is well worth reading and can be found at pasteMagazine on-line.

“He’s a most unusual literary giant. Has there ever been a more willfully difficult writer, a novelist who put more challenging pages before his public? I still recall part of a sentence I memorized from Absalom, Absalom back in college—a line I remember for its ridiculous comic complexity. Faulkner wrote of “… a Presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation.”
“But you learn to read Faulkner the way you read Shakespeare—you give way to it, sink into it. You immerse yourself. You let the challenging strangeness, the barbed-wire coils of complex language and structure mesmerize, then suffuse. In Faulkner, you go THERE … his work does not, will not, come to you.
Then, once you’re deeply settled into the unspooling sentences and the rushing streams of consciousness, once you’ve caught the rhythms, things start to make sense. Insights and revelations arrive. It takes more energy to read Faulkner than any other writer I know, save maybe James Joyce. But the divine rewards of giving up your soul to Faulkner are tremendous. His works, like Shakespeare, build a new architecture of ideas in the mind. Much other serious thought can then be supported on this framework. Especially if you’re from the South.
“Among Faulkner’s greatest achievements is the subject of today’s Booky Man review, a novella included in the 1942 collection, Go Down, Moses. That novella, “The Bear,” attempts in a single work to explain the whole sorry mess the South was making for itself from the time of settlement to Faulkner’s day. Though the 100-page or so work is mostly a coming-of-age story carried by a plot centered on the hunt for a great bear named Old Ben, Faulkner here comes to grips with issues of freedom and slavery, innocence and sin, the wild world and commercial exploitation.”


The Salon Short Story Intensive offers a wonderfully dynamic three-hour study in one meeting. With less reading than the whole novel intensives, these studies are composed of a discussion that thoroughly considers the short story, its narrative techniques, contexts, style and themes. The study is a rich weave of participant questions and responses, readings of significant passages and consideration of the themes and genres that the book illuminates.

Recommended Edition Go Down Moses Vintage Edition OR Bear, Man and God that contains the whole text and some wonderful critical work around Faulkner, the South and the text. Also available in Three Famous Short Novels by William Faulkner

If you would like to request this study or have any questions about it, please contact us.



Posted on

February 26, 2019