In Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” an older married woman, Fiona, moves into a home for individuals with dementia. There, Fiona starts a romantic relationship with another resident, Aubrey, and seems to forget her husband, Grant, even though he regularly visits her. These events take place against the backdrop of Grant’s memories of his own affairs during his career as a university professor. Munro thus poses the question of what it means to be faithful in a marriage; Grant may have had numerous extramarital entanglements, but he visits Fiona every day, and, despite his own discomfort over her new relationship with Aubrey, he tries to negotiate further visits for them after Aubrey’s wife, Marian, removes him from the care center. These ebbs and flows in marital loyalty come to a head when Grant begins an implied affair with Aubrey’s wife, partially to ensure that he can bring Aubrey to see Fiona again. Without forgiving Grant for his infidelities, Munro nevertheless shows him to be a devoted and loving husband who is willing to sacrifice his own comfort and desires for the wellbeing of his wife. Munro thus makes an argument that sexual fidelity is just one of the many ways to show love and loyalty in a marriage.
While it is clear that Grant’s infidelity began early in their marriage and lasted for many years, Munro depicts the duration of his and Fiona’s marriage as harmonious and caring. After Fiona moves out, for example, Grant remembers many of their small and interwoven rituals. “They usually prepared supper together,” Munro writes. “One of them made drinks and the other the fire, and they talked about his work [...] and about whatever Fiona was reading and what they had been thinking during their close but separate day. This was their time of liveliest intimacy.” Grant’s memory of this nightly ritual suggests their enduring interest in each other’s lives—a sign of a great marriage. In addition to remaining emotionally close, the two maintained regular “physical sweetness” throughout their marriage. While this “did not often end up in sex,” it nonetheless “reassured them that sex was not over yet.”
Having spent decades in a marriage that was physically close and emotionally fulfilling, Grant struggles with Meadowlake’s policy that he cannot visit Fiona for the first month, calling every day to check on her wellbeing. When he does visit her, he brings flowers. It’s clear to readers that he cares for her deeply and misses having her at home. Overall, Grant consistently thinks of Fiona and treats her with conscientiousness and respect, complicating the simpler view of him as an immoral person who has been unfaithful. This offers Munro’s first suggestion that fidelity is more complex than mere adherence to monogamy.
Grant himself seems to share Munro’s view that an unfaithful marriage can also be a loving one: while he understands that his infidelity could cost him his marriage, he feels that he can make up for this by expressing his love and loyalty in other ways. After a particularly messy end to an affair with a student, for instance, Grant chooses to give up philandering altogether. He understands that his old patterns were “getting to be more trouble than it was worth. And that might eventually have cost him Fiona.” Fiona is clearly his priority, and the moment that their relationship could have been threatened, he ceases his extramarital affairs. He also stresses that, even when he was sleeping with other women, he never spent a night away from his wife and he never considered leaving her.
While he never seems to regret his behavior or consider that he could have made different choices, Grant finds some absolution in his otherwise kind treatment of Fiona. He wonders, “would it have been better if he had done as others had done with their wives, and left her?” Since he cared for her emotionally, sexually, and financially, he believes that his deception about his infidelities was kinder than leaving her or telling her about his cheating. Grant thus sees loyalty in marriage as the fulfillment of marital duties—financial, physical, and emotional. Perhaps this is an elaborate justification of his deception, but it does seem that they both have found their marriage fulfilling.
The story’s ending—however ethically and emotionally complex—seems to affirm Fiona and Grant’s love and loyalty, cementing Munro’s depiction of infidelity as a relatively insignificant transgression in a devoted marriage. At the story’s end, Aubrey has left the facility and Fiona’s health begins to rapidly decline in response. While Grant has always felt uncomfortable with Fiona’s relationship with Aubrey, he shows himself to be selflessly devoted to his wife when he swallows his pride and tries to talk Marian into bringing Aubrey to visit Fiona. While Fiona and Aubrey’s relationship is different from Grant’s infidelity (since Fiona seems to lack awareness that she has a husband in the first place, her behavior isn’t self-consciously unfaithful), Grant seems to acknowledge that, just as he fulfilled his own desires outside of his marriage for many years, it’s important for him to help his wife fulfill hers. This adds a new symmetry to their behavior (even if their behavior is not morally equivalent), and shows how much Grant cares.
Grant’s ensuing affair with Marian also, paradoxically, shows how much he loves his wife. After Marian refuses to bring Aubrey to visit Fiona, but then invites Grant to a singles dance, Grant decides to go. He doesn’t seem particularly drawn to Marian (whom he seems to find depressing and uptight), but his implicit affair with her allows him to care for Fiona—at the end of the story, he is able to bring Aubrey to visit her at last. The great irony of the story’s ending is that, after the lengths to which Grant went to bring Aubrey to Fiona, Fiona seems to forget Aubrey altogether, just as she seemed to forget Grant when she first moved to the facility. However, in this final scene, Fiona does recognize Grant, even as she treats Aubrey like a stranger. This seems to affirm that, despite all the complications of Grant’s affairs and Fiona’s relationship with Aubrey, the two have always valued one another above everyone else. Their decades of kindness and devotion to one another are still the defining aspect of their marriage—not their various betrayals and failings.
Love, Fidelity, and Marriage ThemeTracker
Love, Fidelity, and Marriage Quotes in The Bear Came Over the Mountain
He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.
“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.
Her hair, which was as light as milkweed fluff, had gone from pale blond to white somehow without Grant’s noticing exactly when, and she still wore it down to her shoulders, as her mother had done. (That was the thing that had alarmed Grant’s own mother, a small-town widow who worked as a doctor’s receptionist. The long white hair on Fiona’s mother, even more than the state of the house, had told her all she needed to know about attitudes and politics.)
They had usually prepared supper together. One of them made the drinks and the other the fire, and they talked about his work (he was writing a study of legendary Norse wolves and particularly of the great wolf Fenrir, which swallows up Odin at the end of the world) and about whatever Fiona was reading and what they had been thinking during their close but separate day. This was their time of liveliest intimacy, though there was also, of course, the five or ten minutes of physical sweetness just after they got into bed—something that did not often end in sex but reassured them that sex was not over yet.
Just in time, Grant was able to think, when the sense of injustice had worn down. The feminists and perhaps the sad silly girl herself and his cowardly so-called friends had pushed him out just in time. Out of a life that was in fact getting to be more trouble than it was worth. And that might eventually have cost him Fiona.
She was the opposite of Fiona—short, cushiony, dark-eyed, effusive. A stranger to irony. The affair lasted for a year, until her husband was transferred. When they were saying goodbye in her car, she began to shake uncontrollably. It was as if she had hypothermia. She wrote to him a few times, but he found the tone of her letters overwrought and could not decide how to answer.
“I’m happy to see you,” she said, and pulled his earlobes.
“You could have just driven away,” she said. “Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
He kept his face against her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull. He said, “Not a chance.”