Touching Spirit Bear

Describe Spirit Bear. How does Cole's response to the majestic creature change throughout the novel?

When you describe it I have to describe attitude, and feelings, not just looks!

Asked by
Last updated by Youruichi
Answers 9
Add Yours

Spirit Bear

Although an animal, the Spirit Bear is a truly central character in this novel. Hardly a chapter goes by without a mention of him. His presence on the island is almost mythical since Spirit Bears are supposed to live somewhere southeast of the island. However, Cole repeatedly sees the bear in his first few days on the island. When he assaults the Spirit Bear, it violently retaliates against Cole. While the figure assumes a highly symbolic role, its real existence as a formidable beast to be reckoned with is a strong counter to Cole's own pride and anger.


Spirit Bear is not your average bear. It seems there for a purpose and that purpose is Cole. Their initial encounter goes something like this,

The bear is fast and incredibly powerful. He handles Cole like a rag doll,

"A blur of white motion deflected the shaft ...the bear was on him, clubbing him down with a powerful blow."

"its powerful jaws clamped claws ripped flesh with each swipe..."

"Cole heard the crack of bones breaking in his forearm..."

Cole faired pretty badly in this fight!

Cole's second encounter is more productive, They actually make a connection for Cole has matured both emotionally and spiritually.

The spirit bear in the first two encounters is described as stoic, majestic, and fearless, but these are human characteristics. It is almost as if Cole is relating to the Spirit Bear as a human.

The image of the Spirit Bear is first fully developed in this section, and since it is so central to the novel, it is worth exploring more in depth here. The Spirit Bear itself is a species of black bear that roams in the islands off Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia province. It is known for its ferocity but also for its mysteriousness. The Spirit Bear is a paradoxical symbol because it at once represents the power and damage of Cole’s anger but also the calm and serenity very different from Cole’s initial attitudes.

In many ways, the Spirit Bear is perceived by Cole and portrayed to the reader as the antagonist of this novel up to this point. Cole very much remains the protagonist in his struggle for survival. Mikaelsen’s choice of an animal for antagonist is intriguing because it allows him to portray emotions without words. Simply by describing the bear’s posture, glances, and ultimately the attacks on Cole, the author is telling the reader about the bear’s inner personality and importance to Cole. Cole himself struggles to understand the bear’s paradoxical serenity and anger, and in the bear’s rage, he certainly sees a reflection of himself.

The folly of pride and the narrative of coming of age play a large role in the events of the bear attack. Cole is finally challenged in a way that no other has before. Cole’s assault of Peter Driscal—the event which landed him in jail and on the island in the first place—is in some ways a foreshadowing of Cole’s mauling by the Spirit Bear. In the same way that Cole beat Peter out of consciousness and permanently damaged him, the Spirit Bear has injured and hurt Cole in a permanent manner. Even greater than the physical loss, however, is Cole’s loss of pride. He is left at the end of this chapter, completely despondent, vanquished by his enemy, and the author evokes pity for this otherwise objectionable and angry protagonist.


Cole’s existential crisis runs deep within his psyche during this period. In fact, as his interactions with the Spirit Bear show, he comes slowly to accept death. The second to last time that the Spirit Bear approaches him, he musters all of his energy to spit at it, knowing that the move may prompt it to kill him. However, the second time, when the bear is much closer to him, he instead chooses to rub the bear’s fur. His gesture of kindness towards the bear exemplifies the healing between antagonist and protagonist, and can be seen as a sort of reconciliation, which can serve as a climax point of the novel. From this point on, Cole is changed because he has accepted his powerlessness and the need to care for others, just as the bear has mercifully decided to spare him.

It is telling that after this final interaction with the bear, Cole finally prepares to enter the slumber of death. Only by a miracle do Edwin and Garvey find Cole and rescue him


When on the second day, the group sights whales off the island’s shore, Edwin proposes a whale dance that evening. Each person in turn dances around the fire making motions of a breaching whale, and afterwards they are supposed to convey a lesson learned from the dance.

The second day, they see a wolf, and they do a wolf dance, while on the third day after Cole sees a Spirit Bear, they do a Spirit Bear dance. Each of these dances allows Cole to place himself in the spirit of animals in a kind of reverse anthropomorphism. In this sense, Cole is searching for a simpler understanding of the natural world and by consequence, of his own life. Particularly moving is Cole’s Spirit Bear dance in which he reenacts the scene of the mauling from the perspective of the bear. The author uses this clever way to demonstrate how Cole is beginning to understand empathy and forgive instead of holding anger. By placing himself in the skin of his enemy, he accepts the hurt that he felt and the ensuing anger towards the Spirit Bear.


Chapter 21-24

The relationship with the Spirit Bear remains but becomes more distant and more symbolic. In this section, the reader comes to know more fully the meaning of the title “Touching Spirit Bear.” This phrase captures the essence of this lingering question in Cole’s heart. He comes closer to finding meaning when he learns how to become “invisible not to the world, but to himself.” After he accomplishes this clearing of his mind from anger and thought, he is able to see the Spirit Bear several times, although in the winter he cannot see him at all.

At one point, the omniscient narrator even refers to Cole’s fear of losing the insights that he had gained: “he feared what would happen when he returned to Minneapolis….Would he still be able to find the Spirit Bear?” Even for Cole, the Spirit Bear has come to represent much more than the white beast that attacked him. Forgiving and being at peace are his way of touching the Spirit Bear and healing his own life.


Wow! :D Thnx for the help. ^-^

Anytime! :-D

Thank you guys for all your help ^ - ^ IM DONE FINALLY YESSSSS!!! *Victory dance* I couldnt do this without you Jill, Aslan, and anyone else if I forgot to mention. Thank your so much!