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The Bear | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Bear | Context


One-Act Plays

One-act plays are theatrical performances that take place in a single act. An act is a segment of a play that contains a standard plot arc. It has a beginning, rising action, a climax, and a conclusion. One-act plays can last from 10 minutes to over an hour. They can be divided into scenes, or they can take place in one continuous segment as seen in The Bear. One-act plays date back to the rise of theater during Greece's Classical Age (480–323 BCE). Cyclops by Euripides (c. 484–406 BCE) is a one-act play that first appeared around 408 BCE. Like The Bear, Cyclops has minimal characters and takes place in a single location. The main plot revolves around a verbal duel between the hero Odysseus, the one-eyed monster Cyclops, and the Cyclops's servant Silenus. Cyclops is a drama instead of a comedy like The Bear, but both plays use the characters' wit and interpersonal conflict to entertain their audiences.

Modern one-act plays have very few limits regarding structure. They can have multiple scenes and settings and use a wide cast of characters, or they can take place inside a single room and feature only one character talking to themselves. The Bear falls in the middle of these two extremes. It is set inside Popova's room with all other action taking place offstage. Five characters make a physical appearance onstage, but only three of them have any lines. Most of the humor in The Bear is based on the characters' dialogue with each other. However, there is also some physical humor as well such as Luka's dramatic collapse into a chair when he is frightened by Smirnov.

The Bear falls under the genre of satire. It draws its humor from an overexaggerated scenario and characters that are designed to poke fun at elements of society while also teaching a broader lesson. Smirnov's scatterbrained proposal to Popova and her equally confused response are not supposed to be seen as realistic. The characters represent two different perspectives in Russian society. Their ideas and mannerisms are exaggerated to make a larger point. Smirnov is presented as ruthlessly practical even during his proposal where he lists his shooting ability as a qualification for being a husband. Popova meanwhile is introduced as a caricature of the tragic widow and scorned lover. Her commitment to die without ever leaving her house satirizes the cultural image of a woman in mourning. The play's main characters are designed to evoke laughter from the readers but also to make them think about how their own backgrounds and past experiences influence their thought processes.

Mourning Customs of the 19th Century

In 19th-century Russia the Russian Orthodox Church held considerable sway over cultural practices including those related to death and mourning. Funerals were traditionally held by a priest, and the funeral services normally followed a strict series of religious and cultural rituals. During the funeral mourners would often bring flowers to lay inside the coffin. They would take turns walking around the coffin in a counter-clockwise direction. The priest would offer a short message including verses from the Bible. He would often anoint the body with holy water or oil before the burial.

Remembrance of the dead was a core part of the mourning process. Family members would perform formal ceremonies of commemoration on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th days after their relative's death. Mourners were encouraged to make these occasions by praying and giving donations to the poor. Some Russian communities believed that a person's soul would remain on earth for 40 days following their death. A towel and water were set out so the restless spirit could wash itself and relax inside its former home. The towel was taken to the cemetery on the 40th day to release the spirit and was then destroyed.

Elena Popova has far surpassed the mourning requirements of her culture when The Bear begins. Nicolai Mihailovitch died seven months before. She has been in mourning for over 200 days, more than five times the prescribed mourning period for the most devout family members. According to Luka, she has refused to leave her house all this time. He tries to convince her in the beginning of the play that she has more than honored her husband's memory. No one would think any less of her if she put off her mourning attire and resumed normal life. She is wearing black and avoiding all social interactions for her own sake and not her husband's.


There were more duels in Russia during the 19th century than in any time before. Men would challenge each other to a duel at the slightest provocation, especially if they believed their honor was being impugned. Duels were particularly popular among Russian nobility who were continually jockeying for position in the aristocracy. Repeat duelists who actively sought out fights were known as "bretteurs." They would sometimes physically assault their intended dueling opponents until the opponents had no choice but to accept their challenge.

Prior to the 1800s, duels were rarely performed because both combatants could face hefty legal fines or even imprisonment if they were caught. Dueling was illegal in Russia, so duels occurred in secret during the early hours of the morning if they occurred at all. However, the Russian nobility grew to resent the royal family's control over the aristocracy. They engaged in public duels as an indirect challenge to the Russian imperials' authority. This newfound popularity of dueling trickled down into the middle class.

Duels could be performed with a variety of weapons from rapiers to knives to even axes. The single-shot pistol first gained popularity in the 18th century as guns became more accurate and accessible. Duels would traditionally take place between members of similar social classes who needed a way to work out their rivalries or sort out a specific offense. The combatants were normally two men, although women would also duel each other on occasion. Duels between a man and a woman were the rarest kind and usually occurred after a grave offense. When Smirnov challenges Popova to a duel in The Bear, he remarks, "It's about time we got rid of the prejudice that only men need pay for their insults." He acts against his own culture's expectations regarding duels by challenging a woman to a duel over a mere insult. In doing so Smirnov elevates Popova to the position of an equal and shows that he is much more open-minded about gender roles than he claims.

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