William Faulkner Essay, Research Paper
The Initiation into Manhood
The tales of boys’ initiations into manhood are evident in many of the most interesting adventure stories of all time. The transition is intriguing because so much importance is put on this part of a boy’s life or perhaps tales of coming of age are more entertaining. The author William Faulkner is well known for stories about the transition from boyhood to manhood. One particular story tells the tale of a boy’s quest to hunt a mystical bear named Old Ben. William Faulkner’s “The Bear” describes the initiation of Isaac (Ike) McCaslin from boyhood into manhood through his tools, experiences with the bear, and his hunts.
Ike’s coming of age is symbolized throughout the story by his guns. When he first goes on the hunt with his father and the other men, Ike uses a gun that is too big for him that belongs to someone else (Faulkner 375). At this point Ike is still considered a boy and not yet worthy of having his own weapon. The following year, however, he had his own gun, a Christmas present he received that year (377). Ike is shown as growing up and able to have a gun that belongs to him. As he gets older, he finds his own gun is no longer worthy, and wants a man’s gun, so he borrows the rifle of Walter Ewell, a well known and respected hunter among his father’s group (379). Ike’s real coming of age happens when he comes to the realization that it is not the rifle which makes him a man. “He had left the gun; of his own will and relinquishment…all the old rules and balances of the hunter and the hunted had been abrogated” (378). Ike’s steps through the realization of the symbol of the gun enable him to become a man.
The other tools Ike uses during his hunts also signify his induction into manhood. When Ike is young, he uses a compass and a watch to guide him through the wilderness. In his hunts using these tools Ike is unable to find and see the bear he seeks. The gun, compass, and watch represent “ways of rendering experience intelligible” (Guetti 47). Ike cannot find what he searches for because he is using the tools of man when dealing with nature. Not until Ike discards his watch, compass, and gun does he “receive nature’s stamp of manhood” (”Faulkner” 299). Ike first had to realize that he did not have to use the tools before he could become a man.
The experiences Ike encounters with Old Ben, the bear, are important steps in his initiation into manhood. Ike grows up hearing the stories and myths of Old Ben and is consumed by a boyhood longing to become a man by killing the beast. “To the boy, [the bear] was still no living creature, but the wilderness” (Faulkner 375) and “the very essence of nature” (Hoffman 277). Ike believes if he can kill the bear he will conquer the wilderness and become a man. In his youth he is mistaken by this assumption. Ike thinks that if “backyard rabbits and squirrels at home were his kindergarten, then the wilderness the old bear ran was his college, the old male bear itself was his alma mater” (Faulkner 379). With that in mind Ike set out to become a man through the slaying of Old Ben.
In his first experiences hunting the bear, he is unable to find or see it. He “knew that the bear was looking at him. He never saw it. He did not know whether it was in front of him or behind him. He did not move, holding the useless gun” (376). As he gets older he realizes there is something keeping him from his trophy of manhood. Ike must see and meet the bear, but first he had to “divest himself of manmade signs of fear and vanity” (Lyndenberg 87). The signs being the tools he is using. When Ike comes to the conclusion that the gun is keeping him from seeing the bear he sets off into the wilderness unarmed. But to his dismay he still cannot find Old Ben. Ike realizes it is not only his gun, but compass and watch also holding him back (88). Ike discards the watch and compass and finally becomes “pure” (88).
Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear; it was just there, immobile, solid, fixed in the hot dappling of the green and windless noon, not as big as he had
dreamed it, but as big as he had expected. Then it was gone. It didn’t walk into the woods, the undergrowth. It faded, sank back into the wilderness as he had watched a huge old bass, sink and vanish into the dark depths of its pool without even any movement of its fins. (Faulkner 378)
Ike’s first experience with Old Ben puts him on the real path of becoming a man and teaches him “the difference between foolhardiness and courage, between savagery and appreciation of the sanctity of the wild” (”Bear” 676).
Ike’s next experience with the bear came two years later, when Ike was fourteen, and is his real step between boyhood and manhood. Ike sees the bear once again while on a hunt. He is set on killing Old Ben when he embarks, and this time, is armed. Ike corners the bear and “couldn’t have missed him” (Faulkner 380), but decides instead to risk his own life to save his hunting dog that has charged the bear. “He could have shot long before the little dog covered the twenty yards to where the bear waited” (382), but did not. His refusal is his own step between boyhood and manhood. It is the reality of “truth” (Guetti 48). When Ike returns back to his house his father explains, ” Truth doesn’t change. Truth is one thing. It covers all things which touch the heart- honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love’” (Faulkner 381). Ike’s experience with Old Ben enables him to take the needed steps to become a man.
Another aspect of “The Bear” that symbolize Ike’s initiation into manhood is his hunts. They are both a “pursuit and a quest” (Hoffman 275). In his quest, Ike is the hero who seeks “to discover the ultimate truths in an unmediated relationship with [the bear], the spirit of the wilderness” (276), and become man. Ike’s quest consists of three stages that allow him to leave boyhood. The first stage occurs when Ike is twelve years old and shoots his first buck. His face is marked with the blood and thus he is first initiated and begins his journey into manhood (Powers 164). The second stage happens shortly after when Ike is pursuing the bear. He strips himself of “the aids of civilization” (164): Compass, watch, and gun, and faces the wilderness on his own. Ike realizes that only he has the power to decide when he will become a man. The third and final stage of Ike’s initiation takes place when he refuses to kill Old Ben (Hoffman 273). He has finally come to the realization of truth, and finds “losing the concept of manliness and accepting the responsibility and not glory of manhood is the trait which defines manhood” (Kestner 1). After he knows this fact, Ike is truly a man.
William Faulkner uses many different ways to show Ike’s initiation into manhood. His tools, experiences with Old Ben, and his hunts are among the ways. All Faulkner’s examples are an equally important part of this story, and he found a way to make all examples of initiation in “The Bear” intertwined. Without one example, another might have never existed. In this way, Faulkner creates one of the most genius tales of coming of age, and illustrates how one boy must go through many different experiences and realizations before he receives his “stamp of manhood” (”Faulkner” 299).
“The Bear.” Magill’s Survey of American Literature. Ed. Frank N. Magill. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1991.
Faulkner, William. “The Bear.” The United States in Literature. 7th ed. Ed. James E. Miller, Jr., et. al. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985.
“Faulkner, William.” Encyclopedia of Southern Literature. Ed. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1997.
Guetti, James. ” The Sound and the Fury’ and The Bear.’” Modern Critical Views: William Faulkner. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Hoffman, Daniel, ed. Faulkner’s Country Matters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Kestner, Wiley. “Responsibility not Glory: The Transition from Boyhood to Manhood is Steinbeck’s Flight’ and Faulkner’s The Bear.’”
Lyndengerg, John. ” The Bear’ as a Nature Myth.” Readings on William Faulkner. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.
Powers, Lyall H. “The Structure of Go Down, Moses.” Readings on William Faulkner. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998.
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