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Literature Study GuidesThe BearSection 4 An Insult And A Challenge Summary

The Bear | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Bear | Section 4 (An Insult and a Challenge) | Summary



Elena Popova calls Luka in and orders him to escort Grigory Smirnov out of the house. Smirnov is already worked up from his shouting match with Popova. When Luka tries to usher him from the room, Smirnov responds, "Who are you talking to? I'll chop you into pieces!" Luka is so shocked by this threat that he collapses into a chair and proclaims that he cannot breathe. Popova shouts for help from the maid and cook Dasha and Pelageya. Luka reminds her that they are away at the moment. He and Popova are alone with Smirnov. This thought upsets the mild-mannered footman even more.

Popova asks Smirnov to leave. He refuses and suggests she should be more polite. Popova calls him "a coarse bear" and "a monster." Smirnov accuses her of intentionally insulting him. She will not take back her words, so Smirnov challenges her to a duel. Popova continues to shout, "Bear! Bear! Bear!" Smirnov replies, "It's about time we got rid of the prejudice that only men need pay for their insults." He offers his challenge a second time, and she agrees. She leaves the room to retrieve her husband's dueling pistols.


Chekhov plays with the incongruities of Popova's, Smirnov's, and Luka's personalities. Popova and Smirnov are brazenly irreverent toward cultural ideals when their tempers are stirred up. Luka meanwhile calls out to the Russian tsars for aid like someone praying to a deity for divine intervention. The phrase "little fathers" which Luka repeats multiple times in the play as both a blessing and a curse refers to Russia's tsars or monarchic rulers. The tsars were sometimes called the fathers of Russia because they oversaw its political, religious, and cultural practices. Popova and Smirnov have thrown cultural norms to the wind while Luka continues to call to his nation's patriarchs for guidance.

Smirnov and Popova have a very different approach to conflict from Luka. They have been shouting back and forth for at least the past ten minutes. Neither of them shows any intention of backing down or even being intimidated by the other person. Luka nearly faints after one threat from Smirnov. His docile, peace-making personality is ill-suited to such chaos. Popova and Luka's roles from the beginning of the play reverse. She becomes the defender, and he is the person who needs protecting. Popova calls Smirnov "a monster" primarily because he frightened her footman. Luka is one of Popova's few remaining friends in the world, and she leaps to his defense. She knows Smirnov's presence is negatively affecting Luka. This time when she orders Smirnov to leave, she is acting on Luka's behalf instead of her own. Smirnov's behavior riles her up to the point where she proclaims that it will be a joy to kill him. Popova does not shrink away from violence, unlike Luka. Smirnov appears to be equally eager to transition into physical violence at this point in the conflict.

Smirnov's decision to call Popova out for her insults shows a new side to his personality. He had previously portrayed women as inferior to men. However, he suggests that Popova is his equal when he challenges her to a duel. Men did not traditionally challenge their inferiors to a duel. A duel between a man and a woman was even rarer in the 19th century. Smirnov openly recognizes that his actions tacitly proclaim Popova as a worthy opponent. He tells Popova, "I don't care if you are a woman, one of the 'softer sex,' indeed!" His anger has pushed him to drop his previous prejudices, at least for the moment. He feels Popova should be held to the same standards of behavior as a man even though their society argues that men and women must always exist in separate spheres with their own sets of rules and expectations. Smirnov goes so far as to say it is time to get "rid of the prejudice" that women need to be protected from the consequences of their behavior. In doing so, he recognizes Popova's agency in her own life.

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