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Explaining The South


William Faulkner – Three Famous Short Novels – The Bear


image via freebooknotes.com

The most complex of these three short novels, The Bear, is an exploration of family ties and that family’s ties to the land they live on, built initially about a hunt for a bear, Old Ben, who despite his many wounds, has never been brought down by hunters. The hunt climaxes with Isaac, the young boy Faulkner surely had in mind at one point as the story’s central figure, joining with Boon Hogganbeck and Sam Fathers and a dog called Lion. It reveals little to tell you that Sam, Lion, and Old Ben die, only Isaac and Boon surviving.

Then Faulkner wanders into a grander story – Isaac’s inheritance of a plantation, which he refuses, ceding it to his cousin McCaslin. Perhaps the most important portion of this long novella is an extended conversation between Isaac and McCaslin about Isaac’s view of land ownership. In the course of this conversation, Faulkner slyly paints an everyman picture of the South, from the time of its early settlements through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the early twentieth century. 

Isaac has decided to eschew land ownership, sensing it's the cause of the South’s demise as a bucolic Eden. Later in the story (and here Faulkner must have realized he had to bring something full circle), Isaac returns to the site of Old Ben’s death, the land now to be logged. Here, Faulkner paints a complex picture: Boon smashing his gun near the Gum Tree, as squirrels scurry frantically about on the tree’s branches. As he’s doing this, he screams at Isaac, “Get out of here! Don’t touch them! Don’t touch a one of them! They’re mine!”

Passages such as this final scene and the Isaac-McCaslin conversation are all the evidence we need of Faulkner’s genius as a storyteller. Still, he’s not without fault. While he has become perhaps the first impressionistic writer of fiction, and he has bequeathed an innovative writing style to several generations of Southern writers, he seems to be writing more for himself than for the reader. Reading these stories reminds me of Miles Davis turning his back to his audiences and playing, if not to his band, then solely to himself. Faulkner’s stories wander (many, I know, see the challenge in following such stories as part of Faulkner’s genius), his inferences are oblique, often to a fault, his characters strangely superficial, serving only as voices for his social and philosophical perceptions. Faulkner isn’t easy, and yet there’s plenty here to make you soldier on through his baroque prose.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars




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Secular Original Sin

Sincere appreciation for clarifying my vague recollections of "The Bear" from ancient graduate studies and so succinctly identifying the deeper meanings embedded in Faulkner's challenging prose. 

Another  recent posting by Dale Estey  [Does Acceptance Indicate Endorsement?] raised the moral question of guilt  and  varieties of secular "original sin" from  social/cultural interconnections both contemporary and historical.  Faulkner is certainly our "bible" for that phenomenon, right?

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Faulkner as Bible

I did read Estey's post after you mentioned it. You have to be careful with that sort of moral posturing; i.e., Are hedge funds inherently bad/evil/socially depleting? Are you really sure that accepting such money is corrupting, i.e., are you really advocating the value of such investments by accepting such prizes? And on and on. Too strict an adherence to a moral pose can be as debilitating socially and personally as being an apostate, amoral in all things. This, in the view of Eco in "The Name Of The Rose," has been the corrupting central influence in religion, and I think it's true in secular issues as well.

I certainly wouldn't claim to be an apologist for Hitler, simply because the German states had been caught twix and tween the Slavic and Gallic cultures for centuries, and because the Treaty of Versailles almost decimated German culture following WWI. At the same time, I wouldn't be an apologist for slavery simply because (in my view) many of the settlers in the South were obsessed with the Bible's Old Testament, its tribal culture, its view of enslaving other cultures because "God favors us."

I think were Faulkner to be around to reply to your post he would encourage a broader view of the South's moral dilemma as it regards slavery, dominion over the land, etc., and yet a view built on the interaction between individuals. That is, given that you're born into a society in which slavery is the norm, and you're powerless to abiolish it, perhaps somewhat powerless to effectively oppose it, are you treating the underclass people you have contact with as human beings - or as slaves? He speaks in The Bear of the way the divide between former slaves and landed and unlanded whites held stubbornly on, despite abolition and (beyond Faulkner's life) the Civil Rights laws. Given that, he might ask, what's the moral pose to strike? 

He makes this case (and its dilemma) even more strongly in the second of the novellas in this collection, "Old Man," in which fate accidentally sets a convict free from the awful conditions of Southern prison life. When he finally turns himself in, he's rewarded with a decade added to his sentence. My view of Faulkner's perception regarding such secular moral dilemmas is in the way the individual responds to them. If you move too far away from the person-to-person reality of life and its complexities, you move all too quickly into abstraction, in which arbitrariness is imposed, regardless of the situation. 

But, yes, Faulkner's way of laying these things out for us in ways that aren't so easy to deem as good or bad should be something of a Bible for us, but a secular Bible. That's the real value of literature.