In William Faulkner’s, ‘The Bear’, a young boy begins his passage into adulthood by learning the qualities of courage, honor, pride and “what the heart holds to become truth.” Long before the boy begins his journey, he learns of the legendary bear through the stories from his father’s twice yearly hunting trips into the wilderness. It would seem that all of his young life, the boy was preparing for his journey to the wilderness and his encounter with the bear. Faulkner describes how “It ran in is knowledge” and “loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods where it left its crooked print.” The right of passage for the boy could not be explained through a fireside chat, but through the boy’s own experience in learning about his fears and ‘The Bear.’ For the character of the bear is not merely just a beast in the woods, but a personification of mans own fears in confronting the unknown and learning to coexist and gain respect for the wilderness that we are all from.
Long before the boy began his journey, his father, Major de Spain, General Compson, Sam Fathers and Tennie’s Jim all learned the lesson of the bear. These individuals, representing diverse backgrounds as the white plantation owner, the civil war veterans, the black and the Indian, all come together for the purpose of the hunt. Although they are not able to live together without racism in the towns where they live, their unity is apparent in the wilderness, were they are just men; living, hunting, breathing and drinking together as one people. For the bear had shown to them, as did their father’s father, the true meaning of what harmony means in the wilderness. Although the boy thinks he has fooled his father and friends into thinking he was hunting for squirrels, he is surprised when Sam Fathers tells the boy, “You ain’t looked right yet.” Evidently, Sam Fathers knows exactly what the boy is searching for. The boy thinks he is searching to hunt a bear, but he recognizes his own fear when he can not come close to, or even see the elusive bear. He decides that he “must see him” and he “must look at him.”
Sam Fathers reveals to the boy that in the wilderness, nothing will hurt you unless you corner it or fear it. He tells the boy that the bear, or wilderness, can smell when you are afraid. The problem is the gun, as Sam Father’s states. The gun represents mans own fears of the wilderness. If the boy wants a face to face encounter with the bear, he must drop his fears and not hide behind his gun. At this point in Faulkner’s story, it is clear that the character of the bear takes on proportions of more than just an animal. The bear, representing the wilderness itself, must not be feared by the boy if he is to be truly enlightened and learn the harmony and respect that the wilderness is made of. The bear is part of that wilderness and if the boy can not confront his fear of the bear, then he will forever view the wilderness as something that is to be feared, forgotten and left to the axeman to dismantle.
The encounter with the bear occurs only when the boy leaves behind the instruments of fear that man believes is needed to survive in the wilderness. The gun and “three lifeless mechanicals” are left behind. (a watch, compass, and stick) Believing that these instruments of man had made him the woodsman that he had strive to be, the boy forges on to meet his own fear in the presence of the bear. Alone in the wilderness, nine hours from camp, he uses the skills in his head and heart to try and find the bear. He returns to the spot where he had left behind the watch, compass and stick only to find a down log where he sits. The boy then sees the tremendous and legendary bear that he had been trying to confront all of his young years. Stripped of the fears of man, the boy discovers for himself that the bear does not fear him, but respects his presence. There is no unprovoked attack on the boy; rather, the bear quietly looks back at the boy. He does not make any sounds or hasty retreats. The bear shows to the boy that he will regard him with respect in the wilderness, so long as the boy respects the bear and does not bring the “lifeless mechanicals” into the bear’s domain. Without the fears of man inside of his heart and mind, the boy learns from the bear what no one could of taught him, that there is no fear in the wilderness, only in the hearts of man.
Faulkner uses the tale of ‘The Bear’ to bring into focus that there is “nothing to fear but fear itself.” It would seem that Faulkner’s tale is to invoke understanding as to what the bear or the wilderness really represents. Not a place to be feared and destroyed, but a place to be respected, to gain enlightenment from and to learn the attributes that each and every individual should learn; courage, honor, pity, justice, liberty and humility. As the boy learned, the lesson of the bear taught these men not to fear the wilderness and in doing so, not to fear each other, regardless of the color of their skin, the roots of their ancestors or the words that they spoke. The lesson of “The Bear” is about overcoming your own fears and in learning to coexist with the nature, people and animals that some men, have learned to fear.