how does this start to change him? what thoughts and observations indicate that he is starting to change?
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Cole experiences his epiphany when he finds himself at the brink of death. The scenes in these sections are gruesome—Cole eating bugs, his own vomit, lying in his own waste, without any hope. However, the author conveys a sense of the total nothingness and emptiness felt by Cole through these very powerful symbols and images.
Perhaps most prominent in the first two chapters is the image of the bird nest—a key symbol worth exploring further. When Cole first sees the nest in the tree above him, he feels jealous of the baby birds that have someone who loves them—the mother bird. The baby birds are a symbol of the love and affection that Cole has so craved but has not let into his life.
The element of the rain is another powerful symbol as it is described as “penetrating his will” (p. 87). Certainly, the elements are testing him on a physical level, but more broadly, these elements of nature are serving as symbols of the broader healing process. As we have seen from the anger and frustration expressed in the circles back in Minnesota, Cole was not one to take lessons from adults or any fellow human. These nature elements form an alternative language and means of communication for Cole to learn the lessons of humility, patience, and understanding that jail alone was not able to give him.
The symbol of the birds is powerfully continued in chapter 10 when a bolt of lightning fells the tree where they were living. Cole sees two of the four baby birds dead on the ground the next morning, and we see for the first time a hint of compassion. He wishes that the birds didn’t have to die, and at one point yells out to them, “Are you okay?” out of concern for their lives.
Along with the concepts of humility and love for others that Cole learns through these moments lying completely vulnerable on the ground, there is also the clear and vivid interaction and approach towards death. 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, and even then, Cole protests and is confused that he was even allowed to live. This narrative of redemption or “resurrection” is a constant theme throughout Western literature dating back to images of the Christ figure, and after the reconciliation of Cole and the bear, Cole is offered the chance to reconstruct his life.