What do you think of when you think of a bear? A large, lumbering creature, unpredictably violent? Perhaps you think of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s jaw-dropping film about a man killed by one of the creatures he so adored? Do you think of the bearded, heavy-set man contrasted, in the informal typology among gay men, with the skinnier, more feminine twink? Or perhaps you think of a cuddly toy?
When Lou, the narrator of Marian Engel’s 1976 novel, Bear, meets a real bear, she finds that “its nose was more pointed than she expected – years of corruption by teddy bears, she supposed”. He is no cuddly toy, but she becomes surprisingly intimate with him. Lou is an archivist in a dusty Canadian Historical Institute. Her life has become narrow and joyless, punctuated by perfunctory sex with the institute’s director. New horizons beckon, however; the institute has been granted the estate of Colonel Jocelyn Cary: an island, with a house containing a large library. The colonel’s English ancestor had served in the Napoleonic wars, and nursed fantasies of living on an island. Cary’s Island is no longer a romantic outpost for colonial adventuring, but a tourist destination – and the estate remains intact, complete with a resident bear.
When Lou arrives in this landscape “hectic with new green”, she has a lurching realisation about the paucity of her life, feeling “as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding”. She journeys upriver to the house, along “this silent, creeping shore”. There are intimations of fairytale, and of horror too, and Engel’s prose is both clipped and lush, pitching between Lou’s dual yearnings: for order and for disarray. Once settled, she is wildly happy with her new solitary kingdom: “an octagonal house, a roomful of books and a bear”. A bear that is “not a toy bear, not a Pooh bear, not an airlines Koala bear. A real bear.”
As she archives the library’s contents, slips of paper fall out of hefty tomes, with the colonel’s handwritten notes on the theme of bears: in myth, history, legend. She is ostensibly there to excavate histories of settlement in the region, but she keeps finding bear-related musings.
She becomes exasperated with many of the books – all “morbid geniuses”, these Victorians. But she finds other joys. She shits next to the bear in the mornings (that will make the bear like her, she’s told), and delights in her verdant surroundings. The bear fascinates her: “His bigness, or rather his ability to change the impression he gave of his size, excited her.” This creature is both an animal and a metonym for masculinity, intimidating and comical by turns. He spends time in the house with her, by the fire, as she works. Reading a 19th-century biography of a famous Regency dandy, while “rubbing her foot in the thick black pelt of a bear”, she feels elated. Yet she has moments of terror: “the horrifying slither of his claws on the linoleum; his change of stature at the top of the stairs”.
Things take a turn. When Lou swims naked in the river, he begins to “run his long, ridged tongue up and down her wet back”. The bear is “like a dog, like a groundhog, like a man: big”. One night, by the fire, he begins to lick her with a tongue “capable of lengthening itself like an eel”, and “like no human being she had ever known it persevered in her pleasure. When she came, she whimpered and the bear licked away her tears.”
Lou becomes lyrical and hazy with love for the bear; a sort of delirium descends on her. She wants him to devour her, but he is good, and gentle, “once laid a soft paw on her naked shoulder, almost lovingly”. Can Lou get what she wants – from a man, or a bear? Eventually, the bear, by sheer dint of being of a bear, injures her.
When Bear was first published, to great acclaim and some controversy, the feminist and women’s liberation movements had been burgeoning for some years in North America and Europe. While the utopian hopes of the 60s had fractured, legislative change had been enacted around abortion, contraception, and equal pay. Arguments for equality and freedom were unfolding alongside internal divisions as to what this freedom would look like. In the late 70s, the emphasis on the right to have a sexuality would be critiqued as the preserve of a largely white cohort, by feminists of colour for whom their own depiction as inherently sexual was a greater source of violence.
A focus on sexual liberation would become itself controversial, then, with feminists of colour arguing that the emphasis on the freedom to (to have sex, to have access to reproductive and contraceptive health services) sidelined the importance of the freedom from (from medical interference, as in the enforced sterilisations imposed on marginalised women, such as those in prison). And while lesbian feminism had always been a crucial part of the emerging women’s movement, it would, in the late 70s, find greater prominence, particularly through the work of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. Just how linked to sex should feminism be? And what kind of sex, for that matter?
The “sex wars” of the 80s were on the horizon, and heterosexual feminists were grappling with men as objects of desire who can nonetheless always pose a threat. Engel is playful, slyly winking on these questions; riffing, for example, on age-old misogynistic associations of women’s genitals with fish, as when Lou buys fish for the bear, which repels her.
At the time Engel was writing, sex research conducted by Alfred Kinsey and colleagues, as well as by William Masters and Virginia Johnson, had put paid to any notion that women were less sexual than men. Their work undid much of the hand-wringing about frigidity that had dominated in previous decades. It also bolstered the importance of the clitoris in women’s sexual satisfaction. Within a certain strand of second-wave feminism, sexual pleasure and political emancipation were tightly linked, with sex and orgasm and the clitoris itself functioning as metaphors for women’s liberation: from men and from patriarchy. Lou plays out these issues, on the rug, by the fire, with the bear.
How will Bear land today – a novel about a repressed woman living on colonised land, mating with an animal? What has changed since then for women? The answer, I think, is: so much, and yet so little. Engel, in the 70s, was writing into and against the expectation that (white) women be virginal and innocent (“What Lou disliked in men was not their eroticism, but their assumption that women had none. Which left women with nothing to be but housemaids”). Women now are increasingly depicted as active and autonomous sexual beings – a depiction that can become a form of duty, as well as a denial of painful realities: for such a depiction does nothing to change the depressingly static rates of sexual violence against women, while evidence of confident sexual desire is used against women in rape trials.
Bear, though, is not just about sex; it’s about sex with a bear – an exploration of mixing between human and animal. Lou experiences her sexual awakening while delving into the mind of Victorian gentlemen scholars, in a library of European scientific endeavour and natural history. Like Darwin, Lou is asking herself: how related are humans and animals?
Rethinking the stark boundaries between animals and humans is promising territory, as Rebecca Tamás recently argued in Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman – “what is good for human equality is good, overall, for nonhuman equality”. Ecological concerns require us to take seriously a “love for things which are nothing like us, and which may not love us back”, writes Tamás, in a utopian exploration of “sharing with, becoming with, the world of which we are a part”. In Bear, there is an erotic thrill not only in being pleasured by the bear, but in the way Lou merges with the swampy, watery terrain. She splashes in the water; nature comes into the house. There is a confusion of boundaries, and an unselfconsciousness that could not be further from the self-monitoring sexuality so encouraged by today’s social media and platform capitalism.
Lou, however, is a white woman, on land settled by white colonisers, and the erotic merging in Bear comes with ambivalence on Engel’s part. Lou’s archive is thick with the musings of white men. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is thought to have written “that Indian poem” nearby – his “Song of Hiawatha” of 1855, featuring First Nations people and the bears of their legends. Lou gradually begins to inhabit the colonialist’s land. She climbs into one of the colonel’s maple trees, “shading her eyes with her hand like a cartoon sailor”, looking far out over the river’s reaches to the sea. While gardening in the heat, “a piece of cheesecloth tied around her head”, she feels “like a colonial civil servant wife’s in India”.
Lou returns to the city enlivened, transformed; is she too a white settler energised by the encounter with nature? Or is Engel doing something different, more ironic and oblique? Bear is delightfully ambiguous, and Engel’s prose too slippery and wry for any pat formulations. But in its mingling of the erotic quandaries for heterosexual women – does one need a man? Does one want an animal? – with the dynamics of human-animal domination, and in its evocation of the lure of landscape, Bear is an acute evocation of human projections on to land and nature.