Heritage of the multicultural American society

rite of passage in “The Bear” by William Faulkner

Faulkner’s short novel, The Bear, gathers imaginary characters and places that stand for the symbols of the heritage the multicultural American society left to a generation in search for its own identity and place into the world. Reality and fiction, fantasy, legend, mysticism and history blend together the human, the animal and the supernatural world in one theme: the passage and its rites.

The story follows a boy through his passage into the adult world and a world through its passage into the challenges of a twentieth century. Unprecedented technical advancements, two world wars and civil rights movements were ready to change the face of the world for ever.

In spite of civilization and the development of the human society, there is still a powerful source in humanity that can be traced back to the primitive ages. Faulkner senses the common denominator between the first people on earth and the modern human beings from his time. Ike, the protagonist of the short novel, witnesses the events leading to the final take down of the bear, Old Ben, as a process of initiation in one of the oldest habits in the world: hunting. He is both a witness and an active participant.

Ike’s first participation in a passage ritual happens at the age of ten. His second initiation rite is at the age of sixteen, the actual starting point in the short novel. Faulkner describes the gathering of hunters and animals as one that includes both ordinary and extraordinary human beings: “Two beasts, counting Old Ben, the bear, and two men, counting Boon Hogganbeck, in whom some of the same blood ran which ran in Sam Fathers, even though Boon’s was a plebeian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible” (The Bear, 185).The representatives of perfection as opposed to the human imperfection, are an old childless black man, an untamed dog and a bear that wonders the woods and seems to defy death and all those tools and weapons that enable the human race to believe it can reign over everything on the face of the earth. Faulkner places innocence where one would least expect it: wild beasts and a childless old black man.

The potions and liquors often present in the rituals used in the rites of passage by the ancient cultures and are represented in the book by another unexpected substance: whiskey, along with a more traditional one: the blood. The mundane whiskey stands and the recipient it holds it stand for the distillation of everything that enabled hunters over all ages to catch their game and to help the human race survive. Faulkner describes the bottle as something almost sacred and the habit of drinking the whiskey as something close to ritualism: There was always a bottle present, so that it would seem to him that those fine fierce instants of heart and brain and courage and wiliness and speed were concentrated and distilled into that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank, drinking not of the blood they spilled but some condensation of the wild immortal spirit, drinking it moderately, humbly even, not with the pagan’s base and baseless hope of acquiring thereby the virtues of cunning and strength and speed but in salute to them. Thus it seemed to him on this December morning not only natural but actually fitting that this should have begun with whisky (The Bear, 187). The potion of the Gods that enable the human spirit to loose fear for the few crucial moment in his confrontation with the wild beast has a double meaning: when taken with the conscience of performing a ritual it spends its magic energies into the human blood, when taken with disregard to its potential and wasted, it can torture and destroy.

The young boy who passing the from the stage of childhood into that of a young man and finally reaches manhood, recollects his first passage ritual participation at the age of ten. Faulkner’s often surprising use of words lets the reader know the boy’s age using the expression: “when he first wrote his age in two ciphers” as if he attended to place the events he was going to present in a far distanced age when people used to perform a ritual passage in the case of the boys who started writing their ages n two ciphers.

The boy’s passage into the world of adults is could be interpreted by his loosing his innocence, but the author prevents the reader from the very beginning that those who are without guilt are surprisingly not the children, but an old man and two beasts. Therefore, the boy’s passage into the age when one becomes aware of his place in the world is starting the moment when he becomes conscious of the importance of wilderness in the existence of humans and animals alike: “It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness” (the Bear. 187). This is the first instant when Faulkner lets the reader know that he will use the symbolism of the rites of passage as a significant part of the existence of the human race. According to Joseph Campbell, humans have proved to use such rites in order to process and facilitate the stress that accompanies a passage into a different stage of existence. Campbell emphasizes that there are two aspects of such rituals: one is related to the conscious and the other to the subconscious. Rituals and everything they involve, have served to help those performing them to detach themselves from their formal stage and pass into the other. All the ceremonials that accompanied primitive societies to burials, birth, marriage, baptism etc., have been inherited in a stylized form as we know it today. The rituals that seem empty of meaning to the mind of the twentieth century civilized human being can be traced back millennia ago, when they represented the solution mankind had found to the processing of passing related psychological troubles.

Faulker’ short novel persuades the reader that in order to understand and find one’s place, once one passed into the age of adulthood, one has to know and understand not only history but also nature. The state of nature that involves the presence and importance of wilderness is highly important to the existence of the human race and it is also interdependent. The animal, human and supernatural world melt into one another in order to form a single superior one. Once the boy understood the meanings of all three worlds, he was able to act like a part of them.

Daniel Hoffman emphasizes the significance of the “bear” and its hunting as a representative of the oldest human activity related to hunting. The two world, the human and the animal, are in constant interaction, the humans being brought to a superior state of their being by the blood they spilled. That is a beast that stood for a divine creature and gave its blood in order for those who hunted it to aspire to a stage of deliverers (William Faulkner, The Bear, landmarks of American Writing, 387).

Any ceremony requires a mentor and in the case of the young boy, his mentor in the hunting activity is not his father, but someone who is named “Sam Fathers.” Hie represents the ancestor of all human beings and their link to the wilderness. The native American is close enough to Sam father’s state of perfection, but he is still closer to the human nature, than to the perfection of the wild world: “Sam was the chief, the prince; Boon, the plebeian, was his huntsman. Boon should have nursed the dogs” (The Bear, 215). Irving Howe points comments of Sam’s role as a mentor as well as his place as the priest in the ceremony: “the boy’s mentor, in the hunt and the acknowledged priest of the ceremony that could be held only in the forest” (William Faulkner: A Critical Study, 93).

The symbolism of the characters and the events in Faulkner’s short novel is closely related to every kind of ritual passage, starting with the coming of age ad finishing with the death and burial. Faulkner seems to be looking for a path to redemption of all the faults the southern American people have inherited from their ancestors, including that of coming to terms with the a past of humiliating their fellow humans and treating them worse than animals, among others.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a thousand Faces. Princeton University Press. 1973

Hoffman, Daniel. William Faulkner, The Bear, landmarks of American Writing. Voice of America Forum Lecturers. U.S. Information Service. 1970

Howe, Irving. William Faulkner: A Critical Study. Random House Inc. 1952

Faulkner, William. The Famous Short Novels. Vintage Books. 1958

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