Nature - it quite literally surrounds us. It is nearly impossible to go anywhere without encountering some form of evidence of the wilderness that covers much of our earth and remains relatively untouched by humans. Even in the most urban environments, nature is never too far away, offering refuge to those who have grown weary of the complications of civilized life. Human beings, it seems, have created world that crowds so much into their lives while excluding some of the most basic necessities, and people sometimes find it necessary to return to the simpler life that is found in the wilderness. The themes of nature and the wilderness are nearly as common in the world of Inter-American literature as they are in everyday life.
In both Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and William Faulkner's The Bear,
nature takes a central role in the development of the characters and the theme
of the story. Both stories emphasize a deep respect for the wild while using
it to bring about
important changes in the central characters' lives. In Surfacing, the narrator expresses her belief in an untouched natural world
and humans' lack of understanding towards nature's sacredness. Simultaneously, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery
that can only be made deep within the wilderness. In The Bear, the main character comes of age as he learns to respectfully take advantage of the power of nature. For both characters, nature acts as an entrance into a new personal world while revealing a deep sense of respect for nature and expounding some of man's shortcomings. The path each character will take as he or she re-enters civilization is not definite, but one can predict that they will interact with their new surroundings in an enlightened manner and that each will take different aspects of the wilderness along with him or her.
Atwood's Surfacing is the story of a woman who goes into the woods to
find her missing father. As the unnamed narrator gets deeper into nature in
her search for clues, she likewise moves into a deeper understanding of herself.
According to Verena
Buhler Roth, an important aspect of Surfacing is the narrator's use of her dead parents as guides in the wilderness. The narrator has not been to the lake for nine years and has been away from her parents for that long. Part of her goal in journeying
into the woods is to reconcile this estrangement by finding her father and discovering am more about her parents. While diving in search of her father's inspiration for the drawings she has found, she discovers his dead body. She later finds, in a scrapbook
her mother saved, a childhood drawing of herself, unborn like the aborted baby she expresses so much guilt for throughout the book (Roth 45). These contrasts between a dead parent and an unborn child and between estranged parents and a woman who never gave herself the chance to be a parent become points of personal turbulence for the narrator. Although it is not clear from the end of the book what the narrator will do back in civilization, it is clear that while in the woods she makes an attempt to confront these issues. It is also clear that she feels the only way to do this is to be in the wilderness and be one with nature. In the psychological theory of C.G. Jung, one's environment is necessary for individuation to occur (Simmons 142). Therefore
it is no surprise that Atwood chooses a natural setting for her nameless character's discovery of self.
A mystical quality surrounds the narrator's connection with nature. Upon embarking
one day on a solitary journey into the woods, she finds herself becoming part
of her surroundings and says "I'm ice-clear, transparent.. .the ribs are
shadows, the muscles jelly. The forest leaps upward, enormous, the way it was
before they cut it.. .I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning" (187).
She says earlier that the lake is her entrance into the place where she can
find what she needs to know. She seems to have an inherent quality of nature
within her, as if growing up she was strongly impacted by the wilderness. She
becomes animalistic in her deepest point of connection with nature. Rejecting
all things man-made, she finds herself in a garden, searching for food among
the wild berries and vegetables. She even goes so far as to refer to her waste
as "dung, droppings" (183). The narrator also encounters a wolf while
on her deepest venture in the woods. She stares into its eyes and sees nothing
in them except her reflection. She says that the wolf does not approve or disapprove
of her, and that "it tells me it has nothing to tell me, only the fact
of itself' (187). Similarly, at the end of the book, the lake and the trees
surround the narrator, "asking and giving nothing" (199). The things
she encounters in nature give merely reflections of her image, telling her that
she must find the answers within herself (Roth 45).
Ike McCaslin, the central character of Faulkner's The Bear, also discovers
himself in the woods. As a boy he goes into the woods for the first time, prepared
to quote "earn for himself from the wilderness the name and state of hunter,
in his turn were humble and enduring enough". John Lydenberg sums Ike's purpose up when he says, "Guided by Sam Fathers, Ike learns to retain his purity and bring himself into harmony with the forces of Nature" (Lydenberg 86-87). He gains a
sense of intuition by simply being surrounded by nature and the bear. When he goes into the woods by for the first time, he experiences a connection with nature that is similar to that of Surfacing's nameless narrator, but is perhaps more awe-filled and
As Ike enters the woods, he feels it opening up to accept him and closing behind him to shut him in and cut him off from urban life. This is the beginning of his apprenticeship as a hunter and his discovery of himself. He goes off on his first exploration by himself and releases himself fully into the hands of the wild when he discovers that his own watch and compass mean nothing out there. He discards then as unnecessary baggage, and suddenly he finds himself lost, yet he does not show signs of being afraid. Rather, he calmly "did as Sam had coached and drilled him" (203), and it is immediately evident that Ike has already matured. Richard Poirier, in an essay on The Bear, notes the importance of Ike's complete relinquishment of himself to the woods and the bear and says that Faulkner uses the term "relinquishment" to denote Ike's "effort to reshape the constituents of reality" (Poirier 50). As both Ike and the narrator of Surfacing discover themselves, they express their feelings towards nature and how humans should treat it.
The deep respect for nature is evident in both stories. Surfacing's narrator looks with disgust on the disrespect both her companions and others they encounter view the natural world. When she sees a dead heron that has obviously been killed by a human and put on display to reveal the killer's ego, she is sickened that one of the men on the trip with her wants to film it because it looks suitable for a film titled "Random Samples". She even expresses an opposition to eating animals, saying she had no right to it and even suggesting that killing a fish is worse than starting a war because there are always reasons for war and there is never an acceptable reason for killing a living creature. The sound of a motorboat approaching is a "dentist's drill", and the narrator thinks that the people in the boat will not be allowed to catch anything because they don't have enough respect for the fish and the lake. She even wishes to get the others with her off the island because she is afraid of the damage they will do if they stay for too long. The last line of the book talks about her appreciation of the quietness of the lake and its ability to surround her without offering or asking for anything. Her deep respect for nature, therefore, is evidenced in her disgust for others' mistreatment of it as well as her own positive experiences. The main character in The Bear also expresses distaste for other people's attitudes towards nature, but he focuses more on the land itself than on the animals that inhabit it.
Ike McCaslin notes several times that he feels that people have no right to
the land; it is not theirs to sell, and they should never feel as if they have
power over it. Even the Native Americans who first inhabited it were wrong to
ever think they could
sell the land. Once they decided that they could sell it for money, it ceased to have ever belonged to them. He worries about the fate of the hunting grounds when he learns that the owner is leasing them out to people who surely do not have the same
sense of respect he has come to have for them. Ike feels that the wilderness is bigger than anything and older than time and that he must respect the eternal being that is the Bear. The Bear is a symbol for how Ike feels about nature in general. It is immortal, strong, smart, and most importantly deserves the utmost respect. Even in hunting it, Ike and his companions never lose sight of the fact that the bear is greater than they are. The wild dog Lion also acts as a model of untamed nature that transcends the
human existence and should be respected. Faulkner says several times throughout the book that "[Ike] should have hated and feared Lion" (203). Yet he does not hate or fear Lion; he recognizes his power and their dependence on him to hunt the bear, and as a result Ike gains a deep sense of respect for Lion as well. Boon, the most ignorant and unskilled member of the group, ironically is the one who kills the great bear. The way in which Boon and the rest of the hunters react is evidence of the necessity for having reverence towards nature. Boon kills the bear with a complete lack of respect for it, for nature itself, and for the value of the hunt. Faulkner gives a concise yet thorough description of Boon's crazed killing of the bear: "The boy saw the gleam of the blade in his hand and watched him leap among the hounds, hurdling them, kicking them aside as he ran, and fling himself astride the bear" (232). Boon clearly lacks the respect one should have when dealing with nature, and as a result the rest of the group despises his action, and he himself suffers from what may be deemed insanity (Lydenberg 91).
A difference between Surfacing and The Bear lies in the way in
which the main characters view nature's power. The narrator of Surfacing
feels that she is on the same level with the wilderness and should live in harmony
with it, and she wishes that others would do the same. She goes to the lake
to reconnect as she searches for her father, and she simultaneously discovers
so much more about herself and her relationships with others along the way.
These differences in the ways the central characters view nature's role in their
lives affect the form in which each will carry lessons from the wilderness into
his or her return to civilization.
The ending of Surfacing does not make clear whether the narrator will
even return to her normal life once her lover Joe finds her in the woods. After
urgently initiating intercourse with Joe in an attempt to become pregnant to
undo the guilt she feels for having an abortion, she details the way in which
she will raise her child. She says, "This time I will do it myself, squatting..
.The baby will slip out easily as an egg, a kitten, and I'll lick it off and
bite the cord, the blood returning to the ground where it belongs" (165).
In her state of deep, animalistic connection with nature, she envisions herself
being a completely natural mother with no dependence on medical technology and
no plans on raising her child among other humans. She and her new baby will
become as much a part of the wild as the animals that surround her, and they
will live harmoniously and humbly as the wolf, "asking and giving nothing."
From this point in her journey, the narrator gives no indication that she plans to return to civilization, but one clue lies in her final thoughts in the novel. As Joe waits for her to get in the boat to go back, she thinks to herself "His voice is annoyed-he will not wait much longer. But right now he waits" (199). This indicates that she is taking one last moment to herself, holding on as long as her companion will allow, before returning to urban life. One can predict that upon her return to civilization, she will find herself with a deeper spirituality and personal connection with nature. Because she sees nature as something with which she can connect and feel equality, she may be more likely to dismiss many of the arbitrary aspects of human life in search of something more concrete, meaningful, and natural.
Ike McCaslin's interpretation is that the wilderness and nature in general
are above him and all other things. He goes into the wilderness actively seeking
maturity and understanding. His view of nature as eternal and great is summed
in the line "He
realized later that it had begun long before that" (187). Here Faulkner is talking about the tradition of the hunt, but it dually serves as an explanation of Ike's discovery of nature's powerful omnipresence. The great advances Ike makes in his maturity while in the woods are clues to the way in which the wilderness will impact his life in civilization. After being among the skilled hunters to whom he looks up and the raw wilderness whose power he greatly respects, Ike has gained a sense of smallness about his existence. One can surmise that upon re-entering the human world, he will live with both a sense of accomplishment at what he has learned, and respect for those around him who are more powerful than him. He will also remember the negative impact of the human tendency to encroach upon nature, which he has seen in the railroad running through the woods.
Atwood and Faulkner clearly share similar opinions about how we as humans should
treat nature as it interacts with our culture. In Surfacing, one of the
narrator's at great concerns is that the wild will be disturbed by fishermen
who have no respect, by
surveyors and developers who wish to exploit it, and by other ignorant people who will fail to sense its power. In The Bear, near the end of the story Ike realizes the impact people are having on his sacred woods as they run a disruptive railroad through it and as the owner of the hunting grounds decides to lease it out to people who may not have the same sense of respect for the woods as he and his mentors do. From beginning to end, both stories expound the dangers of mixing the wilderness and the urban world while showing us what we should take back to the city life from our experiences with nature.
As examples of the role of Nature in Inter-American literature. Surfacing and The Bear share many similarities in their themes and character development. Both main characters discover themselves in the wilderness and reveal their respect for nature. The issue of nature versus culture is also brought up as an important conflict that we as humans should be wary of. The differences in these stories reveal the authors' slightly different interpretations of nature's role in our lives, but both Atwood and Faulkner agree that we cannot ignore that which always surrounds us.
Overview | Scope
Carrillo | Davis | Haaga | Hart | Montague | Pugh
Special Collections | Heard Library | Vanderbilt University
Copyright © Special Collections, Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt
Last modified: April 10, 2008
For more information, contact us at: < >