Observationally acute and realistic, touching and painful, specific and universal: all of these epithets could be used to summarise Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro’s ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’. Through the non-linear short story centres on the lives of Fiona and Grant, Munro presents the inevitable reality of aging.
Munro effectively utilises flashbacks to confront the reader with images of the past and the present. As the short story starts, we are introduced to young Fiona and Grant at the beginning of their relationship: a free thinking, exuberant and eccentric Fiona with a comfortable upbringing of ‘cashmere sweaters’ who, however, maintained a sense of individuality and ‘wasn’t in a sorority’, and an up-and-coming academic Grant. Their carefree liveliness of youth is directly contrasted with hopelessness resulting from Fiona’s gradual onset of (presumably) dementia as ‘little yellow notes’ containing basic information start appearing ‘all over the house.’ Reflective of the journey through life and the inescapability of aging, Munro tracks the gradual deterioration of human capabilities and ‘worse things … coming.’ The painful nature of this realisation is sensitively tackled through the difficulty of acceptance of the unavoidable: the denial of both parties (initially humorous, later despondent), confusion, grief and an underlying sense of loss prior to the acknowledgement of learning ‘to take it day by day.’
One of the challenges the readers are presented with is the very reality of life in a care home. Not only do we become the fly-on-the-wall of everyday life of its residents, the third person narrative also follows the difficulty faced by those who suffer outside the care home’s confines. Whether this is being ‘deprived of seeing somebody they care about’, personality changes, the physical signs of aging and ‘muscles … deteriorating’, the effects of medication or an intense sense of vulnerability and lack of control. Particularly hard hitting is the helpless observation of Grant’s own helplessness as he attempts to come to terms with the fact that his wife often does not even ‘know who I am’. However frustrating their life together, regardless of his past affairs and departure from well-established career, it is his struggle with losing the connection with Fiona due to her physical and mental decline that leaves him destitute and powerless; not the previous decades that the character compares to ‘living in a mirage.’ Only at the point of this truly life changing experience, and although reflecting on their relatively ‘lucky’ and problem free life, is the character pushed to the limit as he starts losing grip on reality and struggles ‘separating what was real from what was not.’ It is poignant that Munro reminds us of the importance of compassion through even the smallest acts of kindness. In the short story this is represented through nurse Kirsty who does not comfort and care for only the residents of the home, but their relatives as well who ‘could talk to’ her as she is not a ‘tough old stick’ hardened by the reality.
Thematically, dealing with loneliness and isolation permeates the story. As the central character Grant states: ‘people do get lonely’. Both physically and metaphorically: people get separated, abandoned, not fitting in with the changing tide of social expectations. Yet, this in itself causes them to become further withdrawn from others, unable to ‘let go of [their] grief’ and only engaging in perfunctory ‘social sort of kindness’ as a means of a protective wall: existing, not truly being a part of society. Munro arguably presents an effective social commentary on the disconnected world in which we barricade ourselves in our own lives to the point when a new human interaction poses a threat of putting ourselves ‘at risk’; of judgement, of rejection, of being simply ignored. Ultimately, none of us can ‘beat life.’ We should live it together.
Perhaps surprisingly, after all that has been said, Munro in her short story ponders and conveys ideas of true love and devotion. Despite the affairs, enjoyable distractions at the time, Fiona remains Grant’s only love; the only one he ‘wanted never to be away from’. As he accepts the reality of the illness, sees the other side of ‘the mountain’ of the title cruelly reminiscent of childhood, he is shown to choose to make the best of life as is as opposed to lamenting the life that was. While he ironically succeeds in a positive start to benefit Fiona through another affair, as it may be, it portrays the complexity of what life encompasses. The rights and wrongs are contextualised by the situation. In the end, the determination not to lose, ‘not a chance’, the remnants of emotional connection, he recognizes that even though diminished, his wife’s limited remaining affections cannot be monopolised.