William Faulkner, "A Justice"; "Lion"; "The Bear"
December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
Readers familiar with Faulkner’s oeuvre are well-aware of his propensity to recycle characters and even stories to broaden the scope and to deepen the intensity of the thematic issues he wants to explore. This certainly is the case with the three short fictions (or two, if one looks at “Lion” (1935) as being but a published draft of the later “The Bear”(1942 in its most familiar form) discussed here in this essay. While each could be treated separately, perhaps it is best to consider the three together, linked as they are by the character of Sam Fathers, who perhaps is one of Faulkner’s more enigmatic and memorable characters.
Sam Fathers first appears in “A Justice” as a nearly century old half-Choctaw/half-black carpenter. He is a mystery to a younger Quentin Compson (himself a repeat character from The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), as can be seen in how Compson describes him:
There was a long, low house in the grove, not painted but kept whole and sound by a clever carpenter from the quarters named Sam Fathers, and behind it the barns and smokehouses, and further still, the quarters themselves, also kept whole and sound by Sam Fathers. He did nothing else, and they said he was almost a hundred years old. He lived with the Negroes and they – the white people; the Negroes called him a blue-gum – called him a Negro. But he wasn’t a Negro. That’s what I’m going to tell about.
Fathers stops to talk to young Quentin one day, and this completes the framework for the narrative outside of the story’s main story, that of how Sam Fathers came to be born and how his Choctaw name came to be Had-Two-Fathers. This birth narrative, set in the early decades of the 19th century, as Mississippi began to be settled by white plantation owners and their enslaved African servants, touches upon the foundation stories of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, first discussed in “Red Leaves” (1930). We learn more about the Choctaw and their relationship to the enslaved blacks through the illicit relationship of the Choctaw Craw(fish)-ford with a female slave. Faulkner weaves together a double narrative, that of the youthful Quentin and the aged Sam Fathers, to create a looping narrative in which the immoral actions of Craw-ford reflect a greater injustice that has befallen the blacks over the course of nearly a century, from the 1820s of the main action of the tale to the literary present of the late 1890s when Quentin is a boy of eight. Faulkner contrasts the decision made by the chief Doom, with Craw-ford’s required recompense for fathering a child (Sam) on a married woman, with several of the inhumanities that were visited on African-Americans before, during, and after the Civil War. “A Justice” can be seen as a thematic complement to not just “Red Leaves,” but also to Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! in how matters of racial and familial justice are meted out.
As noted above, Faulkner often would revisit characters at different stages in their lives in order to illustrate the interconnectedness of the peoples and cultures of his native Mississippi and how those relations in turn could stand for a greater human struggle against cold indifference. One method of exploring this issue of humanity’s struggle against itself and nature is through the metaphor of the hunt. Faulkner, like several other writers before him, was drawn to the power that can be found in the complex chess between the hunter and the hunted. “Lion” is the briefest form of this hunt metaphor, extracted to its most mythical form. Lion is Major de Spain’s hunting dog, yet he is more than that to those who are part of de Spain and Ike McCaslin’s party hunting the legendary black bear, Old Ben:
They were funny about Lion. Neither one of them owned him or had any hope of ever owning him and I don’t believe it ever occurred to either of them to think, I wish I owned that dog. Because you didn’t think of Lion as belonging to anyone, any more than you thought about a man belonging to anybody, not even to Major de Spain. You thought of the house and the woods as belonging to him and even the deer and the bear in them; even the deer and killed by other people were shot by them on Major de Spain’s courtesy, given to them through his kindness and will. But not Lion. Lion was like the chiefs of Aztec and Polynesian tribes who were looked upon as being not men but both more and less than men. Because we were not men either while we were in camp: we were hunters, and Lion the best hunter of us all, and Major de Spain and Ike McCaslin next; and Lion did not talk as we talked, not because he could not but because he was the chief, the Sunbegotten, who knew the language which we spoke but was superior to using it himself; just as he lived under the house, under the kitchen, not because he was a dog, an animal, but for the same reason as the Aztec or the Polynesian whose godhead required that he live apart. Lion did not belong to Major de Spain at all but just happened to like him better than he did any of the rest of us, as a man might have.
Contrast this portrayal of Lion with Old Ben:
Old Ben was a bear and we were going to run him to-morrow as we did once every year, every time in camp. He was known through the country as well as Lion was. I don’t know why they called him Old Ben nor who named him except that it was a long time ago. He was known well for the shoats he had stolen and the corn cribs he had broken into and the dogs he had killed and the number of times he had been bayed and the lead which he carried (it was said that he had been shot at least two dozen times, with buckshot and even with rifles). Old Ben had lost three toes from his nigh hind foot in a steel trap, and every man in the country knew his track, even discounting the size, and so he should have been called Two-Toe. That is, that’s what they had been calling two-toed bears in this country for a hundred years. Maybe it was because Old Ben was an extra bear – the head bear, Uncle Ike McCaslin called him – and everyone knew that he deserved a better name.
Here is a classic case of the immovable object of nature (Old Ben) clashing with the irresistible force of humanity (even though represented in the dog Lion). Which would triumph and how would their battle affect the men who were part of that hunting party? Faulkner adroitly mixes in the doggedness of Lion with the noble last stand of Old Ben to create a monumental clash which leaves both animals dying (Old Ben spills Lion’s entrails, while the man Boon finishes Old Ben off for the dying Lion) and the rest of the hunting party affected for the rest of their lives. The challenge was met, but at a horrible cost.
Yet as powerful as “Lion” is by itself, Faulkner kept expanding the bear hunt motif in the intervening years, until by the publication of Go Down, Moses (1942) it had reached its final, full form. Since this form of “The Bear” makes up an integral part of that novel, comments on how it differs from “Lion” will, by necessity, be brief. “The Bear” widens the scope of the nature/civilization clash over a period of generations. Sam Fathers reappears here in both the May 1942 short story and in the novel and he represents as much the falling away of the pre-war Choctaw and Chickasaw civilization as an active, vital character in the scenes that unfold. “The Bear” stretches over nearly a century, with the Old Ben episode being the central nexus around which several related events occur. “The Bear” manages to amplify “Lion”‘s atmosphere in such a way that many consider it to be not only one of Faulkner’s two or three finest short fictions, but one of his best writings in a career full of memorable characters, scenes, and denouements.
Originally posted in March 2012 on Gogol’s Overcoat as part of a weekly “Faulkner Friday.” Novels reviewed from January-April will be reposted here on Fridays, while the short stories will appear on Wednesdays.