Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck: Summary & Themes

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  • 0:00 Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck
  • 0:32 The Buffalo Bar
  • 1:32 Emalin and Amy Hawkins
  • 2:19 Trouble and Tragedy
  • 4:00 Themes of the Novel
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

'Johnny Bear' is a short story written by iconic American author John Steinbeck in 1938. This clever and somewhat disturbing narrative explores the dual themes of secrets and impossibly high standards of behavior.

Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck

Like many of Steinbeck's stories and novels, Johnny Bear is set in a small California town; this one is in Loma, in the Salinas Valley of central California. The narrator is an observer narrator, a traveling worker who observes the people and events in the narrative. He is living at a local boarding house while in Loma, and spends a good deal of his leisure time at the Buffalo Bar. This bar is like every other small town bar in the 1930s: a hang-out for men that serves whiskey. Indeed, a taste for whiskey plays a key part in the story.

The Buffalo Bar

Fat Carl, the bartender, asks each patron who walks in, 'What's it going to be?,' even though whiskey is the only beverage on offer. One night, when our narrator is chatting with his buddy Alex, a huge bear of a man enters the bar. Alex explains that this is Johnny Bear, a simple-minded yet harmless man, part of the town's collection of characters. Johnny asks for whiskey and downs it, then proceeds to do an eerily accurate pantomime of our narrator's encounter with a local young lady, Mae Romero. The voices mimic exactly the words and intonation of both people Johnny heard earlier that evening.

Alex says that this is Johnny's talent: he never speaks anything from his own mind, but can listen and repeat conversations with perfect recall. Today, we might call Johnny Bear a savant, someone who is otherwise mentally challenged, but can do one type of thing - math, music, or drawing, for example - with perfection. But the townspeople of Loma in the 1930s did not have that term. They simply knew that Johnny Bear would listen and hear everything he could, and then repeat it in the bar for whiskey.

Emalin and Amy Hawkins

The next chilling conversation Johnny Bear reveals is between the two Hawkins sisters, who Alex describes as the town's aristocrats. They have a farm, but they don't actually farm it like most folks. Some Chinese people farm the Hawkins land on shares. Johnny Bear's performance reveals an argument between the two sisters, in which Amy must have done something terrible that Emalin can't accept. Indeed, the voice of Emalin comes out of Johnny's mouth saying, 'You'd be better dead.'

This performance seems to disturb the entire crowd, who drift out in silence. Walking home, Alex tells his friend that the Hawkins sisters serve as the community conscience. Average people point to their behavior as an example for their children to follow. Having just heard their painful argument via Johnny Bear, the narrator spends a restless night, picturing the disapproving face of Emalin and the miserable face of Amy.

Trouble and Tragedy

Later, walking together, Alex and the narrator pass the sisters on their way to church. The author tells us that it is easy to tell which is which, after hearing the conversation from Johnny. Miss Amy looks softer, more vulnerable, and more warm. After dinner at Alex's house, the two men encounter the town doctor on his way to a call at the Hawkins house. Apparently, Miss Amy had 'a spell' and her sister called for Doc Holmes to come in a hurry. At the Buffalo Bar, the patrons seem subdued. Finally, Johnny Bear enters. When he fails to get whiskey from Fat Carl, he goes into another performance. This one first repeats Chinese words in perfect recall. Then the voices are Emalin, Amy, and Doc Holmes. Their conversation reveals that the younger sister's unidentified illness was a suicide attempt and leaves some question as to motive.

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