Are You Team Bear? This Novel Was Ahead of the Curve

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Are You Team Bear? This Novel Was Ahead of the Curve

It’s an intriguing quandary. Would you, a single woman, rather be left alone in the woods with a man you don’t know or a wild bear? Social media has been afire with this question in recent months. Surely you would pick the human, right? Well, that hasn’t been the case. A hell of a lot of women have been eager to admit that they’d choose the bear. Statistically speaking, it makes sense. Women are far more likely to be hurt by the man than the beast. According to Femicide Census, “men’s violence against women is a leading cause of premature death for women globally.” The bear will probably leave you alone as long as you stay out of their turf. The guy? Who wants to take that risk?

Many women have had fun with this hypothetical, mocking outraged men’s responses and sharing some of the cuter bears in pop culture, from Baloo in Disney’s The Jungle Book to the ursine hunk of Pamela Ribon’s comic My Boyfriend is a Bear. They’re not considered especially romantic figures (unless you count your Valentine’s Day teddies), but their primal appeal in the vast realms of nature is no mystery. Nearly 50 years ago, however, one very nervy Canadian author decided to explore the liminal space between humans and the wild with a bear at its center. And yes, a woman does f**k that bear.

Appropriately titled Bear, this novel by Marian Engel, published in 1976, was described by The Canadian Encyclopedia as “the most controversial novel ever written in Canada.” It’s not hard to see why. Again, a woman has sex with a bear, but there is far more going on between the covers than just that. Set in the Northeast of Ontario, the novel follows Lou, a dissatisfied young archivist who moves to the area to work on documenting the house of one of its residents, the late Colonel Cary. She hopes to find some peace in the countryside, far away from her drab life and desk job in Toronto. Lurking on the land around the Colonel’s house is a bear, the unofficial mascot of the region who the Colonel treated as a pet. Soon, she begins to approach the bear, moving closer and closer until they are one. This bear is her solace, or so she hopes.

Let’s get to the juicy stuff first. This bear, “not a handsome beast” according to Lou, enthralls her. At first, she is a mere voyeur to this creature, a wild animal chained to the ground who has become a mundanity to the locals. Then she defecates in front of him, a sign that she’s ready to work on his terms. Then the bear visits her in her home. They swim together, with him “playfully” tossing her around in the waters of the lake. It doesn’t seem all that shocking when, one night, they cuddle up in front of the fireplace and the bear begins to perform cunnilingus on Lou. “Eat me, bear,” she declares.

Bear is a remarkably unfussy novel, beautifully written but so matter-of-fact about its outlandish premise that you’re enveloped by Lou’s journey of self-discovery before you fully realize what she desires. This is a realist novel but it’s still rooted in the traditions of fairy tales and folklore. Engel cited the story of the Bear Princess, rooted in the mythology of the Haida people (a First Nations community based in British Columbia), as a key inspiration for the novel. Bears feature prominently in classic lore, as do stories where women have sexual relationships with animals. For Engel, the interspecies romance is a way to explore both the limits of feminine desire and one’s relationship with the Canada of the past, present, and future.

Lou is no meek damsel seduced by the brutish alpha male. She is aggressive in her pursuit of the bear, even as it becomes clear to the reader that it would be best if she left the poor animal alone. She projects her desire and solitude onto the bear, believing him to be a kindred spirit. He seems to be a far better option for a romantic partner than any of the other men on the island (or her life, in general.) Hey, we’re all thinking about running into the woods and joining Team Bear these days so who can blame Lou for welcoming this one into her new home and letting him go to down on her nipples?

The flip side to that is the obvious issue of consent. The bear is really just minding his own business. Humans love to anthropomorphize animals, whether it’s in children’s stories or nature documentaries, as a way to bring our species closer to the wonders of the wild. We like to pretend that we have special bonds with animals, that they understand our words and emotions (hello, My Octopus Teacher.) In Bear, the truth is starker. It echoes the First Nations-settler dynamic that has defined Canada. A white person turns up on Indigenous land, sees the beautiful world and culture of another community, and immediately projects her own crap onto it, whether they like it or not.

In the end, Lou is awoken from her stupor when the bear slashes her back after she gets down on all fours as an invitation for him to fully consummate their love. It’s not done in a violent attack but just because that’s what bears do. It’s a sign that even Lou can’t ignore that it’s time for her to go back to her city life. It seems like a moment of closure for her, like she’s a heroine in a rom-com and just had a healing fling with her dream guy in the picturesque countryside. Engel, however, doesn’t allow this to be a wholly earnest experience. It’s clear that there’s something ridiculous about Lou’s mindset, even if it’s oddly relatable. Who hasn’t had a great quickie with someone who was all wrong for you?

Engel wrote other non-bestial novels but Bear is her magnum opus for a reason, and one of the most enduring titles in Canadian literature well beyond the shock and memes. Stories like this remain popular, whether you’re disgusted or titillated by them, because even the most conservative person can understand the appeal of abandoning humanity in favor of the great unknown. Whatever side of the man vs. bear debate you’re on, it’s a book worth your time and serious consideration. But, let’s be honest, you’re definitely Team Bear, right?

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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