Transcending Fidelity: The Complexities of Memory in Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” By Mitchell Neuert
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Transcending Fidelity: The Complexities of Memory in Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” By Mitchell Neuert

Alice Munro’s prose fiction is lucid, conversational, and charged with a sense of unwavering honesty in its refusal to oversimplify or deny the depth of her characters. As a result, Munro eloquently captures the ambiguity of their thoughts and emotions. She is careful to avoid idolizing or vilifying her characters’ desires, motives, or allegiances, and instead opts to subtly expose the richness and ambiguities of human character. In the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Munro’s characters are spared narrative judgment as a means of evoking a more complex debate around moral dilemmas surrounding marital fidelity. The story follows Grant and Fiona, a seemingly loving elderly couple whose lives are changed dramatically upon Fiona’s entering a care home due to her rapidly deteriorating memory and resultant diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. In the care home, Grant powerlessly observes Fiona as she forgets who he is and develops an intimate relationship with Aubrey, a debilitated temporary care home member, leaving Grant to contemplate both his own adulterous past and the intensity of Fiona’s condition. Grant constantly second guesses himself as he wonders whether his wife’s newfound relationship is a response to his own past marital indiscretions. Although non-sexual in its nature, Fiona and Aubrey’s relationship challenges Grant’s assumptions about marital fidelity, leading him to wonder if their relationship may be more adulterous than his own indiscretions. Munro’s story thus casts ambiguity over the ebbs and flows of marital fidelity, suggesting that it is a concept that transcends merely sexual relations. “The Bear” also dissects the subjective unreliability of memory through its examination of Grant’s frustrated and puzzled attempt to comprehend his present circumstances. The chaotic narrative perspective, which is littered with anachronous elements due to its invocations of flashbacks and memories, characterizes the emotionally distant and disjointed reality of Grant and Fiona’s relationship. This narrative structure, which provides a tenuous foundation for Grant’s flimsy self-justifications, also offers a glimpse at how Grant’s retrospection is used to shelter his own feelings of shame, the recognition of which ultimately forces him to confront his abstracted concept of fidelity.

Munro’s short story uses a third-person omniscient narrator who, upon assuming Grant’s point of view through free indirect discourse, exerts a subjective influence on the interpretation of Fiona’s behavior and distorts the complexity of her needs. “The Bear” is told entirely through Grant’s perspective, leaving the narration susceptible to the sway of his perceptions, emotions, and modes of thought. Grant reflects on many seemingly major crises of their relationship with an unconcerned aloofness, stating he “could not remember” the cause of Fiona’s infertility, and subsequently dismissing her condition, as “he had always avoided thinking about all that female apparatus” (540). Similarly, Grant remembers that Fiona’s adoption of two Russian wolfhounds “coincides” with her discovery of her inability to bear children, and with the death of Fiona’s mother. His use of the word “coincides” implies that, in his view, the adoption merely occupies “the same space in time” (“coincides, v.”) as these significant life events, rather than suggesting a deeper relationship between Fiona’s grief and her caregiving needs. By neglecting to empathize with his wife even in his memories, Grant reveals his self-centeredness. In the present action of the story, this narration further demonstrates his clear disregard for how the troubling prognosis of his wife’s mental condition and her transition into a long-term care home impacts her on an emotional level. Grant never directly addresses Fiona’s feelings, and appears content with his understanding of her as mysterious and “vague” (538). Ana-Maria Fraile-Marcos argues that this viewpoint effectively “creates an alternative space for the reader to perceive [Fiona’s] personality as more troubled and complex than Grant is willing to acknowledge” (68). This “alternative space” also provides grounds upon which to question the accuracy of Grant’s retrospections and the nature of his growing sense of shame surrounding his lack of care for Fiona. 

The story’s chronological order of events is frequently interrupted with moments of analepsis, wherein Grant becomes consumed with contemplating the past. These analeptic moments also parallel the fragmented nature of Fiona and Grant’s relationship. After Grant, a retired professor, dreams about being confronted by the female students he seduced during his tenure, he reflects on the denouement of his repeated unfaithfulness, neglecting the obvious power imbalances of his extramarital affairs (545). In an attempt to exonerate himself of shame, Grant postulates, “nowhere was there any acknowledgement that the life of a philanderer … involved acts of kindness and generosity and even sacrifice” (547). Grant even goes so far as to suggest himself, albeit absurdly, as a self-sacrificing hero who “had never stopped making love to Fiona despite disturbing demands elsewhere” (547). According to Christine Lorre-Johnston, this admission of Grant’s is illustrative of the ways in which “Munro exposes and makes fun of the male ego defending itself” (qtd. in Fraile-Marcos 66). Grant thus attempts to conceal his shame at having deceived Fiona with his feelings of pride at not abandoning her as her health worsens, and with his memory of drunkenly “promis[ing]” her “a new life” after word of his infidelity had itself “got around” on campus (545). Traditionally, analepsis allows the recounting of a phenomenon that precedes the present narrative time and is employed to “retroactively confer on the past episode a meaning that in its own time it did not yet have” (Genette 56). However, in this instance, Munro employs a more complex form of narrative ordering whereby Grant recalls a past moment of him planning for a future life with Fiona. The consequent effect is what Gerard Genette describes as a prolepsis within an analepsis, resulting in a collision between the two elements that chaotically superimposes Grant’s idyllic married lifestyle in the country with the cruel, distant reality of caring for a wife with dementia, revealing the stark inadequacy of his support for her in the past and present. The new reality of Fiona’s cognitive condition and her life in the care home totally destabilizes Grant’s understanding about who Fiona is, how she views him, and what she might know of his past infidelities. As he is struggling with his wife’s altered reality, Grant is also forced to question his own perceptions of their lives together. Munro uses the fragmented sense of reality experienced by both marital partners to question the accuracy and significance of memories themselves, particularly as they inform how Grant and Fiona attempt to navigate their present circumstances. 

Finally, Fiona’s desire for Aubrey’s companionship further complicates Grant’s abstracted view of marital fidelity. Ironically, between Grant’s moments of reflection on his past affairs, he spends much of his time observing Fiona develop a romantic relationship with another nursing home member. He is forced to live in a reality where his wife has forgotten who he is and has fallen in love with Aubrey. Unbeknownst to Grant at the time, the supervisor’s attempts to settle Grant’s unease by assuring him that the patrons “end up as happy as clams” (542) has literal meaning beyond its figurative expression, as Fiona has developed an enclosed relationship that leaves others, including her husband, on the outside. Nevertheless, when Aubrey is released from the care home and Fiona’s condition seems to worsen, Grant coordinates Aubrey’s return to the nursing home. However, in doing so, he must indulge in the prospect of a relationship with Aubrey’s wife, Marian (577), who must in turn decide whether she will return her own husband to the care home. With this act, Munro irreversibly muddles the dichotomous division of infidelity and fidelity with the situational ethics of the story’s circumstances. On one hand, by pursuing a relationship with Marian, Grant’s selfless act of redemption is marred by his return to his past philandering behaviors. On the other, Grant exhibits radiating devotion and loyalty by adapting to the present events to meet Fiona’s current needs and secure her well-being. Grant must confront the fact that although Fiona has not been unfaithful in her sexual habits and behavior, she is able to break “out of her shell” (544) in the nursing home and develop a raw and intimate connection with Aubrey that is uninformed by their past life together. It is only through this experience that Grant is able to recalibrate his sense of present reality and come close to empathizing with what Fiona may have experienced in her past life with him. As a result, Grant is able to respond with the care and attention suggested by his selfless retrieval of Aubrey, along with his bringing Fiona gifts of flowers and a book about Iceland, where her mother came from (548; 559). While Grant’s experiences and memories throughout the story lead him to acknowledge that he has not always been sexually faithful to Fiona, his attempts at redemption in the present suggest that this acknowledgment may finally allow him to demonstrate a more sincere form of devotion to his wife.
Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” offers an anachronic exploration of Grant’s unstable understanding of fidelity through its representation of his lived experiences and subsequent re-evaluation of them as memories at a time when his wife’s own memory is failing. Throughout the text, Grant discovers that his fidelity to Fiona cannot be defined by the sum of his sexual behavior, and finally proves himself capable of navigating their relationship in a manner that is more sensitive to Fiona’s needs. The dignity of Grant and Fiona’s relationship is thus maintained through their faith in, if not the explicit accuracy or fidelity of, their shared memories and experiences, as, by the end of the text, such acts of faith are all that are left to bind them together.


Works Cited

“coincide, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, Accessed 8 December 2020.

Fraile-Marcos, Ana Maria. “Embodied Shame and the Resilient Ethics of Representation in Alice Munro’s ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain.’” Ethics and Affects in the Fiction of Alice Munro, edited by Amelia DeFalco and Lorraine York, Springer Nature, 2018, pp. 57-77. 

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Translated by Jane E. Lewin, Cornell University Press, 1980, pp. 56-80. 

Munro, Alice. “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, edited by Jeffery Eugenides. New York: Harper, 2008, pp. 537-79.