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The Bear | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Bear | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


A Woman in Mourning and a Man under Stress

Elena Popova is the widow of Nicolai Mihailovitch. Her husband died seven months ago, and she is still dressed in her mourning attire. She refuses to leave her house, much to the concern of her footman Luka. Luka is much older than Popova and has already lost his wife. He insists that it is irrational for her to spend the rest of her life in mourning over her husband. She ignores his protestations and tells him to give her husband's horse Toby extra oats. The house's bell rings, and Luka goes to see who has dropped by. Popova chastises a photograph of Nicolai. He had multiple affairs during their marriage. She hopes he can see how devoted she has been to his memory and feel ashamed for his selfish behavior in life.

Luka returns and tells Popova that a landowner named Grigory Smirnov requests an audience. Popova tells Luka to show him into her room. Smirnov politely explains that Nicolai bought two orders of oats from him and never paid the bill. Smirnov needs the money now so he can pay the mortgage on his farm. Popova promises to repay the debt but informs him that she presently does not have the cash on hand. He will have to come back the day after tomorrow so her steward can fetch the money for her. Smirnov insists that he cannot wait. Popova is upset by his forceful tone and leaves the room.

A Battle of the Sexes

Smirnov continues to work himself up by recounting his travails so far. He has visited multiple debtors already only to have them hide from him or refuse to pay. He calls Luka a "waiter" and demands multiple drinks from him in the hopes that the refreshments will help soothe his nerves. Popova grows tired of hearing Smirnov shout instructions to her footman. She comes back into the room and asks him to leave. Smirnov is determined not to budge until she has paid him even if he has to stay for a year. Popova and Smirnov shout at each other over the debt. Popova accuses Smirnov of unacceptable rudeness and reminds him that he is talking to a woman.

Smirnov proclaims his general hatred for women whom he sees as "insincere, crooked backbiters" who are "liars to the marrow of their bones." As a young man, he sought the love of many women and was betrayed every time. Now he refuses to accept the cultural idea that women are delicate treasures who must be coddled and protected from their own fragile feelings. He insists that women are much less faithful in a relationship than men. Popova responds with the story of her husband Nicolai's repeated betrayals. She argues that women are far more honorable than men and much more deserving of respect. She then holds herself up as an example. Her husband has been dead for more than half a year, but she is still wearing black in his memory. She swears she will live the rest of her life in solitude in spite of her husband's infidelity.

Popova's proclamation evokes contemptuous laughter from Smirnov. He claims she only acts like a tragic widow because she wants other people to see how virtuous she is. He points out that she is supposedly living in solitude, but she still puts on her makeup. In Smirnov's opinion Popova has put on a false front of selflessness to win praise from strangers. He connects her behavior to his earlier claim that women are incapable of honesty. He argues that he is not being rude but rather forthright with her, and it is her fault if she cannot face the truth.

Popova orders Smirnov to leave her house. He refuses. She calls for Luka to force Smirnov off the premises. When Luka arrives, Smirnov threatens to cut him "into pieces." Luka collapses out of fright. Popova worries that Smirnov's uncouth behavior has made her elderly footman unwell. She shouts for help from her maid and cook Dasha and Pelageya. Luka tells her that they are away on an errand. Popova tells Smirnov to vacate her property at once. He refuses again. She calls him "a bear." The insult upsets Smirnov to the point that he challenges Popova to a duel unless she retracts her statement. She is all too willing to duel Smirnov and leaves the room to find her husband's dueling pistols.

Stirrings of Love

Smirnov complains about Popova's behavior and insists he will shoot her even though she is a woman. He believes women and men should be held to the same standards of behavior and bear the same consequences for social infractions. However, as he continues to talk, his tone shifts toward one of admiration. Popova's refusal to apologize for her words even if it means endangering herself impresses Smirnov. He has never met a woman with this much spirit. Luka begs Smirnov to leave. Smirnov ignores him and continues to list Popova's admirable traits. He praises her fiery temper and her reddened cheeks. He confesses he does not want to shoot her anymore.

Popova returns with the pistols. Luka goes to find help from the gardener and the coachman. Smirnov instructs her in how to aim and fire a gun. All the while he lets out private exclamations of adoration for Popova. Popova suggests that they should shoot at each other in the garden. He tells her that he is going to fire his shot in the air. She is upset that he refuses to engage in a proper duel. She demands to know why he won't shoot her. He tells her that he likes her.

At first Popova refuses to believe his protestations of affection. She and Smirnov argue back and forth about the reasons they are unfit for each other. Smirnov realizes that he is just as vulnerable to love as when he was a schoolboy. Popova does not respond to Smirnov's proposal of marriage, so he prepares to leave. She asks him to stay, and just as quickly she tells him to leave. She changes her mind back and forth as Smirnov slowly walks toward her. He puts his arms around her as she continues to vacillate between words of hatred and love. In the end, Popova and Smirnov kiss. Luka arrives with the coachman and gardener and is shocked by this romantic display. Popova orders Luka not to give her husband's horse Toby any oats.

The Bear Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Elena Popova refuses to end her mourning for her husband.

Rising Action

2 Grigory Smirnov arrives and demands settlement for a debt.

3 Popova says she doesn't have the money and asks him to go.

4 Popova and Smirnov argue.


5 Smirnov challenges Popova to a duel after she insults him.

Falling Action

6 Popova earns Smirnov's respect by not backing down.


7 Popova and Smirnov enter into a romantic relationship.

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