From Collected Stories of William Faulkner
“Ratliff is telling this.” The opening sentence of William Faulkner’s classic short story “A Bear Hunt” may be one of the most straightforward the famously difficult author ever used in his fiction. Four words, two of them monosyllables, arranged in a classic subject-verb-object formation and forming a direct, declarative statement. Ratliff is telling a story. It matters not at this point who Ratliff is or what his story is about. We know that a story is about to unfold, and we know who is going to be telling it.
Except, “A Bear Hunt” is a Faulkner story, so the one thing we can reasonably be assured of is that nothing will be that simple. Indeed, in “A Bear Hunt,” one of the Mississippi writer’s shortest and most compact tales, Ratliff does not begin to unfold his yarn until almost four pages into the narrative. The intervening pages are narrated in the first person by an unnamed observer, quite in the manner of Conrad’s approach in Heart of Darkness. The anonymous framing narration is intended to “set the stage for Ratliff,” which is done by introducing two of the key characters – Ratliff himself and the central figure in his story, a former bootlegger and brigand named Lucius Provine.
The style of this opening narration is sober and factual, describing the setting and its relevant history, including an incident in which Ratliff’s gang ran up on a group of Black men and burnt their collars off with lit cigars. The narrator also apprises us of a Chicksaw mound that is the subject of local lore. Though a reader is not aware, on a first reading, of the import of all this, it becomes clear in the fullness of Ratliff’s story, which is told at a white heat and in a style that could not be more different from the measured, careful opening section.
Ratliff’s voice is cast in what critic Michael Gorra identifies as “local colour” writing. In his excellent work of Faulkner criticism, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, Gorra writes, “Local colour in American prose … concentrated on small towns and ordinary people, on stories and sketches of a deliberately modest scale.” Local colour writers frequently employed regional dialect presented on the page phonetically (another example is Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”). In Faulkner’s case, he has Ratliff use a particularly Southern argot and mode of discourse: “Hit so stopped that poker game. Hit taken three or four of them to drag him offen me, with Major turned in his chair with a set of threes in his hand, a-hammering on the table and hollering cusses.”
The disparity between the two styles of narration – clear and measured in the framing section, hotheaded and unschooled in the story proper – is stark and absolutely intentional. What the opening section accomplishes is to instill an ironic distance between the implied reader and the material that Ratliff will unfold: it presents to us, as it were, the author’s perspective, such that we can properly position ourselves before being dumped bodily into Ratliff’s tall tale. (Faulkner would take no such mercy on his readers in novels such as The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom!)
This is significant in part because it offers readers a glimpse of what a more erudite, thoughtful individual than the characters in Ratliff’s story might make of, in particular, the Chicksaws that live near the white people who figure in Ratliff’s tale. The narrator confesses to learning, as a child, about the local native Americans through popular literature that exoticized them for a white audience:
Even to some of us – children though we were, yet we were descended of literate, town-bred people – [the Aboriginal mound] possessed inferences of secret and violent blood, of savage and sudden destruction, as though the yells and hatchets which we associated with Indians through the hidden and secret dime novels which we passed among ourselves were but trivial and momentary manifestations of what dark power still dwelt or lurked there, sinister, a little sardonic, like a dark and nameless beast lightly and lazily slumbering with bloody jaws.
This, the framing narrator goes on to clarify, was but a childish fantasy: “When we grew older we realized that they were no wilder or more illiterate than the white people. … Yet to us, as children, they were a little fabulous, their swamp-hidden lives inextricable from the life of the dark mound.” The deliberate distance here between childish fancies of exotic and alien native Americans versus the truth – that the Chicksaws were not any less civilized or intelligent than their white counterparts – is not just a case of Faulkner drawing a moral line under his subject matter. It will directly impact the trajectory of Ratliff’s story.
This is because Ratliff’s narrative is dependent upon the ignorant assumptions of the white man Provine, who becomes a victim of a prank spearheaded by Ash, the Black manservant of one of the poker players in the fracas mentioned above. Seizing an opportunity when it presents itself, Ash conspires with the Chicksaws to get revenge on Provine for a previous wrong. It is fashionable to accuse Faulkner retroactively of racism, and certainly the charge has merit in some circumstances. But the inescapable fact of “A Bear Hunt” is that the smartest, wiliest, most creative characters in Ratliff’s tale are the Black servant Ash and the Chicksaw natives.
Their plan for Provine’s comeuppance involves a trip to the Aboriginal mound meant to cure the white man’s hiccoughs. For more than twenty-four hours, Provine has been disturbing the other members of his assembled hunting party with his incessant affliction. He is constantly reprimanded for the noise, and he tries everything he can think of to rid himself of the condition: “I done held my breath and drunk water until I feel just like one of these hyer big automobile tahrs they use to advertise with, and I hung by my knees offen that limb yonder for fifteen minutes and drunk a pint bottle full of water upside down, and somebody said to swallow a buckshot and I done that.”
This dialogue, married to such a patently absurd situation, testifies to an aspect of Faulkner’s writing that often gets overlooked by critics and readers alike: how staggeringly funny it can be. “A Bear Hunt” is one of Faulkner’s most exuberant, downright uproarious stories, not least in the punchline, when it is revealed how Ash and the Chicksaws pulled off their little “prank” on Provine, and what Ash’s motivation was for wanting the white miscreant shamed.
“I always thought I was pretty good at joking folks,” Ratliff tells Ash, ”but I take a back seat for you.” The explanation of what happened to Provine is brilliant poetic justice, and as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Ratliff’s final summation of the whole experience: “At least they cured your hiccups.”