what are the themes in Alice Munro's short story "The bear came over the mountain"?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! You asked about the themes in Alice Munro's short story 'The Bear Came Over The Mountain.' Here are two of them:

1)Infidelity is a symptom of the problems within a relationship.

The short story deals with Fiona's descent into forgetfulness as she ages. Munro doesn't come right out and tell us that it is Alzheimer's; instead, she lets us make our own decision regarding Fiona's ailment. We read that over the years, Grant has been frequently unfaithful to Fiona. Although we are not given a particular reason as to why, Munro tells us that Grant insists he never dreamed of leaving Fiona. He chooses to indulge his sensual desires while remaining (on the surface) faithful to his vows. Yet, his relationships are mere sexual dalliances- they don't satisfy him emotionally:

Many times he had catered to a woman’s pride, to her fragility, by offering more affection—or a rougher passion— than anything he really felt.

He coldly reasons that getting out of unsatisfactory sexual liaisons may have its benefits. He wanted

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.

We readers are led to question the wisdom of Grant's sexual escapades. Infidelity exposes dissatisfaction, loneliness, grudges, isolation and grief, among other things. Infidelity is merely a symptom of the problem; the real causes for marital dissatisfaction stem from an unwillingness to address specific and crucial issues, which leads us to

2)Chronic Illness as a catalyst for honesty within marriage.

Fiona is slowly losing her memory. She does not always remember Grant when he visits her at Meadowlake. It is with ironic sorrow and pain that Grant finds Fiona taking to Aubrey so readily. She falls for another man right before his eyes, but he can't do much about it because of her illness. Although Munro doesn't tell us whether Fiona ever knew about her husband's indiscretions, we now suspect that perhaps, Fiona wasn't too happy with the state of their marriage either:

Anyway, it was necessary for her to turn her attention back to Aubrey, who was pulling his great thick hand out of hers. “What is it?” she said. “What is it, dear heart?” Grant had never heard her use this flowery expression before.

Grant tells us that the admiration he received from his students, whether married or single, was a fantastic aphrodisiac. We can almost hear him crowing as he relates:

Young girls with long hair and sandalled feet were coming into his office and all but declaring themselves ready for sex. 

They worked with a will and brought into his office, into his regulated satisfactory life, the great surprising bloom of their mature female compliance, their tremulous hope of approval.

It is ironic that Fiona's illness is the catalyst for some much needed introspection on Grant's part. He wonders if Marian was ever happy with Aubrey and sympathizes with her practicality resulting in perhaps less satisfaction than she calculated.

And so it often happened with those practical people. In spite of their calculations, their survival instincts, they might not get as far as they had quite reasonably expected. No doubt it seemed unfair.

After all, he too married for practical reasons. His father-in-law's money and property were important considerations. Although the adulation of his students and lovers proved intoxicating and were at best temporary temptations, his practical side wins in the end.

“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.”

Fiona present to us an interesting moment of lucidity with her statement.  The title of the story is based on the song The Bear Went Over The Mountain. In Munro's story, the bear has indeed come over the mountain. We may think that the other side of the mountain looks different and is perhaps more exciting, but the reality of it is that life eventually descends into old age and then death, with illness sometimes thrown into the mix. The other side is not only the same, it's often downhill and rough. It's better to stick with each other, and that's what Grant and Fiona do.

Thanks for the question!

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The Bear Came over the Mountain

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