Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Part One: A Brief Synopsis
Bear by Marian Engel is a Canadian novel published in 1976. The copy that I purchased from Thrift Books is a TIGHT 122 pages divided into 22 spare yet somehow resplendent chapters. My own plot synopsis: a lonely, somewhat depressed woman in her late-twenties named Lou works for a historical conservation library in Canada, and she is tasked with spending a summer at a historical house in the deep woods on a riverine island to categorize the remaining items in the house, which was once owned by a fancy British Colonel who had the house built in the 1800s. The house doesn’t have electricity or anything, and it’s completely isolated–only reachable by boat. One last thing about the house, there’s a fucking BEAR. SO there have been bears at this house since it was first built. The current bear is older, probably in his thirties (slightly older than Lou), and it spends its days chained in the backyard. Lou is stranded most of the time, and she begins to seek the company of the bear out of curiosity and boredom. I think we all know where this is going. One lonely librarian, one sexy mature bear, an isolated house in the Canadian woods. That’s right, the lady and the bear have a romantic relationship.
I’ll get into the details and the quotes, but I gotta say that reading this book and KNOWING that the bear and lady are going to fuck (or at least, come close) is a completely different experience. I wouldn’t have assumed, for the first fifty pages, that it would go there. As a reader who is quasi aware of the book’s reputation, I’m coming into this and looking for the sensuality. Boy oh boy is this thing SENSUAL. Lou and the bear DO have a sexual relationship, but they never have penetrative sex (which is important, I think). At the conclusion of the novel, Lou is obsessed with the bear, and although the love is requited in a way, she also realizes that the relationship will never reach its assumed conclusion. She leaves the island and the bear more fully herself, and it ultimately had very little to do with the bear as an individual, and much more to do with what the bear let her understand about herself.
So the reason that you suggested it to me is probably because interest in the novel revived in 2014 when excerpts posted on image sharing website Imgur received over half a million visits. This is something like a viral book in terms of how it received renewed interest following images. One edition depicted cover art that looked like a trashy romance novel with a bear holding a topless woman. It seems salacious and gaudy from the cover art, not that there's anything wrong with either adjective, but this book isn’t a simple bear/librarian romance. It’s not, but it’s not only that.
Part TWO: We gotta talk about bear fucking
Interspecies love with a BEAR and FEMINISM (obvi! That’s the spicy stuff). Let’s get to this first, because THIS is why we bought tickets.
-Her relationship develops naturally with the bear. At first she is reasonably scared, because he’s a bear. Slowly, over the course of the summer, Lou courts the bear. She takes him swimming and is charmed by his bear-ness. He is a piece of the natural world, the unadulterated love between living things that is unavailable to her in human relationships.
-QUOTE: “She loved the bear. She felt him to be wise and accepting. She felt sometimes that he was God. He served her. As long she made her stool beside him in the morning, he was ready whenever she spread her legs to him. He was rough and tender, assiduous, patient, infinitely, it seemed to her, kind” (102).
-She talks dirty to the bear. It’s almost as if her need to have sex with the bear is a form of ego-death. She wants her body to be destroyed, and in doing so she destroys the life she lived before–beholden to human men and their lame power over her (she talks about past relationships, including one with her boss, which was out of convenience and desperation, and a former boyfriend who only loved her “as long as the socks were folded and she was at his disposal on demand”).
QUOTE: “‘Bear,’ she would say to him, tempting him, ‘I am only a human woman. Tear my thin skin with your clattering claws. I am frail. It is simple for you. Claw out my heart, a grub under a stump. Tear off my head, my bear” (103).
The many references to bear genitalia indicate that SHE is the sexually aggressive one, not the bear. Remember, this is a text from 1976, so many of the older (yet still pervasive myths) about female sexuality were prevalent: “She cradled his big, furry, asymmetrical balls in her hands, she played with them, slipping them gently inside their cases as he licked. His prick did not come out of its long cartilaginous sheath” (95).
She is the sexually curious one. She is the one who gropes and sometimes begs for his body. Later, we learn that her sexuality has been perceived as a problem by other partners, and that her desire was one of the things that disqualified her from meaningful relationships with men: “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” (96).
As mentioned earlier, one of the things about Bear is that…Lou and the bear don’t have “sex” in the conventional straight relationship way. There’s never penetrative sex here. This is important. However, he still satisfies her regularly, often orally, which she discovers in a scene where he licks the sweat and salt from her naked body (as animals often do to human skin).
The part that made me laugh out loud with JOY is when she discovers that the bear will perform cunnilingus on her if she strips naked. That’s right “CUNNILINGUS” I said it, folks. I’m just going to read this to you:
“He licked. He probed. She might have been a flea he was searching for. He licked her nipples stiff and scoured her navel. With little nickerings she moved him south. She swung her hips and made it easy for him. “Bear, bear,” she whispered, playing with his ears. The tongue that was muscular but also capable of lengthening itself like an eel found all her secret places. And like no human being she had ever known it persevered in her pleasure. When she came, she whimpered, and the bear licked away the tears” (79).
The bear made her come! No human ever did! She wakes up feeling guilty, but soon that guilt is assuaged by the carefree nature of their life together. She isn’t reminded of that guilt again until she sees another dude, Homer, who she bones in an attempt to display to herself that she doesn’t need to only bang bears. ANALYSIS: We would all be fine to live our truest lives but the pressures of conforming to colonial ideals of destroying and taming nature, rather than LOVING and LIVING within it, prevents us.
Also, there’s this adorable scene where she dances with the bear to some Greek music on the radio, but since he’s a bear he can’t do it well. He’s a BEAR.
Part THREE: This book is beautiful
Bear is goddamned beautiful. I came into it with a fairly rudimentary understanding. Bear sex. I mean, come on. We are ALL on board for bear sex. The discussions of and about the natural world and humanity’s bizarre and unsettling place within it are amazing. Lou feels unsettled and displaced by her relationship to other humans and society. She is intrigued by her work, but it’s not passionate. Her labor is a curiosity she is compelled to pursue because of societal expectations, but the isolation of the island and her love for the bear free her. It’s a deeper connection than simply: NATURE GOOD, SOCIETY BAD. Rather, it explores how our disconnection is at the root of deep spiritual dissatisfaction.
Lou, in one of her several existential crises, “wondered by what right she was there, and why she did what she did for a living. And who she was” (68). We all feel that, and I know that my fears about my career often become dread about my place in the world. We are bound by obligation to things we don’t care about but are forced to care about, and that leads to crises of identity. She asks herself, “Who the hell do you think you are, attempting to be alive?” (69).
The bear, obviously representative of nature, also provides an alternative to being. It doesn’t fret and freak out about its place in the world, because that place is clearly defined. It lives as it is intended to live, which is much different than the psychic displacement caused by existing in the not-quite animal/not-quite god liminality of human existence.
“As she was finishing her supper, she heard him scratching to be let in and thought, why not? It struck her when she opened the door to him that she always expected it to be someone else. She wondered if he, like herself, visualized transformations, waking every morning expecting to be a prince, disappointed still to be a bear. She doubted that” (75).
This book relishes descriptions of nature and the natural world. It clearly believes in the restorative powers of abundant nature. It is this that ultimately saves Lou, not the bear. It is the idea of the bear, what the bear represents, that frees her from her former self. She and the bear don’t become a couple, because the bear would never want that. The bear wants to be a bear, and he will never love her like she loves him. His love is deeper than the love of one individual to another. His love is ancient, as Lou observes.
The final image/line of the book displays connectivity to nature, that understanding of the larger spirit governing our lives, not the relationship of the individual to individual things (which becomes a way to justify property ownership, theft of land, destruction of environments), but the relationship of all things present in every individual. In many ways, this is the obvious anti-colonial reading of the text.
QUOTE: “It was a brilliant night, all star-shine, and overhead the Great Bear and his thirty-seven thousand virgins kept her company” (122).
She recognizes the constellation Ursa Major in the night sky as she leaves the island and is comforted by the omnipresent universe. The bear did not teach her to love individuals differently, it taught her to love herself and in doing so, love everything contained within the self. She isn’t possessive of the bear because he doesn’t belong to her. This is a divine reorientation of her place in the universe.
WOOOOOOO LET’S GOOOOO.
Part FOUR: Grappling with Indigenous folklore appropriation
From the CBC: “Tania Aguila-Way, an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto, notes there are no direct references to the Haida Bear Princess myth in the text, though there are numerous mentions of bear folklore… ‘It's a book that speaks to a lot of conversations that are happening in Canada in the current moment … long-overdue conversations around the legacies of settler colonialism, the continuing dispossession of Indigenous peoples, the question of settler appropriation of Indigenous cultures and identities,’ she said.”
This book makes reference to the ways in which bears are celebrated and dealt with by cultures around the world. Many of these references come in the form of “notes” left throughout the house by the Colonel, who was apparently obsessed with bears. One mentions how the city of Berne, Switzerland celebrates bears by watching them mate in a pit during the summer solstice, and they hold an ancient belief that bears, not Adam and Eve, are their first ancestors. Dope.
There’s an old indigenous woman in the text named Lucy Leroy, who is described as “a toothless old Indian crone in many cardigans and running shoes” (36). Lucy Leroy advises Lou to “Shit with the bear…He like you, then. Morning, you shit, he shit. Bear lives by smell. He like you” (36). Following Lucy’s advice, in the next chapter Lou “gingerly tiptoe[s] to the bear’s cabin, hunkered by its wall, and with some difficulty moved her bowels meagerly” (38). Lucy Leroy seems to be the keeper of ancient knowledge about the natural world and the specific environment. She has an undisclosed relationship with the bear, and by the end of the book, her nephew shows up to transport the bear back to Lucy’s home for Autumn, permanently ending Lou’s courtship with the bear. Is it possible that Lucy also has had a sexual relationship with the bear? What is the commentary about indigenous people and their relationship to the natural world? Is this putting First Nations people into a tired trope of “keepers of ancient knowledge”? I’m not sure. It seems to handle Lucy fairly well, and she is never depicted disparagingly, even when white characters paint in broad brush stereotypes.
There’s a wonderful Second-read review of Bear from the New Yorker by Claire Cameron, a Canadian, that discusses the issues of indigenous folklore and myth vs reality. One part of this review that stick out says: “The novel is a fable rendered in the manner of realism. Engel dares to imagine an elegant and plausible erotic arc for a human-bear relationship. And then she slashes the myth. The reader has to ask, why did I believe it? After reading the book for the third time, I had another question, about my real-life investigation. How clearly was I seeing the bear?”