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From Consolidation to Chaos: Oppositional Stances within the Critical Reception of Bear

By Grace Lang

In 1997, while giving a speech at the University of Ottawa, Margaret Atwood attributed Canadian literature’s gravitation towards historical fiction during the previous two decades partly to”the lure of the Canadian past” (1509). “For the writers of my generation,” she declared, “[it] has been partly the lure of the unmentionable – the mysterious, the buried, the forgotten, the discarded, the taboo” (Atwood 1509). Atwood’s generation, Canadian writers in the sixties and seventies who devoted their writing to finding a national “cadence,” attempted to create a body of literature that would answer the question “where is here?” Lee 154; (Frye 217). Works such as Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners (1974), and Marian Engel’s Bear (1976) are examples of this concerted effort. All set against the backdrop of the Canadian landscape, these works contain female protagonists who attempt to reconcile the parallel developments of their gendered and national identities. 

This essay will focus on how Marian Engel’s Bear emerged as a breakout hit during this period of collective aspiration toward a unified Canadian identity. Following its publication, Bear‘s critical reception indicated that a high-water mark had arrived for CanLit. Engel’s novel tells the story of Lou, a librarian from the Historical Institute in Toronto, who travels to Northern Ontario for the summer to catalogue books at the Cary estate. While living on an isolated island, Lou engages in a one-sided romance with a bear that lives, chained, to an outhouse on the property. What begins as an earnest archiving of “early settlement in the area”quickly turns into Lou’s exploration of her psyche and the Canadian wilderness (Engel 113). Though Engel’s work had generally been regarded as “flashes of brilliance with fine writing… Bear was different” (Gault 32): “reviewers across the country were amazed and delighted. Bear won the Governor General’s Award in 1976, and Marian Engel became a literary star” (Cowan 7). 

I will examine the critical reception of Bear in the twenty years following its publication, both its first horizon of readers – giddy on the rise of second-wave feminism and burgeoning Canadian nationalism – as well as criticism in the sobering wake of these waning identity movements. Emerging out of two decades of critical commentary are two parallel interpretations of Engel’s novel: Bear as romance, and Bear as realism. When interpreted as a romance, Bear becomes a “feminized version of the Canadian wilderness myth,” a quest to unify female and national identities against the backdrop of the Canadian shield (Howells 113). In contrast, when read as realist, Bear is a pragmatic playing out of “historical and gendered circumstances,” and in turn, reveals Lou’s final retreat back into the city as “strategically non-triumphant” (Gault 30). Through acknowledging both the romantic and realist readings of Bear, I argue that these oppositional stances within its critical reception indicate the existence of parallel and conflicting national and gendered identities within the novel. My critical survey of Engel’s novel reveals that these identities are not in harmony with one another, nor is their conflict at the expense of the novel, but rather Engel’s “interpenetration of realism and romance” (Gault 39) creates a portrait of female Canadian identity that transcends integration or resolution (Gault 39). 

Bear’s initial critical reception, or its first horizon, was steeped in romance. Early on, the success of Engel’s 1976 “romance” was defined by its perceived function of exploring, renewing, and naturalizing identities of gender and nationalism. Bear’s primary critical consensus was that the novel was part of a “trajectory towards consolidation, self-understanding, salvation, and success” (Gault 30). Critics such as Doris Cowan (1978), Donald S. Hair (1982), and William French (1976) argue that Bear’s exploration of both Lou’s female and national identities is achieved through romance. All three critics articulate the novel’s romantic elements as its source of power. Cowan writes that Bear’s story of “woman and the beast,” evokes a “mythic quality,” and “is one of those tales in which the structure and the elements correspond to some unconscious expectation, satisfying some desire for meaning we are scarcely aware of” (Cowan 10). 

Similarly, Hair cites the guiding force of this novel as “the conventional action of romance,” or more specifically, “the quest in search of treasure which is guarded by the monster” (36). More coarsely, French argues that Bear’s “several layers of meaning, symbolic overtones, and mythic implications” indicate its romantic nature, and “the point seems to be that just as European culture flowered after a primitive era, so there is hope for ours” (38). For, he reasons, “girls don’t sleep with bears in novels just for the hell of it; there must be literary significance” (38). Together, these critics propose an initial interpretation of Bear that cites its romantic elements, specifically its quest structure and mythic associations, as enabling Engel to explore deeper themes of identity. 

Furthermore, those situated in Bear’s romantic camp not only believed that the novel’s romantic elements enabled Engel to explore dimensions of identity, but also offered her audience a reconciliation and renewal of identity. Critics argued that Bear’s romanticism gave “the reader a new awareness of the mystery at the heart of things” (Baker 127), finally revealing Engel’s direct grasp on the relationships between humans and animals, woman and landscape. In her 1976 review “Pooh at Puberty” in Books in Canada, Adele Wiseman interprets the penultimate scene of the bear clawing at Lou’s back while the protagonist goes “down on all fours in front of him” as a spiritual union between wild animal and woman (Engel 131). “Never will I forget the paradoxical benediction of that raking claw,” she writes of the scene, “that seals the mysteries of their separate identities and enables her to return renewed as a human being” (Wiseman 6). Wiseman further describes Lou as “cleansed,” her return to civilization bringing “the hope for the possibility and reconciliation for us all” (6). Both Wiseman, and another critic David Mattison interpret Lou’s return from wilderness back to the city as a journey that ends in rebirth. In another 1976 review in Quill in Quire, Mattison describes the experience of reading Bear as emerging “with a chilly yet marvellous sense of well-being – a feeling that in some deep and indefinable way, things really are alright” (36). Taking Lou’s premonitions at face value: “I have an odd sense,” she wr[ites] on a postcard to the Director, “of being reborn” (Engel 19), these critics engage in a romantic interpretation of Bear that idealizes its conclusion, claiming that Engel offers readers hope of a cohesive national identity through Lou.  

The critics mentioned thus far cite the romantic elements of Bear as both enabling a mythic exploration of Canadian identity, indicating the novel’s allusions to a potential cultural renewal. Yet the most potent romantic interpretation of Bear is one that understands it as a consolidation of female and national identity. Certain critics have argued that through Lou, Engel consolidates previously conflicting identities of womanhood and Canadian nationalism through her journey of self-discovery. After her physical and emotional relationship ends with the bear, Lou returns to Toronto, feeling “strong and pure” (Engel 140). As she drives south, in the sky, “overhead the Great Bear and his thirty-seven thousand virgins kept her company” (Engel 141). Carol Ann Howells writes that, like Atwood’s SurfacingBear attempts to “inscribe female sexuality on the wilderness” (105). In doing so, Howells argues that Bear “becomes an unfamiliar journey into the wilderness of Lou’s own psyche as well of the Canadian place itself,” and thus is a “quest for the unity of being” (113).

In another 1976 review of Bear for Atlantis, Janet Baker makes a case for this naturalization between the Canadian landscape and female identity with the conviction that such wilderness can “bring into relief what it means, in turn, to be human and what, particularly, it means to be female” (127). Baker states that “female Canadian identity has often been defined in terms of contact with the formidable environment” and that from Ethel Wilson to Atwood and now Engel, “Canadian literature is well stocked with wilderness women” (127). These critics claim that when Lou leaves Northern Ontario, she concludes this “quest,” she returns home with an understanding of her “female Canadian identity.” Together, Howells’ and Baker’s reasoning suggests that Lou’s journey has resulted in the discovery of her personal and national identity and, more importantly, that their coexistence is harmonious. 

I will now take this opportunity to use the romantic interpretation of harmony between female and national identities in Bear as a point of departure into the realist critical analysis of the novel. The romantic interpretation of harmony between Lou’s identities as a woman and Canadian is the central point of contention between interpretations  –  it is effectively where a realist interpretation attempts to intercede. As the dominant propulsion towards a cohesive Canadian identity was beginning to wane in the eighties, realist interpretations of Bear no longer approached this idea of collective identity with the same intense idealism as romantic readings had once done, but with acute skepticism. These realist critics saw that Bear’s “gendered and national paths toward self-discovery might actually pose problems for one another,” and unlike realist interpretation, argued that these identities “cannot be braided together in a way that avoids tangible danger to Lou” (Gault 34). In short, the following critics read Lou and the bear’s unconsummated relationship as indicative of their difference, and furthermore, her return to the city as a failure of her connection with the landscape. 

In her 1987 book Marian Engel and Her Works, Elizabeth Brady revisits the final scene of physical contact between Lou and the bear — one that Adele Wiseman had previously understood as combining Lou’s feminine identity with the bear’s primal nature. Instead, Brady analyzes the scene’s realist implications, highlighting its overt violence: the bear reaches out with one great paw and rips the skin on the protagonist’s back. Brady reads the scene as between a human and animal, emphasizing that Lou “could see nothing, nothing” in the emotionless eyes of the bear in front of her (Engel 132). Brady argues that if Lou and the bear’s relationship is to function as the degree to “which her goal of reconciling wilderness and society is attainable,” as the romantic interpretation so often calls for, “then the naturalistic level must be given full play” (40). Here, the naturalism Brady refers to is not a romantic consolidation of feminine and national identity, but the rough and primal natural forces that Lou faces in the novel. The inability of Lou and the bear to fully unify, precisely because one partner is a wild animal, reveals how they “exist in a state of suspension” and indicate how “Engel wants to make clear that the problems of contemporary civilization are immeasurably more complex than those of any purely mythic wilderness” (40).

If Lou’s inability to fornicate with the bear and subsequent return to the city indicates not a transformation and renewal of identity as Bear‘s romantic interpretations so often lead us to believe, then a realist reading reveals the failed union between the pair. In another review in Atlantis – twelve years after Janet Baker’s remarks about Bear’s naturalization of national and female identities – Margery Fee argues that the novel is “deformed by contradictions” (20). Taking specific aim at romantic interpretations of the evolution of Lou’s identity, Fee writes that Lou “cannot resolve her problems with male domination in isolation because female subjectivity is socially constructed” (Fee 20). Fee acknowledges that while “Engel manages to debunk the colonial mentality,” the author cannot “imagine her way past the problems of contemporary male-female relations” (Fee 21).  By reading the bear as a symbol of male domination, Fee argues that interactions between the animal’s primal nature and Lou’s human one reveal the complex relationship between male and female relationships, rather than a romantic union. The bear’s claw grounds the scene in reality. 

A realist reading also shrouds Bear’s ending in ambiguity  –  the question of Lou’s fate, if not a romantic image of cohesive identity  – remains undecided as the novel ends before she returns to the city. Neither a romantic nor realist interpretation can account for Lou’s fate. In 1995, Christl Verduyn attributed the novel’s ambivalent finality as the author’s hesitation to delve into realist implications of Lou’s return to civilization. Though “Engel was aware of the issue of women’s social survival as subjects of desire and discourse… this was still taboo terrain” (137). Moreover, Verduyn posits that Engel’s final suspension of her protagonist’s fate is an attempt to combine the oppositional forces in Lou’s life in order “to avoid a dichotomized and alienated existence” for her protagonist (9). Engel’s representation of Lou, as a Canadian and woman, within this journey into the wild landscape and (almost) back to civilization becomes an opportunity for Engel to represent a female Canadian identity without integration or resolution between these parallel identifiers. As Cinda Gault surmises, “Engel’s attempt to fuse rather than choose opposite worlds leaves room for a certain amount of anti-patriarchal chaos” (38). If a romantic reading of Bear is naïve to the realities that Lou faces as a woman, and a realist reading leaves the narrative unresolved, then a romantic-realist reading can account for Engel’s fusion of contradictions. Engel’s unique combination of realism and romance enable her to reveal the conflicts of existence within Lou’s identity, combining a mythic and transcendent nationalism within her physical reality as a woman. 

Canadian writers such as Marian Engel had come of age “with the illusions that there was not then, and never been, a Canadian literature” (Atwood 1504). As a national literature began to emerge in the sixties and seventies, questions about its voice and how it would articulate land, people, and identity began to arise. Critical reception of Marian Engel’s Bear reveals the twin desires of Canadian literature to transcend new heights of romantic and mythic nationalism, while acknowledging its citizens’ verifiable realities and experiences. The author employs the Northern Ontario landscape and its bear as part of her project to fuse these contradictions of identity. Lou echoes Engel within Bear: as “she had discovered that she could paint any face on [the bear] that she wanted, while his actual range of expressions was a mystery” (Engel 78-79). Engel’s critics indicate that both romanticism and realism can be accounted for in her 1976 novel. Moreover, that they should be read in tandem, creating a portrait of the contradictions that define the female Canadian identity.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction.” The American Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 5, 1998, pp. 1503–16. 

Baker, Janet. “Review of Bear by Marian Engel.” Atlantis, vol 2., no. 1, 1976, pp.125-27.

Brady, Elizabeth. Marian Engel and Her Works. Toronto: ECW, 1987. 

Cowan, Doris. “The Heroine of Her Own Life: The Force that Ripples Through Marian Engel’s Novels is the Power to Speak in Her Own Voice.” Books in Canada, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978, pp. 7-10.

Engel, Marian. Bear: A Novel. McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Gault, Cinda. “Marian Engel’s Bear: Romance or Realism?” Canadian Literature Review, no. 197, 2008, pp. 29-40. 

French, William. “. . . And We Do Learn a Lot About Bears.” The Globe and Mail, April 10 1976, p. 38.

Frye, Northrop, and Linda Hutcheon. The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. House of Anansi Press, 2011. 

Hair, Donald S. “Marian Engel’s Bear.”  Canadian Literature Review, no. 92, 1982, pp. 34-45.

Howells, Coral Ann. “Marian Engel’s Bear: Pastoral, Porn, and Myth.” Ariel, vol. 17, no. 4, 1986, pp. 105-114. 

Jauss, Hans Robert, and Elizabeth Benzinger. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory.” New Literary History, vol. 2, no. 1, 1970, pp. 7–37.

Lee, Dennis. “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space.” Boundary 2, vol. 3, no. 1, 1974, pp. 151–68. 

Lockwood, Patricia. “Pull of my head: What a Bear Wants.” London Review of Books, vol. 43, no. 16, 2021. 

Mattison, David. “Review of Bear by Marian Engel.” Quill and Quire, vol, 42, no.7, 1976, pp. 36. 

McGregor, Gaile. The Wacousta Syndrome: Explorations in the Canadian Landscape. University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Thompson, Kent. “Review of Bear by Marian Engel.” Axiom, vol. 2, no. 5,1976, pp. 32-33. 

Verduyn, Christl. Lifelines: Marian Engel’s Writings, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.

Wiseman, Adele. “Pooh at Puberty: Engel’s Fabulous Shaggy Bear Story Carries Ursophilia to a New Plateau.” Books in Canada, vol. 5, no. 4, 1976, pp. 6-8.

About the Author: Grace is a U3 Honours Literature student currently writing about the influence of Rainier Maria Rilke in Michael Ondaatje’s long poem “Tin Roof.” She hopes to continue to study and write about Canadian Literature next year during her MA.