I was hoping that this week’s story would be by Alice Munro. I figured it would be an old one, since she said she is retired (though in a phone interview this last week she said winning the Nobel might make her reconsider. If she does come out of retirement — again — The New Yorker is where the story will end up.
“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is one of my favorite Munro stories. I am happy to revisit it well before Betsy and I get there in our current read through of Munro’s stories. Let us know your thoughts on the story below.
I hesitate to write too much about this story for fear that a kind of plot summary will lead to misinterpretation, which in turn leads to misunderstanding what Munro is all about. However, I’m going to get into this story, so beware of spoilers. Best to just read it first — it’s free right now, after all.
The story begins some fifty years in the past, when our central characters, Grant and Fiona, were young and just beginning their lives together in a pleasant university town. They flirt, lightly, and in the end it is Fiona who proposes marriage, in her own way:
“Do you think it would be fun — ” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”
He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.
The next section brings us up to the present. Fiona and Grant are preparing to go somewhere, and Fiona is fretting about a mark her shoes left on the floor, something she won’t have to worry about since she’s leaving the shoes behind.
It’s unfair, here, to give further plot summary because Munro develops it elusively and precisely. We come to understand what’s happening by emotions and not because Munro ever explicitly tells us, and that’s a wonderful way to escort us into the story. We see her worrying slightly and then pushing it down:
“I guess I’ll be dressed up all the time,” she said. “Or semi-dressed up. It’ll be sort of like in a hotel.”
It’s not resignation. It’s simply her way of dealing with the messes in life. She tries to kid about them, to be tough and matter-of-fact. But by this very thing — by her (and Munro’s) attention to detail — we can tell how her heart must be trembling, even if we’re not yet sure why. We do know that she’s used to resistance, to having to be tough, because “[s]he looked just like herself on this day — direct and vague as in fact she was, sweet and ironic.”
More directly in the next section we come to understand that Fiona has started to drift away into Alzheimer’s Disease. And now, after over fifty years of marriage, Grant is driving his wife to Meadowlake, a nursing home. This is Grant’s story. This man who never wanted to be “away from her,” who “had not stayed away from her for a single night,” was now forcing himself to drive her away.
On the way, she looks across a field and asks if he remembers skiing there in the moonlight. Yes, he does. She cannot remember which drawer has the knives, but she remembers that night, which is much more significant.
If she could remember that, so vividly and correctly, could there really be so much the matter with her? It was all he could do not to turn around and drive home.
Meadowlake’s policy is that during the first thirty days there are no visitations. It helps the patients settle in and gives people the time they need to accept the situation. So for thirty days, all Grant can do is call the nurse and see how Fiona is doing. He also has nightmares.
Grant is a professor at the university, and his tenure took him right through the changes of the twentieth century.
Married women had started going back to school. Not with the idea of qualifying for a better job, or for any job, but simply to give themselves something more interesting to think about than their usual housework and hobbies. To enrich their lives. And perhaps it followed naturally that the men who taught them these things became part of the enrichment, that these men seemed to these women more mysterious and desirable than the men they still cooked for and slept with.
While it’s true Grant had never spend a single night away from Fiona, he did spend many evenings away from her. He doesn’t think she’s ever known this. Certainly they’ve remained close through the years, and he does genuinely love her. He treasures her.
When the first thirty days are up, Grant excitedly goes to visit Fiona. She’s upstairs helping a man play cards, and Grants finds their meeting awkward.
He could not throw his arms around her. Something about her voice and smile, familiar as they were, something about the way she seemed to be guarding the players from him — as well as him from their displeasure — made that impossible.
He can tell she’s a bit disoriented, seeing him again, but it might be even worse. Some of the things she says make him wonder if she even knows who he is. She quickly excuses herself and goes to sit back down next to the man, who, it turns out, is named Aubrey.
Obviously, it’s hard on Grant to see his wife starting a deeper friendship with another man. Soon, when he visits, he just sits across the room watching Fiona and Aubrey. They don’t seem to know who he is — at best, he thinks, Fiona “seemed to get used to [Grant], but only as some persistent visitor who took a special interest in her. Or perhaps even as a nuisance who must be prevented, according to her old rules of courtesy, from realizing that he was one.”
One day, Grant arrives and finds Fiona inconsolable in her bed. Aubrey is there holding her hand. It turns out, Aubrey’s wife is coming to take him back home. Fiona begs Grant to help — obviously this stranger has connections in this place — but there’s nothing to be done. Aubrey leaves, and Fiona begins to shrink away.
This is where the story gets complicated, yet where I think many people start to simplify it. Grant eventually goes to meet Aubrey’s wife, Marian. He eventually asks if she’d consider taking Aubrey back to the nursing home. She won’t. She doesn’t think Aubrey misses Fiona. Plus, there’s the money.
However — I’m summarizing quickly now — she eventually gives in because, we assume, she begins a relationship with Grant. She calls him. He realizes this just might work. And the story ends with Aubrey coming back to Fiona.
But I see a lot of people read this as a kind of redemption story. Grant gives his wife the companion she needs and deserves because Grant himself is no longer it — maybe he never has been. While parts of that may be true, I think it misses the point. There is no pure redemption in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Munro would never allow it. Through her fiction we’ve seen her deal with guilt and bitterness for her own mother’s mental illness. She’s not going to let Grant off. Furthermore, it’s unclear whether Aubrey is really that great a companion for Fiona. She may not even know who Aubrey s when he comes back. At the very least, it looks like she’s confused. No, Grant’s act may have traces of penance, but they ring false to me, at least for the most part (I love how Munro has it both ways).
First, if this is Grant’s attempt to atone for his past, it’s actually selfish. Fiona doesn’t — or does she — know about his past, so how can he be forgiven. No, he’s trying to ease his own guilt as much as give her what she deserves.
Second, as Grant considers whether to call Marian back, knowing Marian is just like those women he’s taken advantage of so often before, he forgets all about selfless caring. Marian becomes a sexual object, highly attractive, suddenly, where she was once an antagonist.
The walnut-stain — he believed now that it was a tan — of her fact and neck would most likely continue into her cleavage, which would be deep, crépey-skinned, odorous and hot. He had that to think of as he dialed the number that he had already written down. That and the practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue. Her gemstone eyes.
And there’s the title itself: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a variation on the old song. And why does the bear go over the mountain? To see what he could see. And all that he can see? Is the other side of the mountain. Grant is a hulking bear, wandering around looking for something else, pretending it’s noble, adventurous, or caring. But, really, it’s all rather pointless in the end. It’s not a happy ending. Emptiness, pain, more guilt, for everyone involved, is still on the horizon.
“The Bear Came over the Mountain” was originally published by Alice Munro in The New Yorker almost fifteen years ago. It is a beautiful story that should be read fresh. Actually, you will probably enjoy reading it twice. No short essay can do it justice.
Fiona is a beautiful, stylish, captivating woman of seventy who has been married for almost fifty years. Perhaps she had picked Grant out on a “whim,” as their friends thought. She seemed to “groom and tender and favor him” the way she did her dogs. At the time, she had the power — the class, the money, the position, the style, the house. He evened the score, however: in the course of their marriage, he had “many” sexual dalliances and affairs, first with married women and then with his students. He thought of himself as “generous”; he thought he treated both his lovers and his wife well. He made sacrifice[s] for them. It was as if he considered himself a gift to all these women and his wife; so when he is accused of exploiting his students and wounding them, he feels it to be an “injustice.”
It is no accident, though, that he is a student of Icelandic sagas; he is a continent of ice, himself. When a married woman realizes she must end their affair, she begins to shake uncontrollably (as if she had gotten too cold), and he has no reaction. When a young student commits suicide over him, he thinks of her as that “silly, sad girl.”
He is a handsome man with no talent for people. He is like the bear who goes to the other side of the mountain to see what he can see, and all he sees is the other side of the mountain. He looks at woman after woman, and even at seventy he can assess an older woman’s possible good points. He is a man with almost no empathy. Although he thinks himself a nice guy, he is not. Grant has made a life of granting himself to women, like a god, bestowing himself upon them, instructing them, guiding them. It is also no accident he has been writing a piece on Fenrir the Wolf; Fenrir is a saga wolf who bites off his keeper’s hand — the way he’s bitten Fiona’s parents and Fiona herself.
But this is Alice Munro, the student of psychology. As it turns out, Grant and Fiona have chosen each other for their private reasons. Fiona’s choice may have been tweaked because she liked the power she had over him; after all, he let her make fun of him, and he let her propose to him. Grant leapt into the marriage, perhaps because she provided an escape from the suffocation he felt in his own less-well-off family.
When his student dalliances catch up with him, he has to retire, and surprisingly, although somewhat isolated, Fiona and he enjoy a few easy years. But then, it appears that Fiona has Alzheimer’s.
What is odd is that neither of them fights the diagnosis or mourns what they are losing. Neither tries to make the most of the time they have left, and neither of them tries to delay the hospitalization. Fiona does not hide what is happening to her. There is no denial.
What we see is a cool separation: there is no scene of galvanizing grief. (Perhaps you’ve been there, too.)
There is no guilt. There is no fear. There is no treasuring the one of the other. There are no big gestures nor any small gestures, either. There is no appeal for him to take her to Holland or Oregon, there’s no discussion of a gun, no investigation of the Hemlock Society. The decision for Fiona to move to a nursing home is so easy we hear nothing about it. They do not tell their friends. It is almost a secret. In fact, it is almost as if Grant is ending one of his many affairs.
With the first read-through, the reader is confused. The second time, however, the reader suspects: that maybe Fiona is escaping; that maybe she is faking; that maybe she has the disease but is giving up early. It is unthinkable that a person would pretend they have Alzheimer’s, or that a person would accept it so easily, or that a person would use it to effect an escape. But one of these is exactly what Fiona was doing. Grant, in fact, is “baffled” on occasion by her behavior; one day she is getting lost in town, and the next she is remembering an event that happened some time before.
The story is complicated by Fiona’s intense nursing home affair with Aubrey, a man who had been a boyfriend when she was very young. The question arises: did Fiona know that Aubrey was in Meadowlake? We don’t know. All we know is that they fall sweetly and desperately in love. It is this liaison, however, that brings Grant the possibility for redemption, so to speak. He slowly realizes the depth of their affection; he recognizes the difference: Fiona has never called him “Dear Heart” or “Honey.” He studies them, from a distance. He stands outside her door, knowing Aubrey may be inside; he overhears their conversations in the conservatory, while they are in their “bower.” He learns what love is.
When Aubrey’s wife arranges for Aubrey to return home, the man of ice has a lesson in emotion: Grant witnesses the lovers’ final parting. Bringing Fiona a book about Iceland (what else?), he finds Fiona sick in bed and Aubrey by her side, and they have on their faces “a stony, grief ridden apprehension.” The whole scene has the heightened emotion and desperation that was missing when Fiona left home. When Fiona loses Aubrey, she grieves. She loses weight. She is threatened with the “second floor.”
At first, Grant feels that “Fiona seemed to have taken a dislike to him, though she tried to cover it up.” This is Grant trying out empathy. But then he realizes that she is dying of a broken heart.
This brings him to a sacrifice the likes of which are beyond the capacities of the wolf he used to be. He realizes that Fiona needs Aubrey, and he proposes to Aubrey’s wife to bring him to Meadowlake to visit. In order to get Marion on board, Grant realizes she may have a price. When she makes a discreet move on Grant, he understands that despite her “slightly contrived air of menace,” and despite her “more or less innocent vulgarity,” she is his means to redeem himself. No matter that she has that whiff of lower class he’d sold his soul to leave; no matter she is not beautiful. Fiona is dying, and Grant has the means to intercede.
As the story closes, we think he has brought Aubrey to visit.
The story is moving, funny, delicate, complex, and mysterious. It is a masterpiece. Part of why it is so great is the restraint with which Munro tells the story. We see the events through Grant’s eyes, so we see his late, great evolution. Because we see through his eyes, and because he has the emotional IQ of a gnat, it is difficult to see exactly what Fiona is doing. But doing something she surely is. Part of the story’s greatness is that despite the sadness of the story, Fiona keeps her dignity and her beauty, walking to the gallows in a “golden-brown, fur collared jacket, over a white turtleneck, and tailored fawn slacks.” Later, Grant comments on how she has kept her beauty.
At the same time, though, the story is delicately funny throughout. It would be unbearable otherwise. Fiona’s mother “was Icelandic — a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.” It’s the indignant that does it. Fiona teases a policeman; a Meadowlake aide has to discuss with Grant Fiona’s “friendship” with Aubrey; Grant has to hide in the shrubbery to learn what true love really sounds like.
The story is a mystery. In the Sarah Polley movie (Away From Her) based on this story, Julie Christie perfectly captures Fiona’s beauty, sweetness, and mystery. But almost nothing can perfectly capture the tone with which Munro tells this story. Its restraint makes it great. How does a movie say this? “She stared at Grant for a moment, as if waves of wind had come beating into her face. Into her face, into her head, pulling everything to rags. All rags and loose threads.” With a jolt, we realize how sick she really is.
Part of Munro’s restraint is Fiona’s memory of the night she and Grant went cross-country skiing in the moonlight. But what she remembers is not tender romance. What she remembers is harsh:
[. . .] they had gone out skiing under the full moon and the black-striped snow, in this place you could get into only in the depths of winter. They had heard the branches cracking in the cold.
There it was — her jailhouse marriage: cold, barred with secrets, isolated, desperate, and the branches exploding the way her own bones must have felt as their friends dropped away, as she had to maintain the fiction that they had a marriage, as she had to humor this . . . this wolf.
But by the story’s end, the two seventy year olds have prevailed over themselves: Fiona has made a towering leap into Aubrey’s arms, and Grant has made his first real sacrifice and helped her do it. And yet, Fiona and Grant have the last word: their vows.
Fiona: “You could have just driven away. Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
Grant: “Not a chance.”