Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"They're mine!"

Faulkner's The Bear has a puzzling end. [spoiler alert] Isaac McCaslin has gone back to the woods for perhaps his final hunt in the woods where much of this story takes place. (The land has been leased out to loggers.) He goes to meet Boon Hogganbeck at a tree that sits in a clearing, such that if one sneaks up on it fast enough, one can trap the squirrels in the tree, and pick them off at one's pleasure. Isaac finds Boon sitting beneath the tree, his reliably unreliable pump-action gun in pieces, and Boon beating on the barrel with the stock, trying to fix it. Without looking up, he shouts, "Get away! Get away! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine! They're mine!" This is how the story ends.

I may have to re-read the whole story to make sense of this, but my initial interpretation connects this scene to the long, difficult fourth section of the story, in which Isaac rationalizes his refusal of his inheritance, rejects the notion of ownership. Boon's situation seems desperate and pathetic. (But we should also remember that while Boon's gun has always failed him, he is also the person who killed the bear, Old Ben, with nothing but a knife.) I saw the ending as a commentary on ownership of the wild, and as one participant in a seminar with Faulkner put it,
as a warning to man that he can not in the end conquer nature, that in the end nature will win out, and that in order to lead a good life a man must be at peace with nature rather than trying to constantly conquer it.
Prior to this question, Faulkner had responded to a different question about the ending (concerning what appeared to be Boon's inability to cope with modern machinery):
No, that, to me, was a—a promise of optimism, a belief of mine that—that man, no matter how frail he is, is tougher than anything, that he can stand anything, that Boon, having served his purpose in this—the old bear's saga and Sam Father's finish, was still going on, he was still Boon. If he were needed again by another Old Ben, another Sam Fathers, he would have served again. That he was—that, to me, is a—a sign of—of optimism, that man is pretty good after all, that even his moments of heroism don't necessarily need to destroy.
He then responded to the suggestion that the end contains a warning as follows:
Well, I'm not too certain that man could—can be at peace with nature because nature ain't very peaceful itself. I think, in—in this instance, Boon—he did everything full out. If it was something worthwhile, and he could be convinced by someone he believed in that he should go full out at it, he would. Just as he—he went at the bear and just as he helped Sam Fathers to die. He was hunting squirrels, and he had got the squirrels up that tree, and the gun, as usual, let him down. If anything, that's a—a contemptive commentary on the machine that man thinks he can depend on when he can't. It lets him down. And Boon's machine let him down. But that hadn't frightened Boon. He could fix that thing just as long as somebody else didn't come along with a machine that did work and kill all his squirrels.
These are interesting points about the failure of "the machine that man thinks he can depend on," as well as on the stability of Boon's character (Boon continues to be Boon, as it were). But I'm still not sure about the optimism Faulkner saw in this ending. At least, it would seem that the "contemptive commentary on the machine" cannot avoid also being a commentary on the men who rely upon those machines, and who thereby, perhaps, fall prey to an illusion of control, which seemed to be the concern of the speaker above. The squirrels, as it were, don't belong to Boon (and never did).

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