March 16, 2023

#08-293: The Bear

A bear (but not the bear) (Wikimedia)

Note: Faulkner's short story "The Bear" has a complicated publication history, but the first--and shortest--version is my favorite.

Get Ready: What would you do if you were in the woods and faced a bear?

When someone asks me if I have read William Faulkner's short story, "The Bear," I sometimes ask, "Which one?" (though in fact I have read all three).

The story has a convoluted publishing history. The first version (and my favorite) appeared in the popular American magazine The Saturday Evening Post in 1942. This one is by far the shortest, with only about 6,400 words.

The second version, published the same year, is embedded in a collection of seven stories entitled Go Down, Moses. Though it was originally subtitled and Other Stories, Faulkner insisted it was in fact a novel, and later the subtitle was dropped. Most of these stories had been published separately before; this version of "The Bear" had a whopping 44,000 words.

A slimmed-down edition of the Go Down, Moses version was included in a 1955 book, Big Woods, subtitled The Hunting Stories. The book contains four stories, including one, "The Old People," from Go Down.

Now, how is the first, magazine, version different from the others?

First, it is a stand-alone story. In the later, longer versions the protagonist is Isaac McCaslin, who is tangled up in a family saga in the woods of Mississippi. In the magazine version he is not even named.

Second, the conversation at the end of the story takes place between "the boy" and his father; in the others the speaker is an older cousin--the father is completely absent.

Third, and most significant for me, is that in the longer versions the titular bear dies (at the hands of another man, not the boy); in the magazine version the encounter is much more nuanced.

When the boy finally encounters "Old Ben," a nearly-mythical bear that has been terrorizing this neck of the woods for years, a small dog--less than six pounds (three kilos)--charges at it. The boy throws himself at the dog to stop it, placing himself within reach of the bear. But, although the boy doesn't see it go, the bear simply turns and leaves.

Later, the boy's father questions why he didn't shoot, even though he had a gun before dropping it to go after the little dog. When he doesn't answer, his father pulls out a book and reads to him "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which ends with the words, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty--that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

"Truth doesn't change," his father says. "Truth is one thing. It covers all things which touch the heart--honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love."

But the boy thinks it's simpler than that: "He had heard about a bear... and at last met it with a gun in his hands and he didn't shoot." That was his truth.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. convoluted
  2. embedded
  3. nuanced
  4. protagonist
  5. saga
  6. slimmed-down
  7. stand-alone
  8. subtitled
  9. tangled
  10. titular

  1. not connected to any other work
  2. twisted; complicated
  3. delicately told
  4. a story involving several generations
  5. the main character
  6. shortened; reduced
  7. in the title
  8. snarled; mixed up
  9. placed in context
  10. with an addition to the title

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 16, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. i; 3. c; 4. e; 5. d; 6. f; 7. a; 8. j; 9. h; 10. g