One of the major conflicts in Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” occurs towards the end of the narrative. And like most conflicts in Munro's fiction, this too is deeply nuanced: What if you have to betray your loved one in order to be faithful to them? Let us look at how this conflict unfolds.
Grant, the elderly professor and the narrator of the story, is in a deep ethical dilemma. Like a heartbroken teenager, his wife is pining for a man, except that man is not Grant. And Grant’s wife, Fiona, is not well. Suffering from dementia, she lives away from Grant in the care home Meadowlake. At Meadowlake, Fiona has all but forgotten about Grant and their 50-year-long marriage and fallen head over heels in love with Aubrey, an inmate. When Aubrey is removed from Meadowlake by his wife, Fiona sinks into a deep despair.
Fiona did not get over her sorrow. She didn’t eat at mealtimes, though she pretended to, hiding food in her napkin. She was being given a supplementary drink twice a day—someone stayed and watched while she swallowed it down. She got out of bed and dressed herself, but all she wanted to do then was sit in her room ... Weeping had left her eyes raw-edged and dim.
Unable to watch Fiona fade away before his very eyes, Grant approaches Aubrey’s wife, Marian, to convince her to send Aubrey back. Initially reluctant, Marian agrees, but on one condition: that she and Grant forge a relationship of their own. And this is the point of Grant’s dilemma. The choice would be difficult for any married person; however, in Grant’s case, there is an additional layer of complexity. Through the course of the story we have learnt that Grant was often unfaithful to Fiona when they were younger.
For another and more dizzying development had taken place. ...Young girls with long hair and sandalled feet were coming into his office and all but declaring themselves ready for sex. ... A whirlwind hit him, as it did many others.
The impossible conflict he now faces is that he has to repeat the ritual of infidelity in order to be faithful to Fiona. Previously, we have sensed a lingering regret in Grant about his past actions; and we also know he has witnessed the love between Fiona and Aubrey as an act of penance and self-flagellation for his own past betrayals. Grant now makes it a point to remind the reader that he does not find Marian attractive, as if to say his courtship of her is purely an act of love for his wife.
Her hair was short, curly, artificially reddened. She had blue eyes—a lighter blue than Fiona’s—a flat robin’s-egg or turquoise blue, slanted by a slight puffiness. And a good many wrinkles, made more noticeable by a walnut-stain makeup.
But later, he confesses to a "bizarre and unreliable affection" for Marian. Does he force himself to find Marian attractive? Or is he using the situation to justify yet another act of infidelity? Or worse, is he getting back at Fiona? Although all these questions are left unanswered for us, Grant himself resolves his moral dilemma by presumably going out with Marian, and bringing Aubrey to his wife.
However, by this point Fiona has forgotten about Aubrey and is perfectly lucid about Grant’s identity. Grant’s act of infidelity-as-love acts as a catalyst for a change and says something about the circular, looping nature of marriage and memory as well. The resolution of Grant’s dilemma is also echoed in the title of the story, borrowed from the popular children’s song “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” which goes something like this:
The bear went over the mountain;
The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see.
And all that he could see, and all that he could see
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
The other side of the mountain, was all that he could see.
As we can see, the song evokes a sense of coming full circle, as well as a sense of anti-climax. The bear goes over the mountain and then what? Nothing much happens. All he sees is the other side of the mountain. No dazzling discovery awaits the bear on the other side. Similarly, Grant’s marriage with Fiona comes full circle, and for now, they are back in their old steady rhythm. The bittersweet inevitability of aging and decline is also hinted at: Grant and Fiona will climb this mountain and the next, till there are no more mountains left to climb.