Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A woman falls in love with a bear.


In "Bear" by Marian Engel, the protagonist Lou is a lonely and repressed librarian who embarks on a journey of self-discovery when she is sent to an isolated island in Northern Ontario to catalogue the estate of Colonel Jocelyn Cary. This controversial and thought-provoking novel explores themes of desire, power dynamics, and the blurred boundaries between human and animal nature.

Brief Synopsis

Set in the 1970s, "Bear" takes place on an isolated island in Northern Ontario, where Lou is tasked with cataloguing the extensive library of Colonel Jocelyn Cary. The island is home to a dilapidated house, a few outbuildings, and a bear named Ursula. As Lou immerses herself in her work, she becomes increasingly drawn to the bear and develops an unconventional relationship with it.

Main Characters

LouThe protagonist, a repressed librarian sent to catalogue the estate
Colonel Jocelyn CaryThe deceased owner of the island estate
UrsulaThe bear on the island, with whom Lou develops a relationship

Summary of Different Story Points

Chapter 1: Arrival on the Island

Lou arrives on the island and is immediately captivated by its beauty and isolation. She meets the caretaker, David, who introduces her to the house and the library. Lou starts her work and discovers Colonel Cary's extensive collection of books.

Chapter 2: The Bear

Lou encounters Ursula, the bear, while exploring the island. She feels a strange connection to the animal and begins to visit her regularly. Lou becomes obsessed with the bear and starts spending more time with her than working on the cataloguing.

Chapter 3: Exploring Desires

Lou's relationship with the bear takes a sexual turn. She begins to engage in intimate encounters with the bear, exploring her own desires and breaking free from societal norms. These interactions blur the boundaries between human and animal, raising questions about power dynamics and consent.

Chapter 4: Society's Judgments

Word spreads about Lou's relationship with the bear, and she faces judgment and condemnation from the small island community. The townspeople view her actions as perverse and unnatural, further isolating Lou and deepening her connection to Ursula.

Chapter 5: The Estate's Legacy

As Lou continues her work in the library, she discovers hidden letters and journals that reveal Colonel Cary's own unconventional desires and relationships with animals. These revelations provide a deeper understanding of the estate's history and the complex nature of human desires.

Chapter 6: The Climax

The climax of the novel occurs when Lou and Ursula engage in a final intimate encounter, symbolizing Lou's liberation from societal constraints and her embrace of her true desires. However, this act also brings tragedy and forces Lou to confront the consequences of her actions.

Main Events

  1. Lou's arrival on the island and her introduction to the house and library.
  2. Lou's increasing fascination with Ursula, the bear, and the development of their unconventional relationship.
  3. Lou's exploration of her own desires and the blurred boundaries between human and animal nature.
  4. Society's judgment and condemnation of Lou's actions, leading to her further isolation.
  5. The discovery of Colonel Cary's own unconventional desires and relationships with animals.
  6. The climax of the novel, where Lou and Ursula engage in a final intimate encounter, leading to tragedy.

Themes and Insights

  • Desire and Liberation: The novel explores how unconventional desires can lead to personal liberation and the breaking of societal norms.
  • Power Dynamics: The relationship between Lou and Ursula raises questions about power dynamics and consent, challenging traditional notions of dominance and submission.
  • Nature vs. Civilization: The isolated island setting juxtaposes the freedom and wildness of nature with the constraints and expectations of society.
  • Isolation and Judgment: Lou's actions and desires set her apart from society, leading to isolation and judgment from others.
  • The Animal Within: The novel delves into the primal and animalistic aspects of human nature, blurring the boundaries between human and animal.

Reader's Takeaway

"Bear" is a provocative and controversial novel that explores themes of desire, power dynamics, and the complex nature of human sexuality. Marian Engel's evocative prose and exploration of taboo subjects challenge the reader to question societal norms and consider the blurred boundaries between human and animal nature.


"Bear" by Marian Engel is a captivating and thought-provoking novel that pushes the boundaries of conventional literature. Through the unconventional relationship between Lou and Ursula, Engel explores themes of desire, power dynamics, and the complex nature of human sexuality. This controversial novel challenges societal norms and invites readers to question the blurred boundaries between human and animal nature. "Bear" is a compelling read that will leave a lasting impression on those brave enough to delve into its pages.

Bear FAQ

  1. What is the book 'Bear' about?

    Bear is a novel written by Marian Engel. It tells the story of a woman named Lou who travels to a remote island in Ontario to work on a book about Canadian folklore. While there, she develops a strange and intense relationship with a bear.

  2. Is 'Bear' based on a true story?

    No, 'Bear' is a work of fiction and is not based on a true story. It is a novel that explores themes of isolation, desire, and the power dynamics between humans and animals.

  3. What genre does 'Bear' belong to?

    'Bear' is classified as a literary fiction novel. It delves into complex themes and uses symbolic elements to explore human emotions and relationships.

  4. Who is the author of 'Bear'?

    Marian Engel is the author of 'Bear'. She was a Canadian novelist and short story writer known for her exploration of feminist themes in her works.

  5. Is 'Bear' suitable for all readers?

    No, 'Bear' contains explicit sexual content and may not be suitable for all readers. It is recommended for mature audiences.

  6. What are some major themes in 'Bear'?

    Some major themes explored in 'Bear' include the human-animal relationship, the power dynamics between humans, the search for connection and intimacy, and the exploration of personal desires and boundaries.

  7. Does 'Bear' have a happy ending?

    The ending of 'Bear' is open to interpretation and has been a subject of debate among readers. It is best experienced by reading the book and forming your own opinion.

  8. Is 'Bear' part of a series?

    No, 'Bear' is a standalone novel and is not part of a series.

  9. Is 'Bear' available in e-book format?

    Yes, 'Bear' is available in e-book format. It can be purchased and downloaded from various online platforms.

  10. Has 'Bear' won any awards?

    Yes, 'Bear' won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction in Canada in 1976. It is considered one of Marian Engel's most notable works.