On Marian Engel’s Controversial Novella “Bear” and the Role of Taboos in Literature

This book was published in the 1970’s but still gleans as one of Canada’s most disputed and beloved novellas. Despite its aging existence, Bear is an incredibly controversial gem of a book and thus its content continues to reverberate on the fringes of our society. The book deals with highly sexual content so this post will include a discussion on the roles taboos play in literature.

In sum, Bear is the story of Lou, a librarian who moves to Cary Island for a summer to catalogue the deceased Colonel Jocelyn Cary’s library. On the island Lou lives alone, except for a domesticated bear who’s inhabited the land for years. Lou soon forms a relationship with the bear that initially appears friendly but soon blossoms into an erotic relationship.

I recently reread this book for a class. I was sitting in a seminar when I pulled up Bear on Google Books during a break. A classmate sitting next to me widened her eyes, apologized for peering over my shoulder and proceeded to describe her shock in regards to the book’s content. Of course bestiality is shocking, even in a world that attempts to explore taboos within literature, so I was not surprised by her response. The first time I read the book I also felt shocked (I didn’t know what it was about when I first read it and was certainly taken aback) and frankly, I still feel shock in the re-reading of it. This does not, however, diminish the quality of the writing nor does it dissolve the narrative. The novella is filled with delicate, poignant, gruesome and sparkling images, some of which are so vivid they’ll stop you in your tracks.

They went berrying together in the woods. He pawed the ripe raspberries greedily into his maw. She saved hers like soft jewels in an old Beehive Honey tin with a bindertwine handle she found in the shed.

She lit the gas-lamp in the kitchen easily enough: held a match to it, turned its key, and heard it pop softly alight. Under its warm glow she filled the kettle with a dipper from a graniteware pail of water by the sink. The water was cold and smelled of sulphur. The house was cold now too.

Now, in analyzing this short piece of fiction, readers differ in opinions. Such controversial material is a sure way to spark debate. Some consider Bear to be one of Canada’s greatest fictional works. Others view this novel as a work focused on raw sex scenes that illuminate a dark taboo. But Bear is far more than a highly erotic novel focused on a woman’s sexual relationship with a bear. The story explores themes that are fundamentally intertwined with the human experience, themes such as rejection, loneliness and guilt.

First of all, I’d like to argue that taboos are themselves a kind of cultural cage, a place to send banished ideas or experiences, many of which deal with human sexuality. So I believe that literature attempts to take these cages and dismantle them, then observe how those detained notions interact with society. Because this book was written in the 1970’s some argue that it embodies a form of second-wave feminist literature in an era when female writers were celebrating women’s sexual liberation.

One of my first impressions of this book is drawn from a comparison I noted between the experience she shared with the bear and sexual experiences shared with men. In one scene, Lou sleeps with a man whose name is Homer. Homer finishes, says “thank you” and leaves. In contrast, the scenes with the bear provoke discomfort yet they frame one who “gives” rather than “takes.” So how do we interpret this kind of material? Is there a message here? Certainly the emotional complication of loving one who cannot or will not love you back crawls to the forefront and begs attention.

I’ve often contemplated what would happen if this book were to replace the bear with a man. We’d see a women plagued by loneliness, who falls in love but feels heartbroken by his inability to provide her with what she desires. We’ve seen this kind of plot and yet the presence of a bear in this narrative has more effectively triggered conversations pertaining to women’s sexual loneliness and/or guilt. So is Engel using bestiality, a longtime taboo, to illuminate a more common struggle? Is she attempting to capture our attention? There is no clear answer, but instead a myriad of speculations. She is definitely questioning the impact of sexual relationships on our perception of love. As Lou begins to admit she loves the bear and reminisces on sexual and romantic experiences with men, her sense of isolation is deepened. Meanwhile, Engel may be exploring the ways in which one’s understanding of love is corroded by sexual cravings that overwhelm rational thought.

Because what she disliked in men was not their eroticism, but their assumption that women had none. Which left women with nothing to be but housemaids.

Perhaps this is an indicator that some time has passed since the book’s publication. A discussion in the back of the book asks: How do you think the reading public’s reaction to this novel would have differed had it been published now as opposed to in 1976?

In my opinion, I think the reason this book is still being taught and discussed is because women and sex is still a hot topic. Magazines continue to feature women owning their bodies, taking control of their sex lives or pushing for equal recognition in the workplace despite a pushback against “white liberal feminism.” Nevertheless, Bear attempts to break taboos by portraying a form of sexual liberation that may be interpreted literally of metaphorically. Either way, this book explores women and sex and is, therefore, still relevant.

Oh, she was lonely, inconsolably lonely; it had been years since she had had human contact. She had always been bad at finding it. It was as if men knew her soul was gangrenous. Ideas were all very well, and she could hide in her work, forgetting for a while the real meaning of the Institute, where the Director fucked her weekly on her desk while both of them pretended they were shocking the Government and she knew in her heart that what he wanted was not her waning flesh but elegant, eighteenth-century keyholes, of which there was a shortage in Ontario.

I admit, despite the weird responses I usually get, that this is one of my favourite books. I do believe it raises relevant questions in addition to providing some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever come across. Note, I am a sucker for CanLit, which Bear represents wonderfully. Hazlit’s take on CanLit, a genre sometimes criticized for an over reliance on nature, did give me a good laugh though: “imagine a CanLit drinking game in which you have to empty your glass every time you read the words, ‘the sound of the loon cry.'” I must concede, though I don’t personally feel bothered by this detail, Bear does rely on landscape to mirror emotion in a very “Canadian” way.

Another important emotion explored in Bear, which I mentioned above, is guilt. Guilt, I believe, is one of the most corroding human emotions belonging to our emotional repertoire. Lou feels immense guilt, especially as she moves forward in her relationship with the bear. Despite loving the bear, she knows she has engaged in a social wrong, demonstrating her shame in various ways throughout the course of the narrative. “She remembered guilt” is written on the second to last page, so while Bear in a sense attempts to justify, it also recalls the rigidness of taboos and their effect on the human psyche.

Bear is certainly filled with some awkward and disturbing scenes but if you’re particularly drawn to Canadian or feminist literature I definitely suggest taking a read. As I said, Bear is one of my favourites, not only because it is filled with content that can be peeled and examined microscopically but because of Engel’s superb writing.

If you’ve read Bear and would like to share your thoughts, please drop a comment below.

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