In “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” Munro explores how individuals react to their own aging or to the aging of their companions. The story opens with a scene of a young, vivacious Fiona proposing marriage to Grant. This incident is followed by another with Fiona, now seventy, preparing to enter Meadowlake, a new assisted-living facility. Grant and Fiona have been married for almost fifty years when she begins displaying signs of dementia. At first it is amusing; she leaves notes about her daily schedule, but then the notes start identifying the contents of the kitchen drawers. Soon she cannot find her way home. Fortunately they can afford Meadowlake.
Munro juxtaposes scenes from the past with the present, so the reader sees a saucy Fiona contrasted with a Fiona who seems not to recognize her husband. In a Munro story, ambiguity rules. Perhaps Fiona, in her actions, is now extracting vengeance for Grant’s earlier erasure of her in his numerous affairs.
The story also explores how people negotiate long-term commitments and how they rationalize their failure to uphold these commitments. Using flashbacks, Munro presents Grant’s earlier years as a professor who may have received his position because of Fiona’s father’s largesse to the university. Grant seduces his students; some are married women but some are identified as girls. Rationalizing his behavior, he argues that the times promoted free sex or that the older women longed for some excitement. He rationalizes his betrayal of Fiona by countering that he, unlike some of his colleagues, stayed in the marriage.
Although there is no suggestion that Fiona is aware of his infidelity, her behavior in Meadowlake can be explained by it. There she carries on a flirtation with Aubrey, a wheelchair-bound patient who was placed there by his wife, Marion, while she took a much-needed Florida vacation. When Aubrey leaves, Fiona, inconsolable, starts to deteriorate so much that a move to a more restrictive floor is contemplated.
Grant, desperate, visits Marion to suggest that her husband visit Fiona. Marion’s reaction is unexpected. She is not jealous but instead is concerned about the inconvenience of the visits and with protecting her financial security. She fears that Aubrey might prefer to live in the expensive facility. However, Marion is lonely and soon calls Grant, inviting him to a Legion dance. Although Marion is very different from the cultured and beautiful Fiona, Grant realizes that he can barter sex and a little companionship in exchange for Aubrey’s visiting his wife. When Grant sees Fiona again, he brings Aubrey. She is much improved, reading in a chair and not weeping in bed, playing a silly word game with him, and seeming to recognize him.
The story ends ambiguously, as many of Munro’s stories do. The reader is uncertain what causes Fiona’s improvement. The reader also wonders about Grant. Does he enter into an affair with Marion because of his concern for Fiona or is that just another of his rationalizations? Munro does not moralize; she presents her characters, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions.