The advent of phonics, of a penstroke’s power to construct words and sound and human language, has been instrumental in the formation and evolution of the human identity. The grouping of these sounds and syllables allows for an individual and their ascribed traits to be reduced to a single auditory and visual symbol: the name. However, the practice of designating one’s identity to a simple set of sounds can easily go awry; while usually indicative of one’s culture and heritage, names can also misidentify an individual – as they have done in Incidents in the Live of a Slave Girl and in William Faulkner’s The Bear – and morph the identities of Old Ben, Lion, and Linda through the erasive power of the misnomer.
Names are used in Faulkner’s work to muddy distinctions between man and beast.
By giving the bear a “…a name, a definite designation like a living man…” (182-3), Faulkner has essentially elevated Old Ben to human-like status. He states that the bear is unlike any other bear, that he is elusive, mystical, unconquerable. By linking the bear’s new name, an obvious misnomer, to these traits, Faulkner weakens the bear’s animalistic identity and likens man to something greater than beast – which is ironic, considering man’s unfortunate tendency to be conquered by beast. Lion is another, more specific example of the name’s ability to erase and evolve identities into something foreign from their natural state. While Old Ben was given a human-like name for comically inhuman-like-traits, the Airdale that lived for the hunt and the kill was renamed, arguably, appropriately. However, by equating an apparent viciousness and a unique underlying sense of “courage” and “endurance” (225) to the dominant, majestic traits of the lion, Faulkner erases the identity of the dog, setting the precedent that dog is of lower rank than the lion in regards to beastliness. Through renaming, the bear and the dog are differentiated from their lamer counterparts – the dogs who don’t measure up and the bears of whom death cannot escape – which ultimately weakens the identity of the animal and misplaces their powers with those of a higher-ranking “beast.”
In Harriet Jacob’s recollection of her life as a slave, she refers to herself as Linda. While names in Faulkner’s work erased distinctions between man and bear and dog and lion, the renaming of slaves was indicative of an all-too-familiar effort to erase traces of African culture and heritage from black identities. The masking of Linda’s rich native roots with a common Anglo-Saxon name weakens her former identity and forces her to adopt one of subservience. While Faulkner only attributed beastliness, a “good” quality, to outstanding members of the dog and bear communities, Jacob points to a more widespread phenomenon: all humans “conquered” by slavery were demoted to property – the furthest, and most insulting, most powerless, position from beast.
The bear, when mighty and powerful and unconquerable, is not a bear anymore; it is a human-like beast. The dog, when it does not cower or retreat from danger, is not a dog anymore; it is a lion, a beast of higher degree. The slave, when forcibly removed from her homeland and brutally beaten and manipulated by white men and women, is not a dignified woman of African descent anymore; she is objectified, whitewashed, assimilated. It is important to note human’s tendency to attribute power and mystique and invincibility with identities that they claim to have more worth and more depth. It is important, also, to note that when doing so, the “lesser identity” becomes, in fact, weaker. The picking and choosing of traits and the misattribution and misplacement and erasure of identities, therefore, leaves a less accurate and less honorable depiction of a species or culture that has been marginalized. On a larger scale, failing to recognize the inevitable falsities of the name, the corruption of sound and syllables, the lumping of groups, and the gerrymandering of traits is what inevitably gives rise to prejudice and other fallacies in human’s judgment and perception of others.