The Bear Came Over The Mountain is a short story by Canadian author and nobel laureate Alice Munro. It revolves around Grant and Fiona, an elderly couple who have been married for several decades and their struggle with Alzheimer’s and infidelity.
“I don’t think there is anything to worry about. I expect I am just losing my mind”- Fiona, an Alzheimer’s patient says to her husband in this poignant short story by Alice Munro.
The story was originally published in The New Yorker in their 1999 edition. In 2006, the story was adapted into a film Away From Her directed by Sarah Polley.
The Bear Came Over The Mountain: Summary and Plot Analysis
The story revolves around Grant and Fiona, an elderly couple who have been married for several decades. Grant is a retired University professor who is taking Fiona to a residential facility for patients with dementia, despite resistance from her.
He recalls how their journey together started one day, when she had whimsically proposed marriage to him wondering if it would be fun. The residential facility where Fiona is scheduled to be staying, has a policy of patients to have no visitors
for a month.
Grant, although troubled by this, goes through this period with help from Kristy, a nurse who keeps Grant posted with Fiona’s status – health and otherwise. Grant skis and dines alone in the meantime, constantly remembering these occasions from the past with Fiona in them.
Grant has a lot of time to ruminate about his past during the day to the extent that he dreams about them as well.
One of those incidents was when his decision to end a relationship with one of his students had driven her to commit suicide. This eventually ended up having him socially ostracized at the university.
He eventually escaped the environment by promising his wife to retire early and start a new chapter in their lives by moving to a Farmhouse Fiona inherited from her father. This, he thought, was a chance life had given him to work on his marriage, and he felt grateful for this perfectly-timed opportunity of avoiding losing Fiona.
With his one month wait period nearly coming to an end, he prepares to meet her at the facility. On the day of the meeting, feeling the anticipation as that of a fresh affair, he buys a bouquet of flowers for her.
He meets Kristy, who directs him to Fiona’s room. Unable to find her there, he moves to the communal area, only to see a different Fiona, with her short hair and a few extra pounds. He sees Fiona playing bridge with a man called Aubrey. Although she is friendly to Grant and answers his questions, she is eager to return to Aubrey’s side.
Grant comes to know that Aubrey is a temporary resident at the facility and will be leaving upon his wife’s return from vacation. Grant tries to gather more information from Kristy about his wife’s new relationship but is quickly told that it is a common occurrence among patients.
His wife’s behavior towards him continues to be the same – polite yet distant while her intimacy with Aubrey continues to grow.
Although he is happy to see his healthy wife, her close association with Aubrey – walks in the hall and co-dependence continues to bother him. He drifts back to incidents from his past, where he was not true to the marriage, having initiated an affair with a married woman.
He thinks of himself a philanderer, although not liking to label himself that way.
Grant returns to the facility to see his wife again, only to find both her and her companion distraught at the thought of separation. Aubrey’s wife, having returned from her vacation, has arrived to take Aubrey back home.
Scared that this separation might adversely affect Fiona, he seeks Kristy’s counsel and feels relieved when told that patients usually recoup once the separation is over.
Unfortunately that does not seem to be happening to Fiona, who continues to be distraught long after, has given up eating and refuses to leave her bed.
The hospital staff, seeing her complete lack of willingness in participating in the recovery program are thinking and propose to move her to the intensive care section of the facility. Completely disheartened to see his wife in the sorry state, Grant decides to discuss the situation with Aubrey’s wife Marion to work out an arrangement with her.
Grant visits Marion at her place. The two discuss about their experiences managing illnesses of their respective partners. Grant comes to know that Aubrey has been pulled out of the facility by Marion for financial reasons and Marion has no plans to bring him back. Grant requests Marion to bring Aubrey to the facility once a week. He thinks this will help heal his wife and aid faster recovery.
Marion rejects Grant’s request. But when he returns to his house, he finds two voicemails from her proposing the idea of going to a singles dance. Puzzled by this, Grant wonders what could have changed that led to Marion reaching out to him.
He thinks it to be a great opportunity, thinking that spending more time with Marion could lead to a change of heart for her and she might ultimately accept Grant’s request for Fiona.
Grant decides to call her back. He eventually visits Fiona again, this time with Aubrey. Fiona recognizes Grant this time and not Aubrey.
She thanks Grant for not deserting him as they embrace.
The Bear Came Over The Mountain: Review and Theme
Like any other Munro story, this story will leave you thinking and smiling, leaving you with a lesson or two. There are quite a few things in the story that got me thinking.
1 – The title of the story
Why is the story titled “The bear came over the mountain?”
When I read the title of the story for the first time, I imagined it to have something to do with children. After all, what does a childrens’ rhyme have anything to do with dementia and that too in much older adults?
Turns out, everything!
There is not much left once you are atop the mountain except to come down from it, symbolizing the descent downhill. In many ways that signifies the journey of an
elderly alzheimer’s patient.
So much depth and meaning hidden in a child’s rhyme. Thank you Alice for bringing it alive, in a way only you can!
2 – (A)typical love
Although it has been shown that Fiona and Grant love each other, their relationship does not fit the conventional mould by any measure. Difference in their financial status, Grant’s infidelity, Fiona’s blatant and somewhat inhuman disregard for a student’s suicidal attempt – all screaming that it is a perfectly imperfect relationship.
This does not, however, stop Grant from doing whatever he possibly can – going to
the extent of potentially starting an affair with Aubrey’s wife, to bring Aubrey to Fiona, even when he knew it meant that it might drive Fiona further away from him.
Flawed yet sweet, I was at loss to decide if I would ever want a Grant in my life.
Courtesy New Yorker, the story is available to read online for free.
To those of you that love comparing books/stories with their movies, I bring good news! This story has also been adapted into a film by Sarah Polley, back in 2006.
About the author – Alice Munro
Alice Munro (b. 1931) is a Canadian writer who has numerous literary awards to her credit including but not limited to Nobel Prize in Literature (2013) as well as Man Booker Prize (2009). She is mostly known for her collection of short stories. Almost all of her stories are set in Canada, mostly small towns. The stories navigate lives of ordinary people in the most extra-ordinary ways.