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The Bear | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Bear | Symbols


The Duel

The proposed duel in The Bear symbolizes the conflict between Elena Popova and Grigory Smirnov. Popova's and Smirnov's perspectives on the world lead them into an argument that escalates until they are on the verge of physical violence. They would rather risk bodily harm than yield. Luka is astonished by their decision to duel, but the progression feels perfectly natural for Popova and Smirnov. They see no problem with taking their argument to the next stage because they have already invested so much thought and emotion into the fight. Backing down now would be a waste of their prior outrage.

Popova and Smirnov enter into a verbal duel shortly after Smirnov's arrival at Popova's home. Both opponents refuse to yield any ground even though their respective arguments are both backed by logic. Popova does not have the money to pay Smirnov, and Smirnov cannot return home until he has procured enough funds to pay his mortgage. They are at an impasse, but they refuse to admit that neither side can claim a total victory. Logically they will have to come to a compromise. However, they choose to escalate the fight instead of backing down because backing down would feel like accepting defeat for both sides.

The duel itself is set up as a farce or an unrealistic, comedic situation. Popova worries about the damage that may occur to her house. Smirnov resolves to let Popova shoot him. The same farcical tone occurs in the earlier stages of the argument, such as when Smirnov claims he will stay at Popova's house for a year if that is what it takes to recover his money. The duel is just as ineffectual as their argument. Neither situation is intended to be taken seriously by the audience, even if Popova and Smirnov pretend they are locked in a life-or-death struggle.

Toby the Horse

Toby the horse once belonged to Nicolai Mihailovitch and has since fallen under Popova's care. The horse represents Nicolai and Popova's broken relationship. It still lives on the property even after its master's death just as Nicolai's memory hangs over Popova. Popova's comments to Luka about Toby suggest that Nicolai had more affection for his horse than his wife. She exclaims to Luka, "He was so fond of Toby!" She then goes on to describe how Nicolai regularly rode Toby and doted on the horse. Meanwhile Nicolai neglected and insulted Popova. He spent more time with Toby than Popova. Popova still feels like Nicolai would care more about Toby's wellbeing than her own if he could see them. She tells Luka to give Toby extra oats in honor of Nicolai's friendship with Toby.

Popova's perspective on Toby dramatically shifts at the end of the play once she has found genuine love. She no longer feels like she needs to give Toby preferential treatment out of deference to her dead husband. She tells Luka, "Toby isn't to have any oats at all to-day." Popova has managed to let go of her painful relationship with Nicolai. She now feels empowered to treat Toby like a normal animal instead of her husband's pride and joy.


Smirnov uses a crocodile as a symbol for women in general. Crocodiles are ambush predators who pretend to be harmless and then rip their prey apart. Smirnov draws on this image when he says, "The most disgusting thing of all is that this crocodile ... imagines that its chef d'oeuvre, its privilege and monopoly, is its tender feelings." He accuses women of acting like crocodiles by hiding their true intentions behind false smiles and taking advantage of their lovers' weaknesses. Poetry may depict women as "poetic creatures," but Smirnov sees ruthlessness and callous deception lurking behind those "passionate eyes." Popova tries at first to play upon Smirnov's sense of propriety and accuses him of acting in an improper manner before a lady, but she doesn't realize that his past heartaches have rendered this tactic completely ineffectual. Smirnov refuses to see her as an honest individual until she threatens him with physical violence. He respects her once she stops pretending to be a gentle victim and acts more like a predator whose territory has been violated.


Smirnov sees Popova as a crocodile when they first meet, but she sees him as a bear. Russian brown bears or Kamchatka bears can weigh up to 650 kilograms or more than 1,400 pounds. In the 19th century they represented a genuine threat to people like Popova and Smirnov who lived in rural areas. They could kill livestock, destroy fences, root up crops, and were very hard to get rid of once they claimed an area as their territory. Popova compares Smirnov to a bear which has pushed its way into her house and now refuses to leave. She calls him a "coarse bear" and later repeats the word "bear" over and over like a child taunting a schoolmate. Smirnov takes great offense to the comparison because he sees himself as a reasonable man. He resents being equated with a destructive pest, and he finally challenges Popova to a duel over the insult.

Questions for Symbols

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