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The Bear | Study Guide

William Faulkner

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The Bear | Themes


Men and Women

The relationship between men and women and their prescribed roles in society is a recurring theme in The Bear. At the beginning of the play, Elena Popova claims that it is her duty as a loyal wife to mourn her husband even though he was unfaithful to her. She tells Luka, "I shall be true till death, and show him how I can love." She imagines that both the townspeople and her dead husband are watching and judging her based on her behavior now that Nicolai Mihailovitch is gone. Nicolai showed no such concern for his wife's reputation when he was alive. He engaged in multiple affairs and went so far as to romance his mistresses directly in front of Popova. Chekhov establishes from the beginning of The Bear that men and women are held to very different standards of behavior.

Grigory Smirnov openly mocks women, but his perspectives on gender are actually very relaxed for his time. He claims that men are more useful to society with the comment, "While a man is suffering and making sacrifices all her love expresses itself in her playing about with her scarf." He later says that Popova has "the misfortune to be a woman" and therefore should know how flawed her gender is. However, he also argues that men and women should be bound by the same social code. He treats Popova as an equal when he challenges her to a duel. Society insists that Popova is incapable of making her own decisions and defending herself because she is a member of "the softer sex." However, Smirnov goes so far as to teach Popova how to fire a gun so she can more effectively defend her point of view in a duel.

Popova's primary experiences with men appear to have been with her emotionally abusive husband Nicolai and her elderly footman Luka. Luka is a benevolent guardian now, but he appears to have allowed Nicolai's abuse of Popova when Nicolai was alive. Popova mentions that Luka was aware of Nicolai's behavior, but there is no sign that Luka ever confronted his master about Nicolai's treatment of Popova. Smirnov's praise of men as the far more faithful sex prompts Popova to unleash her mostly buried anger at her husband. She accuses Nicolai of taking advantage of her youth and innocence for his own gain. She asserts, "I gave him my youth, my happiness, my life, my fortune." Like Smirnov, she offered her innermost being to her lover and was broken over and over again by his betrayals. This pain has shaped her general outlook on men. Even after Smirnov confesses his love, Popova believes he is somehow manipulating her. Men in her culture have much more power than women. She has seen firsthand that men are allowed to play the part of scoundrels while their wives are expected to praise them amidst their faults. She and Smirnov are both fed up with their culture's rules regarding men and women. They begin to bond when they realize they are both fighting the same battle, albeit from different directions.


Chekhov offers his readers multiple versions of love in his play. Elena Popova believes that love should have no limits when it comes to a person's dedication to their spouse. She is aware of her husband's infidelity, but she still feels bound to surrender her own life in honor of his memory. She tells Luka that "when Nicolai Mihailovitch died, life lost all its meaning for me." Finding new love feels like treason. It is also suggested that Popova has decided to avoid future relationships because she believes her heart will only be broken all over again. Her distrust of men shows itself through her interactions with Smirnov such as when she assumes that his confession of love is nothing but another manipulation of her feelings.

Luka has a much more relaxed view of love than his mistress. He lost his wife years ago and has since moved on with his life. He tells Popova, "I wept for a month ... but if I've got to weep for a whole age, well, the old woman isn't worth it." Luka argues to Popova that love should have limits. In his eyes Popova has mourned Nicolai enough considering all the grief he put her through when he was alive. Popova's devotion is admirable up to a point, but he worries that her sadness over Nicolai is no longer constructive. He insists that moving on from one love to the next is a natural part of life. Popova gave everything in her life to her husband. Now it is time for Popova to find someone who will sacrifice for her.

Smirnov's wildly shifting perspective on romance suggests that a person's viewpoint on love does not and honestly should not remain the same forever. He enters the play convinced that he is finished with love. All his fleeting romances have ended in sorrow, and he has sworn off women. He remarks, "I'd rather sit on a barrel of gunpowder than talk to a woman." Smirnov claims that love is a pointless waste of his time and resources. Then he falls in love with Popova after a single encounter. This marked change in his feelings even catches him off guard. He says to Popova, "I'd taken a vow, and now all of a sudden I'm in love, like a fish out of water!" He even presents his feelings as beyond his control with the line, "Well, is it my fault that I like you?" Love makes him renege on his promise to remain alone for the rest of his life. He and Popova, who have both sworn they would never love again, end up kissing in front of Popova's servants at the end of the play.

Art and Reality

Popova and Smirnov occupy opposing positions on the spectrum of art and reality when they first meet each other. Popova sees herself as a poetic symbol of sacrificial love and has chosen to disregard all practicality in her grief. She has not left her house since her husband's funeral. She insists dramatically to Luka that she is already dead. Her life is about performance. When she was married to Nicolai, she played the role of the loving and tolerant wife even though he flaunted his affairs. Now she has adopted the role of the grief-stricken, tragic widow, and Nicolai continues to be her audience. She imagines he can see her and is ashamed by his conduct. Popova shows very little concern for reality when it contradicts her idealized version of the world.

Smirnov is presented as a relentless realist. While Popova is occupied by ideas of art and public opinion, Smirnov only wants to pay off his mortgage. He does not care what his debtors think of him nor how society views him in general. At one point he remarks that people are always criticizing his angry appearance. He replies, "But how on earth am I not to get angry?" He then goes on to list all of the difficulties in life he is currently facing to justify his dour mood. Smirnov is interested less in appearances and more in a person's character. He knows people think he is a callous, mean man, but he knows that he is a gentleman at heart. This knowledge is enough for him.

When Popova explains her plan to die in solitude, Smirnov decides she is primarily motivated by the idea that her tremendous display of grief will one day inspire poems and stories. He mocks her by saying, "When some junker or some tame poet goes past your windows he'll think: 'There lives the mysterious Tamara who ... buried herself between four walls.'" Smirnov's criticism suggests that Popova's grief is based on a self-centered desire for praise. Her marriage failed to live up to her storybook expectations, so she is determined that her grief will be flawless in its execution. It will be larger than life and will endure long after her, erasing the dishonor her husband heaped upon her.

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