The Bear Came Over the Mountain


Alice Munro

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The Bear Came Over the Mountain Summary

Grant, a retired university professor, is taking his wife of several decades, Fiona, to a residential facility for individuals with dementia. Fiona’s memory has degenerated significantly over the past year. While preparing to leave, Grant remembers when Fiona proposed to him as a young woman, asking if he thought if would be fun if they got married; at the time he’d thought she was joking for a moment.

The facility, Meadowlake, has a policy that new residents cannot have visitors for one month after their arrival, in order to help them settle in. Grant anxiously awaits the end of this period, checking on Fiona via daily with phone calls to a nurse, Kristy, who keeps him updated. He learns that Fiona catches a cold—as many residents do, Kristy says, like kids starting school—but soon gets better and starts to make friends.

To pass the time, Grant skis and prepares dinners alone, remembering how he and Fiona had shared this ritual in the past. One night, he dreams about showing a letter to a colleague from the roommate of a girl with whom he had an affair, informing him that she had tried to kill herself after he ended the relationship. Despite this colleague having a history of dalliances with students, in the dream he reacts sternly to Grant’s news. When Grant wakes up, he goes over the dream and sorts out what really happened: the affair and the letter were real, though the conversation with the colleague was not; in reality, Fiona had had a dismissive reaction towards the girl’s pain (though Grant never actually confessed that he had slept with the student). Grant bitterly recollects how he was socially ostracized by his fellow professors after this incident, leading him to promise Fiona a new life and take early retirement so the two could move to Fiona’s father’s farmhouse.

Grant then considers his life as a philanderer, though he objects to this label. He thinks of other colleagues who had more frequent affairs, and gives credit to the emotional labor he sees himself as performing for his lovers. He rhetorically asks whether it would have been better for him to leave Fiona, stating that he continued to be a supportive husband to her both emotionally and financially. He acknowledges, however, that his early retirement and their move to the countryside was nevertheless a product of his dalliances. Grant feels some gratitude for the fact that he was forced out of his philandering, acknowledging that it was just in time to prevent the more serious ramification of him losing Fiona.

Grant reaches the end of the month and prepares for his first visit to Fiona. That morning, he experiences a feeling of anticipation that he finds similar to the beginning of a new affair. On the way, he buys an expensive bouquet of flowers, ostentatious enough that the nurse, Kristy, remarks on them when he arrives. She directs Grant to Fiona’s room, but Fiona isn’t there. Unsurprised, Kristy shows him to the communal area, where Grant sees Fiona. Her face looks different to him, and he remarks that she has gained weight. Her long hair has also been cut, though she doesn’t seem to mind.

Fiona is sitting a table with a man playing bridge. When Grant approaches, she speaks to him in a friendly but distracted way, clearly eager to return to the side of the man with whom she is sitting, Aubrey. Aubrey is living at Meadowlake temporarily while his wife is on vacation. Grant asks Kristy about their relationship, and Kristy dismisses it, explaining that new residents often form such close attachments. During subsequent visits, Fiona continues to treat Grant with a distant politeness, while growing closer with Aubrey. The two frequently play cards, sit in the conservatory, or walk the halls together.

Grant reflects on a turning point in his career teaching Anglo-Saxon and Nordic literature, when married women started going back to school to “enrich their lives.” One of these women, Jacqui Adams, was his first lover. The two were together for a year before she moved, and Grant dismissed her easily; by this point, he remembers, younger girls were also starting to attend university and were available for sex. Grant recollects how this demographic shift created drama in the university, with scandals leading to dismissals or some professors moving to more liberal universities. While Fiona was disinterested in this social scene, Grant remembers, it lead to him feeling a “gigantic increase in well-being.”

The next time Grant returns to Meadowlake, Fiona and Aubrey are distraught. Aubrey’s wife has returned from her extended vacation in Florida and is removing him from the home. While Kristy assures Grant that Fiona will get over Aubrey’s departure, Fiona does not. She stops eating and refuses to get out of bed. The nurses begin to talk about Fiona using a walker or moving to a more intensive care section of the facility. This inspires Grant to drive to visit Aubrey’s wife, Marian, to discuss the situation.

Marian invites him in, and the two discuss their respective marriages and caretaking roles. Grant asks why Marian does not put Aubrey in Meadowlake full time, assuming that she is doing it out of a sense of nobility. Marian quickly corrects him, laying out the way in which tending to Aubrey at home is the more responsible financial decision for their family. Marian rejects his idea of the visit, but when Grant returns home, he finds she has left him two voicemails inviting him to a singles dance. Grant is intrigued by the nerves in her voice, wondering what changed after he left that inspired her to reach out. He wonders if spending time with Marian would result a change of heart regarding visits between Aubrey and Fiona. Marian calls again, and he listens to the next voicemail, in which she asks if he had called her back as she had missed it. He decides to call her back.

After some time has passed, Grant visits Fiona at Meadowlake. He has brought Aubrey, but Fiona does not remember who Aubrey is. She does, however, remember Grant, and thanks him for not abandoning her at Meadowlake. Grant responds that he would never have left her.