Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Moby Bear: Thematic and Structural Concordances between William Faulkner's 'The Bear' and Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick.'

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Moby Bear: Thematic and Structural Concordances between William Faulkner's 'The Bear' and Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick.'

Article excerpt

Numerous critics have noted similaritiezs between Faulkner's "The Bear" and Moby Dick. Considering how much discussion and investigation the novella has always elicited, though, it is surprising that the thematic and structural affinities between the two works, which so many have remarked upon, have never been investigated in detail. Such a comparison of Melville's epic with Faulkner's story reveals that the later work engages the earlier one in an intense intertextual dialogue. There are sufficient points of engagement, in fact, so that in keeping with the genealogical emphasis of "The Bear," with all of the problematic relationships that its treatment of genealogy entails, we may argue for Moby Dick the status of parent text to Faulkner's story, and not only to "The Bear" itself, but to the extended structure of its context, the episodic novel Go Down Moses, as well.

The claim of Melville's novel upon Faulkner's attention is well documented. In interviews given over three decades, he insisted that Moby Dick was among a small group of "favorite books." As recorded by Meriwether and Millgate (1980), these interviews include the University of Virginia student newspaper (1931) and the New York Herald Tribune (1931 and 1948). Faulkner claims that he read the novel to his daughter during the time he composed Go Down Moses (48), and restates his admiration for Mob), Dick during his Japanese tour (110) and later with Cynthia Greer (110). We therefore know that Faulkner loved and admired Melville's masterpiece, but its imprint upon "The Bear" is readily discernable regardless. For example, R.W.B. Lewis mentions parallel themes and the significance of "the ironic co-existence" of opposites in both (307), and Guetti notes the "neat parallel" between the plotting of the tales (59), whereas Poirier invokes Melville in order to contextualize Faulkner's tale historically (50).

Harold Bloom notes that Old Ben, "at once mythological and realistic, serves something of the function of the noble synecdoche of Melville's great White Whale, Moby Dick" (1986, frontispiece). Bloom also supplies an excellent critical approach to this "noble synecdoche." In The Anxiety of Influence, he sets forth six textual signals that alert a reader to the oedipal relationship of a poem to its precursor. These signals, which he calls "revisionary ratios" (14), are strategies of composition whereby the later text appropriates and assimilates the themes, metaphors, or rhythmical patterns of the earlier.(2) Bloom designed his approach for a practical criticism of poetry. However, reading to recognize the operations of his strategies also seems eminently suitable for a poetics of fiction, since they offer insights not only into textual parallelism, but into the significance of divergent emphases between texts as well.

Because many critics have examined in detail the preoccupation of both works with the archetypal myths and rituals of the hunt, we will begin our enquiry with what Bloom might call Faulkner's "daemonization," or bypassing of Melville's text, in order to express on his own terms the same mythological archetypes. The hunt is no mere recreational exercise, nor is it even significant simply because it supplies food and other staples of life. "In its narrative form, Mob), Dick. Fits the traditional literary form of the quest romance," writes James McIntosh. "It is a voyage or quest to slay a monster--the White Whale; to explore a distant place or underworld in search of a treasure or secret; and to use that secret to redeem common existence--in the book's terms to restore `antique Adam' (Ch. 7) and his many descendants to their rights in a heartless universe" (29). As myth, the hunt combines the elemental drives for food and shelter with religious and psychological imperatives of quest romance, so that food as an object is transformed from a mere biological necessity into a spiritual boon as well. As he sets out on the hunt, young Isaac McCaslin is not yet aware that his own quest will someday enable him to transform a shocking discovery about his genealogy into a program for personal redemption. …

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