Imagining Difference: Altering Reality through the Wilderness in Faulkner's "The Bear" and the Clearing in Morrison's Beloved

Tina Kluesner, Southeast Missouri State University

William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” from Go Down, Moses and Toni Morrison’s Beloved both address the lives of families whose pasts are ugly and disheveled. The genealogical lines are unclear, the actions between people are disgraceful, and the later generations are left with more questions than answers. In both novels, the authors provide their characters a place to retreat, to gather their thoughts, to experience serenity and find hope for the future. Faulkner and Morrison provide Isaac McCaslin with the wilderness and the black community of Cincinnati with the Clearing, respectively, where they are inspired by the older generations, taught life lessons, and encouraged to imagine a grace so strong that it could change their realities.

In “The Bear,” Isaac McCaslin, later to be nicknamed “Ike,” is venturing to the big woods, where the men annually hunt for Old Ben, the mythic bear that has personified the wilderness. There, he hopes to make the kill, achieving the status of hunter, and thus, man. It is in the wilderness, with Sam Fathers and the other hunters, when Isaac learns to respect the land and all the nature within it. They do not perceive themselves to be dominant over nature; rather, they perceive nature to be a powerful entity that man must admire and revere in order to find his way and place in it. After Isaac feels Old Ben’s presence, but doesn’t see him, he returns to Sam, scared and vulnerable. Sam tells him, “Be scared. You cant help that. But dont be afraid. Aint nothing in the woods going to hurt you if you dont corner it or it dont smell that you are afraid. A bear or a deer has got to be scared of a coward the same as a brave man has got to be” (Faulkner 198-99). Over the course of sightings and becoming lost in the big woods, Isaac learns skills that will aid him in becoming a great hunter and steward of the land. While searching for Old Ben, Isaac ditches his watch and compass, essential tools to use when in the wilderness alone. This act foreshadows his abandonment of the material world and its possessions when he renounces his inheritance of the plantation. Ditching these items causes him to get lost in the wilderness, where he ultimately finds himself.

After Isaac becomes lost, he “did as Sam had coached and drilled him: made a cast to cross his backtrack” (199). He eventually finds his way back to the camp. This experience makes Isaac realize his attachment to the wilderness and the awesome lessons the natural world can teach a man—lessons on life and the miniscule roles people have in a world that encompasses beings and cycles much larger than themselves. He ponders this thought, as Faulkner narrates, “If Sam Fathers had been his mentor and the backyard rabbits and squirrels his kindergarten, then the wilderness the old bear ran was his college and the old male bear itself, so long unwifed and childless as to have become its own ungendered progenitor, was his alma mater” (201-02). Addressing Isaac’s relationship with the wilderness, one essayist writes that it “is of course Ike’s ‘desert,’ an ecological zone where the primal forces of nature, rather than the everyday conventions and pursuits of humanity, reign. Isolated from town and farm, the woods are a haven from time and social responsibility; here Ike retreats annually to hunt and here he develops his ascetic perspective on the world and his place—or nonplace—in it” (Brinkmeyer 210).

Just before Sam Fathers dies, he and Isaac have a conversation about truth. Sam says, “Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love” (Faulkner 283). Isaac’s thoughts go back to Old Ben. All the years he heard stories of Old Ben, the years he spent in the wilderness, and when he finally had a chance, he never took a shot at the bear. Perhaps what Isaac needed to learn was not in the hunt itself, rather in the time he spent in the wilderness. Sam Fathers reiterates to Isaac, “‘Courage and honor and pride, and pity and love of justice and of liberty. They all touch the heart, and what the heart holds to becomes truth, as far as we know truth’” (284). Sam explained to him the history of the land, how Isaac’s grandfather bought it from Sam’s father Ikkemotubbe. From here, Isaac turns to the ledgers to hunt for the truth of who his biological father is.

In doing this, he discovers other family secrets, of which he was unaware. Going through the ledgers, the truth of Isaac’s family history enables him to associate his connections with his ancestors to his connection with the wilderness. The woods, to Ike, are a place of congregation, to share experiences and pass life lessons on to the next generation. In his essay on “The Bear,” David Evans writes, “First, what nature represents for Ike is not so much the place of the good as the place of the truth, the position from which it is possible to pierce illusion to the vision of the way things really are” (180). He already felt uncomfortable inheriting land which he felt was not his to own, but after discovering his family’s history, he refuses to accept his inheritance. Moreover, he does not feel land is something to be owned by one person. He believes it is a resource of God’s for all men to share. Ike conveys these thoughts, saying:

‘It was never Father’s and Uncle Buddy’s to bequeath me to repudiate because it was never Grandfather’s to bequeath them to bequeath me to repudiate because it was never old Ikkemotubbe’s to sell to grandfather for bequeathment and repudiation . . . .’
‘[…] Because He told in the Book how He created the earth, . . . not to hold for himself and his descendants inviolable title forever, generation after generation, to the oblongs and squares of the earth, but to hold the earth mutual and intact in the communal anonymity of brotherhood, and all the fee He asked was pity and humility and sufferance and endurance and the sweat of his face for bread.’ (Faulkner 245-46)

As Isaac ponders the history of the land and the history of the family’s genealogy, he notices the corruption in his family is closely paralleled with the corruption of the land. This parallel supports his notion to refuse his inheritance, hoping to break the chain of corruption. From an environmental perspective, one essayist noticed, “In Go Down, Moses, the region and its peoples all seem to have been contaminated to a greater or lesser degree by the concepts that flow from the notion that land can be dominated and possessed” (Wittenberg 63).

By refusing his inheritance, Ike frees himself from the burden of his family’s history. He also opens the pathway for others to see the land as a communal place, bridging the gap between whites, blacks, and Indians, between the wealthy, the poor, and the working class. Ike hopes to break the pattern of history, hoping the land will provide a place where “power and authority are often derived from individual merit rather than wealth or heredity” (Froehlich 142). The wilderness is the only place and time in Ike’s life he feels comfortable and equal with those around him. Rejecting his inheritance, and thus the attitude of his family, he adopts the lifestyle and attitude of the wilderness instead. At least until the Memphis lumber company arrives. Ike deems the wilderness to be the place where glory lives, believing those who become intimate with it will experience the same reverent glory he did throughout his life. He hopes that “they would, might, carry even the remembrance of it into the time when flesh no longer talks to flesh because memory at least does last: but still the woods would be his mistress and his wife” (Faulkner 311).

Similarly, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Baby Suggs preaches at a clearing that serves as a source of hope, bringing together a community burdened by the past. The black inhabitants of Cincinnati congregate at the Clearing, “a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place,” to embrace their new lives and receive the encouragement they need to keep pushing forward in life (Morrison 102). Most of these people are ex-slaves, either freed or fugitives, and the past treatment they received makes them uncomfortable to be themselves, let alone unable to love themselves.

In this Clearing, Baby Suggs becomes the “unchurched preacher,” urging others to love their bodies as their white owners have not (102). As one essayist phrases it, she “commands her people to love themselves despite an outside world that does not call them beloved” (Marks 72). She “offered up to them her great big heart,” telling them “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it” (Morrison 103). The black community of Cincinnati seeks their spiritual heritage, before enslavement, to find a source of hope for their lives after enslavement. “Taking their cue from the preacher,” in this case Baby Suggs, “black people used their great critical and creative powers to bring into being a new worldview in which they could readily participate in freedom” (Hubbard 4). Although Baby Suggs does not “preach” to the people in the clearing, her call invites them to share in her hope. Her speeches are not sermons: “She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure” (Morrison 103). It was not Baby Suggs’s message that made her a preacher, rather the response from the community. When he is exhorting her, Stamp Paid says, “Can’t nobody Call like you. You have to be there” (210). One essayist confirms the connection of her call to that of a preacher, explaining the call and response structure of tales in the African American community (Atkinson). Her message inspires the community; however, it is not enough to save herself.

Baby Suggs’s life is disrupted again when the incarnated Beloved arrives. The pain of the past is too much for her to bear, spiraling her world into a canvas of colors, her only source of hope, until her world turns to blackness, void of any life. Stamp Paid forces himself to visit 124 to address Baby Suggs. She has missed three meetings at the Clearing, and although she has lost hope, he believes she still has a duty to her people to continue instilling hope in them. He exhorts, “‘Listen here, girl,’ he told her, ‘you can’t quit the Word. It’s given to you to speak. You can’t quit the Word, I don’t care what all happen to you’” (Morrison 209). Perhaps he believes that by serving a purpose to others, she will find purpose in her own life again. By giving hope to others, she, herself, will find hope. Many wonder why Baby Suggs, a source of strength and hope, is unable to bear the reincarnation of her granddaughter; she is unable to accept the resurfacing of the past.

Baby Suggs speaks about loving oneself as a means to move on from the past. Not necessarily to forget it, but to find the power within oneself to subvert it. Over time, the past will be left further behind, as the future becomes the present. As the present becomes brighter with each passing day, the future will continue shining, giving one the endurance and hope to keep looking forward to tomorrow. When Beloved returns, she undermines Baby Suggs entire theory. One cannot leave the past behind if it returns to the present in human flesh, a constant reminder of the torture these people are trying to overcome mentally. In an essay discussing the community from the Clearing, the essayist notes, “[t]he imagination provides an escape and alternative to lived reality, but that escape often is not realized, until the world is forced to make adjustments. The real heart of the question is how to get the world yonder to make the necessary adjustments and open up the necessary spaces” (Jesser).

This debacle is what makes the Clearing such a sacred place to the black inhabitants of Cincinnati. Within the Clearing, the outside world disappears. There are no outsiders or persecutors from the past; there are no reminders of the tortures they faced. They share a common past and horrific memories. Together, they are free to be themselves without facing judgment, without being misunderstood, and without being rejected. Each person comes as an individual, physically beaten and spiritually shattered. Once these individuals learn to love their own bodies and nurture their own souls, the Clearing becomes their sacred place to gather. Their response to Baby Suggs’s Call “provides a moment of plenitude in which the people can experience themselves, re-member themselves, as whole and free, in an individual and communal way” (Keizer).

Like the wilderness offers Ike McCaslin, the Clearing offers the black community the opportunity to subvert their families’ ugly pasts and disgraced histories. These wooded areas allow them to pursue their own ideologies, and live within the frameworks of their minds, holding on to a hope that could change the future of their lives. Faulkner’s wilderness and Morrison’s Clearing provide Ike McCaslin and Baby Suggs’s followers “freedom from existing social and political restraints” (Mogen 3, qtd. in Schreiber). Embracing the comfort of the moments spent in these environments opens their eyes and minds to new ways of thinking, new ways of loving, and new ways of living. Opening up to these new concepts will allow Ike McCaslin and the black community of Cincinnati to imagine grace, to feel peace, and ultimately, to live in a different reality.

Works Cited

  • Atkinson, Yvonne. "Language that Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison." The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Ed. Marc C. Conner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2000. 12-30. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 194. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
  • Brinkmeyer, Jr. Robert H. “Go Down, Moses and the Ascetic Imperative.” Faulkner and the Short Story. Eds. Evans Harrington and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1992. 206-28.
  • Evans, David H. “‘The Bear’ and the Incarnation of America.” Faulkner and the Natural World. Eds. Donald M. Kartiganer and Ann J. Abadie. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999. 179-97.
  • Faulkner, William. Go Down, Moses. 1942. New York: Vintage, 1990.
  • Froehlich, Peter Alan.  “Teaching ‘The Bear’ as an Artifact of Frontier Mythology.” Teaching Faulkner: Approaches and Methods. Ed. Stephen Hahn and Robert W. Hamblin. Westport: Greenwood P, 2001. 137-49.
  • Hubbard, Dolan. The Sermon and the African American Literary Imagination. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1994.
  • Jesser, Nancy. "Violence, Home, and Community in Toni Morrison's 'Beloved'." African American Review 33.2 (1999): 325+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
  • Keizer, Arlene R. "'Beloved': Ideologies in Conflict, Improvised Subjects." African American Review 33.1 (1999): 105. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
  • Marks, Kathleen. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Apotropaic Imagination. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002.
  • Mogen, David, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. "Introduction." The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, and Paul Bryant. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 1989.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved.  1987.  New York: Vintage, 2004.
  • Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. "Imagined Edens and Lacan's Lost Object: The Wilderness and Subjectivity in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses." Mississippi Quarterly 50.3 (1997): 477+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Dec. 2010.
  • Wittenberg, Judith Bryant. “Go Down, Moses and the Discourse of Environmentalism.” New Essays on Go Down, Moses. Ed. Linda Wagner-Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 49-71.
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