Most of us enjoy coming-of-age stories like Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Catcher in the Rye, Lord Jim and especially William Faulkner’s best short story, The Bear. Alice Walker and Ruth McHenry Stuart are also masters of the genre.
In Huck’s naïve acceptance of the mores of white Southern Missouri, Mark Twain sets forth a great ironic exposure of societal ills in the pre-Civil War South. When Huck decides to become a “dirty low-down Abolitionist” in helping Jim escape slavery, the satire is perfect: he guiltily thinks he is doing wrong in the eyes of his country when, in reality, he performs an honorable deed with deep and heartfelt altruism.
Like Huck, Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s great masterpiece, Moby Dick, shows through all the episodes of the book that he has come of age in suffering many a conflict, many a doubt. In a sense, Ishmael is both part of the story and separate from it, giving creative impetus to the breathtaking tale filled with cetology and culminating in a confrontation with the Leviathan himself—the great white whale. Like Huck, his narration is full of irony. For example, when he rooms with a South Sea native, he concludes that it is better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
Salinger adopts this ironic mode in Catcher in the Rye as well. The protagonist, Holden Caulfield, goes from innocence, loss, identity crises to human connection and belonging. The theme of youthful alienation has made the book a favorite of young readers since the 1950s. The great movie Rebel Without a Cause follows a similar path to show in Jim Stark the healing power of connection and belonging and accepting the way things are. Catcher in the Rye is a story about coming to terms with exactly that: the way things are.
Contrarily, Conrad’s complex novel Lord Jim is about coming to terms with the past. Jim has made the mistake of abandoning a passenger ship in distress and is censured for it. The novel follows his coming to terms with himself and his past with one ironic twist after another.
Faulkner’s ambitious story The Bear, though, is about coming to terms with the human condition itself. The young Ike has a chance to shoot the huge menacing bear but cannot pull the trigger. His older cousin questions him about this and Ike cannot explain himself. The cousin reads him Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn and tells him it is about Truth. Truth, he explains, is what the heart holds to: love, honor, pride, sacrifice and pity. The bear represents universal truth to the boy and that is why he cannot pull the trigger.
All of these stories, and many others like Young Goodman Brown and Tom Jones, are about learning to keep on living after discovering deep flaws in the world. People have feet of clay and things often have a way of turning out badly. Each author gives a unique spin to the phenomenon, but none as skillfully as Faulkner. What Ike learns from the old bear and his cousin is priceless. Truth is one. It covers all things that touch the heart. And, what the heart holds to becomes Truth as far as we can know it.