Classic Canadian literature and the sexual being: Bear by Marian Engel

Bear… she was still not satisfied that this was how the only life she had been offered should be lived.

I often see this novel dismissed as ridiculous and racy in the wrong way; after all, bestiality is one of the sexual taboos that has retained its power across time and cultural difference. Whenever I mention reading this book, I’m met with the same snide response: Isn’t that the book about the woman who has sex with a bear?

And I mean, that’s not wrong. It is, in fact, about a woman who has sex with a bear.

But to stop at that description does the novel an enormous disservice. Bear is a parable of female sexuality – an intense and shocking allegory, sure, but there is so much more you can do with this novel than read it as a literal account of bestiality.

The premise: A librarian travels to a huge, empty house in the Canadian wilderness to catalogue a dusty, ancient library. The house and everything in it has just been left to the government archive, and she is tasked with organizing all of it – from the living room doilies to the trunks of loose papers in the basement.

What she is not told is that this collection includes a bear chained up in the front yard, theoretically tamed by its previous owner.

As the (weirdly steamy) cover is eager to communicate, the protagonist and the bear form what I’m choosing to call a deeply primal relationship – making this one of the internet’s favourite examples of weird Canadian literature.

Our protagonist wants to be a sexual being, but is afraid of what that might mean. After all, as the old adage says, everything is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power. How can she fulfil her sexual desires and yet retain power and agency over her life and body?

Perhaps by defying the boundaries of sex and power altogether. Which she does.

Part of this book’s enduring nature is the fact that it raises questions that are still very much important today – sex, power, and the sometimes uncomfortable binary that exists between men and women on both counts. There’s a reason the National Post labels Bear  the “best Canadian novel of all time”: while many other authors have approached this conversation, I don’t think many have the sheer nerve to frame it the way Engels does. And unlike many other greats of the CanLit canon, Engels writes frankly, clearly, without pretension. It could have been written last fall or this spring; it’s not at all dated.

Long story short: don’t believe the snickers of the internet. If you haven’t picked this novel up yet, you ought to.

What do you think? Is this a book you can see yourself picking up? Or perhaps you picked it up and hated it? Bear is one of four five-star reads for me so far this year but maybe you disagree… share your thoughts in the comments!

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This is my first instalment in the 2016 Classics Challenge; here’s more about the Classics Challenge as a whole and also my personal interpretation.  

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14 thoughts on “Classic Canadian literature and the sexual being: Bear by Marian Engel

  1. I’ve actually never heard of this book ( I’m American, by the way), and was extremely intrigued by the odd cover. Perhaps I’ll have to judge it for myself and read it, because now I don’t know how to feel about it. Thanks for this post; I learned something new!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s really short, which I think helps – it makes it easier to approach it if you’re unsure, because you know you’re not locking yourself into some 1000-page monstrosity. But I recommend looking at some other reviews too to get a feel for it! I definitely love it.

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  2. Your review is very compelling because solely based on the cover I probably wouldn’t put it on my TBR list. I read an excerpt and it sounds…interesting? I’m trying NOT to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it has a surprising amount to contribute to current conversation! It’s a really quick (and surprisingly light) read, so I would highly recommend it for travelling or if you need a break from some longer novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Classic Canadian literature and the sexual being: Bear by Marian Engel | mehseryakova

  4. There are no boundaries in literature. The blank page in your canvas to write whatever story you want you tell.

    I haven’t herd of this book before. But you hold a compelling argument to pick it up. The National Post labels Bear the “best Canadian novel of all time” for example. At some point I’ll source it out.

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  5. I had never heard of this book (I’m American, and in school we had an American lit year and a British lit year – the only Canadian books I read in school were Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, and Obasan). I would probably never have picked up this book on my own, but your description intrigues me. Not sure if I’ll read it any time soon, as I’m working through a backlog of a reading list, but thank you for your perspective!

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    • This is really neat to hear! I’ve always wondered people in other geographic locations read in school. I cringe a bit to think that Anne of Green Gables was your intro to CanLit when there’s so much else out there… if you end up reading Bear, let me know what you think!

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