For a short story to appear in a tome such as “Modern Classics of Fantasy,” it must contain fantastical elements that set it apart from the conventional narrative. For example, in Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire,” a reader is introduced to the main story line of the narrator, Bobby, as he gets stranded on the side of the road with his brother and nephew. As darkness descends, the secondary plot element of bears having the ability to create fire is not only introduced but utilized as a propellant for the story. With that said, a close look will be taken into the elements of Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire” to reveal how the ingenuity of the bears serves as a parallel to the main story arch of the narrator’s loss of the American Dream.
The fantastical element within the story occurs without the expected excitement. Bears discover fire, the local news station (the narrator is never sure which one) document footage, but essentially the lives of the characters are utterly unaffected by the seemingly outstanding phenomenon. A reader can interpret this one of two ways. First, that the characters within the story are capable of accepting bears as higher, more evolved beings within their daily life—something vaguely interesting but will soon become too commonplace to worry about. Or, second, that the bears discovering fire signal a much deeper significance within the main story arch: that the bears parallel the narrator’s personal discovery that life has passed him by and he was never able to achieve anything more significant than being adept at changing tires; a remarkable matter when it becomes clear within the first few moments that his skill is a dying art and he is now replaceable by “stuff called FlatFix…$3.95 the can” (Bisson 523) The reader experiences the same encroaching depression, as “weak [and] flicker” (523) as the flashlight that refuses to light the narrator’s way, as he becomes relevant only within his own life.
A pivotal moment in the story occurs when the narrator is sitting across the fire from a group of bears and he is impacted by a revelation about the nature of the human-like creatures. Though they have come together in a social group to utilize the benefits of fire, only a few bears seem to have the ability to control it “and were carrying the others along” (529). He reflects that “isn’t that how it is with everything?” (529). The narrator’s revelation is entirely unresolved, but the author was, perhaps, leading a reader to their own conclusions about how people work within social groups. A few people have the skill to make fire, cook meals, make repairs, etc, while others are being carried along because they do not possess said skill. Yet, the group still functions.
The narrator is at once struck by the beauty of the fire, the “little dramas were being played out as fiery chambers were created and then destroyed in a crashing of sparks” (529). This moment, as miniscule as it may seem to the reader, serves to highlight the deeper theme of how the American Dream has been lost for the narrator. Life is full of “fiery chambers” that dance and envelope a person still capable of maintaining the passion to reach for their dream. But as with many who have held a dream and let it go (for reasons of life, love, or accident), that dream is “destroyed” exactly like the blazing cherubs of hope within the pit of fire.
Outside his own imagination, he looks across the fiery circle “at the bears and wondered what they saw. Some had their eyes closed. Though they were gathered together, their spirits still seemed solitary, as if each bear was sitting alone in front of its own fire” (529). Struck by the solitary nature of the animals, he has found that though they work together as a group for the benefit of their survival, they are entirely independent from the group as a whole. Essentially, they are still in a form of hibernation, separated from the whole by their own individuality.
Moreover, “bears may have discovered fire centuries ago…but forgot it…[but] now they were able to remember things from year to year” (525). Just like the narrator, who is now in his sixties and has forgotten what it is to actually live life, the bears were caught in a void of hibernation, where the outside world simply exists, without changing, around them while they sleep. He doesn’t dwell on this for more than a second, but the narrator has understood, on a visceral level, that he might have been asleep for most of his life as well.
The deeper story within a story is the narrator’s real existence as he deals with having a mother in a nursing home while acknowledging that she has already given up on this life, and that she is ready to die. It’s common for her to comment that “I’ve drove a million miles and I’m ready to pass over to the other shore. I won’t have long to linger here” (524). Her doctors understood that she was ready to ascend to the afterlife, but her body was not yet ready to relinquish her mind to the great beyond. The narrator has accepted this, but it isn’t until her escape from the nursing home and moment of divine peace with the bears around the fire circle that he glimpses the tranquility she has achieved.
In the beginning of the story, the narrator has experienced a flat tire and is berated by his brother, Wallace, for refusing to evolve with the technology now available. Being that there is literally nothing he can do than to fix the tire as he knows how, he goes about the proper methodology and mentally grumbles to himself that “even if you’re not going to fix and mount [tires], you’re still going to have to change a few in this life” (523). At this moment, the reader is being set up by the story with a glimpse into the narrator’s world—one where he is resistant to change, where he has lived a basic and uneventful life, and one in which he is beginning to understand that people and society have moved on without him. On the other hand, this short introduction also introduces the reader to the one fantastical element within the story: bears discovering fire.
Ultimately, there are several ways a reader can interpret Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire.” It can become a thematic review of the crossroad that every child faces when, nearing the climax of their own lives, they are forced to release a parent into the afterlife, while it can also reinforce the parallel between the narrator’s mother’s journey into hibernation as compared to the bears’ journey into the comfort of wakefulness and fire. It can also highlight the deeper parallel between the bears construction of fire and refusal to hibernate any longer with the narrator’s realization that he has been asleep, just like the bears. While they slept, so too did he sleep, and let his life, and any chance at the American Dream, pass him by. Overall, the elements of Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire” reveal how the resourcefulness of the bears defines a parallel to the main story arch of the narrator’s loss of the American Dream.
Bisson, Terry. “Bears Discover Fire.” Modern Classics of Fantasy. Ed. Gordon Van Glider.
New York: Gardner Dozois, 1997.