The Mississippi writer William Faulkner was a symbolist of the first order. What he was writing about was not always what he was writing about. For example, in the famous story, “The Bear,” he winks magically about things both being and not being what they seem. The old grizzly himself, Ben, is more than just a bear. Most commentators think of him as an embodiment of the wilderness itself, representing all that is wild and free. I suspect Old Ben was intended to embody more than that, though.
One scene in the story has 10-year old Ike, who wants more than anything to lay eyes on the old denizen of the woods, has been place on a stand by Sam Fathers where he may possibly get a glimpse of the bear. Sam is half Chickasaw and half African, a master woodsman who has become a mentor for the kid. Sam leaves Ike alone on the stand for a long time. While there, the boy suddenly feels that he is being watched. It is a hair-raising experience. He knows deeply within himself that the old bear is observing him.
When Sam arrives late in the day he says, “You didn’t see him, did you?” Ike replies that he did not but that he was aware of his presence. To this, Sam simply says, “He done the looking.” Astonished, Ike asks, “You mean he knows me?”
That is a poignant moment on both the literal and symbolic level. Literally, many of us have had the eerie experience of feeling watched when there was no one around. But on the symbolic level, it may depict Ike’s discovery that God (some would call it the spirit of the wilderness) is aware of him. That is a profound, life-changing discovery for all of us, that we are known by deity, and it certainly matures the kid. I would call it a salvation experience, for shortly after that moment, Ike, with gun in hand, does see Old Ben up close and personal. Yet he cannot shoot.
Sam Fathers has no words to explain to the boy why he could not pull the trigger, but Ike’s older relative tries to by reading him Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” explaining that he could not bring himself to destroy the thing that had put him in touch with himself so earnestly and intensely. When the older relative asks him if he understands that the bear represented love and honor and compassion and sacrifice, as well as the will and hardihood to survive, Ike says yes. He understands.
I think Faulkner wanted his reader to understand that, too. Although I do not think a Christian worldview informed the story in any specific way, I do believe that the compounding history of Christian thought in Western literature led the word-drunk Mississippian to symbolize God by way of an old three-toed bear. Thus, I see “The Bear” not just as an initiation story, but truly a story of conversion.