A good ways into the story, readers meet this proclamation: “You never quite knew how such things would turn out. You almost knew, but you could never be sure.”
But this story does not have a predictable arc. In fact, its unpredictability is the central tenet of the tale.
So perhaps the reader does come over the mountain to read what she could read, and she must simply accept the view, as it is presented rather than as imagined.
Certainly what Grant gets when he visits Fiona in the nursing home for the first time is not at all expected.
Perhaps he should have known better. After all, Fiona’s dementia has transformed her into the epitome of unpredictability, and the stuff of memory is unpredictable even in a healthy rememberer.
But it’s understandable that while Grant might recognize Fiona’s forgetfulness about what’s in the kitchen cupboards, he wouldn’t expect her to forget her husband of more-than-fifty years.
And it’s easy to see how disorienting it would be to see your wife canoodling with another man, after only thirty days of residing in a nursing home away from her husband.
And meanwhile, Grant has been, to hear him tell it, completely preoccupied by her absence. He has, literally, been counting the days. And he clearly expects that the separation has been just as difficult for Fiona. But at some point, in that thirty days, Fiona simply moved on. She climbed the mountain and found herself another bear.
Ironically, this is not unpredictable from the perspective of the nurses. They are, at best, amused by Grant’s daily calls, over the course of the thirty-day separation (which apparently makes the adjustment process easier for both residents and family members). Some, it is implied, are annoyed. And they speak of these dalliances casually, at best in a distanced fashion and, at worst, cruelly.
Grant is aware enough to be able to temporarily step out of his perspective to imagine another’s point-of-view and, after getting to know one of the nurses better than the rest, remarks upon her capacity to understand his situation.
“To her, Grant and Fiona and Aubrey too must seem lucky. They had got through life without too much going wrong. What they had to suffer now that they were old hardly counted.”
Aubrey: he is the canoodle-er. Or, perhaps, the canoodle-ee, as Grant is reminded, for quite often it is the women (again subverting general expectations) who instigate the intimate encounters between the residents.
In any case, all three of these individuals are suffering, whether that counts for onlookers or not. And, as it turns out, Aubrey is married too, and his wife is struggling with the situation too.
But this question of suffering, it’s complicated. For although readers’ sympathies were immediately engaged on Grant’s behalf, first lonely and then abandoned, readers soon learn that Grant was sequentially unfaithful to Fiona.
(It’s debatable, given the statistics on marital fidelity whether in fact this element of the story is unpredictable, but given the focus on Grant’s seeming devotion in the story’s opening pages, it seems something of a surprise, at least.)
Although Grant persists in the belief that Fiona was unaware of his affairs, there are indications that she was all-too aware, that she suffered the same sense of betrayal and alienation that Grant now suffers, but she had to reconcile his presence-of-mind, his sanity, into the mix.
Time has passed, but whether the scars of these earlier betrayals have healed remains uncertain. Grant and Fiona are approaching the final end, but perhaps they are drawing their own ending in advance, just as Grant describes their attachment to and severence from the series “Are You Being Served?”.
“They had slid into an infatuation with an English comedy about life in a department store and had watched so many reruns that they knew the dialogue by heart. They mourned the disappearance of actors who died in real life or went off to other jobs, then welcomed those same actors back as the characters were born again. They watched the floorwalker’s hair going from black to gray and finally back to black, the cheap sets never changing. But these, too, faded; eventually the sets and the blackest hair faded as if dust from the London streets was getting in under the elevator doors, and there was a sadness about this that seemed to affect Grant and Fiona more than any of the tragedies on Masterpiece Theatre, so they gave up watching before the final end.”
Whether or not one or both of them has given up is a matter for debate. And the story is told from Grant’s perspective so readers can only imagine the dimensions of Fiona’s agency in this matter. As usual, there are more questions raised than resolved for readers in “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.
When Grant comes over the mountain, he sees what he can see. But whether he ventures further from his cave into new territory (for there is another unpredictable layer to this story, which is left untouched in this discussion), or whether he retreats into old patterns of behaviour: that remains to be seen.
Have you read this Alice Munro story, or have you seen the Sarah Polley film, “Away from Her”?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and this is the last story in this collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. Tomorrow: thoughts on “Away from Her”, the film directed by Sarah Polley, based on this story.
Note: There are spoilers in the comments below.