28 pages 56 minutes read

Alice Munro

The Bear Came over the Mountain

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is one of Alice Munro’s most popular works and tackles themes of infidelity, love, and hypocrisy. The short story was first published in The New Yorker in December 1999 and was later included in Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage short story collection in 2001, her 10th collection. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” received a movie adaptation titled Away from Her in 2006. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. In 2013, Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her lifetime achievements.

This study guide refers to the version of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as printed in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories (Vintage International, 2001).

Content Warning: The source material includes mentions of infidelity, suicide, university sex scandals, mental health issues, and molestation.

The story begins by introducing Fiona and her husband Grant, who live in Fiona’s late parents’ farmhouse, “a big bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly” (286). Fiona was born to wealthy parents and had a playful spirit in her youth. Grant is from a small town with “small town phrases” (286), and his mother was a widowed receptionist. Fiona was the one who proposed marriage to Grant, and they have been together for nearly 50 years.

Now they are in their 70s, and Fiona has been displaying signs of Alzheimer’s and memory loss. She starts labeling drawers “Cutlery, Dishtowels, Knives” (288); she remembers her home phone number but forgets her way home on walks and drives. At an appointment to discuss Fiona’s symptoms, Grant and Fiona wave away these incidents, telling themselves and Fiona’s doctor that she’s always had an unreliable memory.

One day, Fiona and Grant go grocery shopping, and Fiona “disappear[s] from the supermarket while Grant ha[s] his back turned” (289). She is found by a policeman when she wanders into the middle of the road. This incident makes it clear that her memory loss has become a danger to herself and others. In January, Grant moves Fiona into Meadowlake, a nursing home and mental health facility.

There are rules for visitation at Meadowlake, and one of the most important ones is that new residents cannot have visitors for at least 30 days. This is because new residents often want to cancel treatment and beg their family members to take them home. For Grant, this means being without his wife for the first time in 50 years. He is nervous and calls every day, hoping to get the same nurse, Kristy, who helps him through this difficult time. Grant learns that Fiona is making friends, she’s had a cold, and she’s watching TV, and he ponders on their life together while she is away, missing her.

On his first nights alone, Grant is plagued by nightmares about an incident at the college where he used to teach. This was during the peak of his infidelity, and a female student “he parted with decently” (295) wrote him a letter calling him a rat for sleeping with his students and threatening to attempt suicide. The dream closes with Grant feeling suffocated by dark rings, and the story delves into the truth about Grant’s infidelity. He had an emotional and physical affair with a woman named Jacqui Adams, but after her, he had frivolous flings with his students. He never confessed to Fiona, but he was “pushed out” of this lifestyle by proxy; the changing culture made teacher-student romances less acceptable, and his colleagues were embroiled in scandals. 

When Grant finally gets to visit Fiona, he finds her cozied up next to a man playing bridge. She shows no signs of remembering Grant. To Grant, Fiona treats him “as some persistent visitor who took a special interest in her” (303), and Grant can’t tell if she’s serious or pulling a prank. Fiona has a budding romance with Aubrey, the man playing bridge with her. He is a large, mostly silent, handsome older man who uses a wheelchair, and he is staying at Meadowlake temporarily while his wife is on vacation in Florida.

Kristy tells Grant to take it day by day when he expresses frustration, but day by day, he continues to be Fiona and Aubrey’s third wheel. The two watch TV together as Grant and Fiona used to, take walks through the conservatory, and are always together at the card table. They remind Grant of teenagers in love, and he’s unable to confront them about it. Kristy tells Grant early on that their romance might stem from Fiona being inappropriate with Aubrey, though she quickly takes it back, claiming Fiona is a real lady. This adds to Grant’s theory that Fiona is faking her memory loss to get back at him for cheating, though he never confessed it to her.

Grant realizes Aubrey and Fiona’s relationship is quite serious when they share a tearful, flowery goodbye when Aubrey’s wife returns. Fiona falls into sorrow. She refuses to eat, she weeps, and she loses strength, even on a liquid supplement. She isolates herself from the other residents, and if she continues to decline, she might be put on a walker or be taken up to the second floor where patients with more advanced conditions are treated. She also takes a dislike to Grant, and she won’t listen to his encouragement to eat or interact.

Grant seeks out and visits Aubrey’s wife, Marian, to see about setting up visits between Aubrey and Fiona, hoping to help Fiona get back on her feet, physically and emotionally. To his surprise, Marian first believes he’s there to confront her about allegations that Aubrey had molested Fiona; to Marian’s surprise, he’s not. They chat about how Marian can’t afford to take Aubrey back and forth to Meadowlake physically, emotionally, or financially, even when Grant offers to help. Grant accepts defeat and heads home. Later, Marian leaves Grant a few messages, suggesting that he come to a singles event with her. Grant takes pleasure in knowing his presence elicited some kind of nervous hope in her, and he thinks about having sex with her or even marrying her.

The next time Grant visits Fiona, she seems to have recovered somewhat from her depressive episode. Grant says that he has a surprise and asks if she remembers Aubrey, and she takes a harsh tone, telling Grant that names elude her. In the final scene, Fiona then says, “I’m happy to see you” (335), embraces Grant, and states that he could have just driven off and forgotten her as soon as he dropped her off at Meadowlake. Grant tells her, “Not a chance” (335).