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4 - Of Bears, Horses, Goats, and Other Animals

Wolf to Bear; Wolfhound to Skunk Lily: Restless Imagery in Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

Janice Kulyk Keefer
p. 85-99


Cet essai explore les transformations déconcertantes que Munro fait subir aux personnages principaux, aux événements et à leur mise en scène en utilisant des images animales ou végétales dans “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. Les variantes et les transformations de ces images permettent par exemple à un même personnage d’être associé à un oiseau bleu, à un chien loup et à des renoncules âcres. Une attention particulière est portée aux références culturelles évoquées par Munro, qui s’étendent de Walt Disney aux sagas islandaises. Cet essai pose l’hypothèse que ces images mouvantes sont moins destinées à fournir une riche variété de traits de caractère qu’à mettre en jeu les brusques changements de direction qui nous rendent tous finalement impénétrables et qui donnent à la vie sa dimension douloureusement imprévisible et ironique.

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1Héliane Ventura’s meticulous reading of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” one of Munro’s more “puzzling” stories, foregrounds the frame its author has constructed: “a Folk song title and the groping for the right form of an irregular verb in the last lines.” Within these borders, Ventura argues, Munro seems to offer us “a playful, distanced, and ironic approach to the ravages of aging” (Ventura 2). Her essay goes on to explore “the ambiguities of the uses and misuses of language” in this text, and finds that Munro destabilizes the threshold between life, as celebrated in the transformative power of poetic language, and death as foreshadowed in the dead-end of dementia, which leads to the grammatical flounderings of the story’s heroine. The result is a kind of double negative in which “the ruin which [the loss of language] entails, is itself ruined by the transgressions of the various thresholds” enacted by the story. “Her story does not herald the coming of dawn: it orchestrates the twilight of the gods and it provides the disquieting possibility of equating it with the sunrise” (Ventura 34).

  • 1 All subsequent references to “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” will be indicated as BCM.

2What my reading of this same story will attempt is an interpretation of Munrovian ambiguity which seeks more to complement than contest Professor Ventura’s. The interpretative composite that emerges can be seen as similar to that classic trope of ambiguity elucidated by E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion: an image which can be seen as a rabbit or a duck (Gombrich 4). What results from this duality is not an either/or, but an and/and that helps to elucidate the depth, power and scope of Munro’s art. Within the frame Héliane Ventura has so persuasively established and adumbrated for “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” I wish to explore certain restless or unstable elements and to consider how the radical fluidity of meaning they create complicates the playfulness evoked by the story’s closing. Prominent among these elements that include abrupt chronological shifts and spatial jumps are the vagaries of the story’s animal imagery, reminiscent of the shape shifting so frequent in old Nordic texts in which we find men turning into wolves, or women into adders: the Icelandic sagas and the myths informing them are a crucial intertext in this story. But I would argue that the instability of its animal imagery points just as strongly at what the story’s focalizer, Grant, hypothesizes as the root of his wife Fiona’s baffling behaviour: a joke or charade. By the story’s end the joke has acquired existential proportions to become the random ironies and tricks of life itself. What it underscores is not merely playfulness but also “informed despair” (BCM, 271)1.

3The plot of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is as intricate as its title is long. A dozen years after Grant and Fiona, now in their early seventies, move from the Ontario university town where they both worked, to an isolated farmhouse in the country, Fiona develops so serious a form of senile dementia—Alzheimer’s is never named—that she must be removed to Meadowlake, a senior’s home. To Grant’s immense distress, Fiona appears to forget her connection to him, and develops a loving attachment to Aubrey, a temporary (and married) resident of Meadowlake with whom she had apparently had the beginnings of a teenage romance well over fifty years before. As the story unfolds, we learn that Grant had been a philanderer for much of their marriage; his taking of early retirement from his university had been an attempt to break a habit that would inevitably have led his wife to break with him. So it is painfully ironic for Grant to discover that Fiona, who has always been as ladylike in her behaviour as in her appearance (BCM, 258), is now openly in love with Aubrey. And it is just as ironic—and degrading to boot—that Grant is driven to stalk the “guilty” couple as they shuffle round the labyrinthine corridors of Meadowlake. When Aubrey’s wife returns from a brief vacation to take her husband home, Fiona’s grief is extreme: she takes to her bed and refuses to eat. Grant is warned that she will have to be moved from the hotel-like surroundings of the seniors’ home to its dreaded “second floor,” where the inmates are locked-in, both physically and mentally. To save his wife from this horrific fate, or at least to defer the necessity for such a move as long as possible, Grant performs an exemplary act of self-sacrifice: he persuades Aubrey’s wife Marian to install her husband permanently at Meadowlake. In exchange, Grant enters into a relationship with Marian paralleling that between Fiona and Aubrey. It is not clear whether Grant moves into Marian’s vulgarly-decorated home in a run-down suburb, or whether Marian, having sold her house in order to pay the nursing home fees, moves into the elegantly-decorated farmhouse with Grant. In any case, Grant has made a significant sacrifice: there is a world of difference between the beautiful, witty, decidedly upper-class Fiona and the stolid, wrinkled Marian who, Grant divines, had been the kind of innocently vulgar “small town flirt” (BCM, 280) that he, given his own humble origins, had been expected to marry. Grant does, however, bring himself round to anticipating certain fleshly consolations from Marian’s company, and derives some satisfaction from the irony that his projected bad behaviour will, for once, secure his wife’s happiness and very safety.

4Yet Grant’s self-sacrifice is absurdly upstaged by one of Life’s—or Fate’s—horrendous jokes. For no sooner has Aubrey been moved back to Meadowlake than Fiona becomes—however temporarily—compos mentis. She appears to have no memory of Aubrey, or to accord him the least importance; instead, she recognizes her husband for the first time since her removal to Meadowlake and reaches out to him, recreating via word games and private jokes a vestige of the intimacy they’d once enjoyed. And she extracts from Grant the promise that he will not abandon her at Meadowlake, however ambiguously Grant must phrase this promise. For not only will Fiona’s remission, as has been made clear, be temporary, but also Grant has made his bed vis-à-vis Marian. Nevertheless, by the story’s end it is Fiona who holds the upper hand, and Grant who appears as the diminished member of this couple. And this power differential brings me back to the title of this darkly ramiferous story.

5The bear goes over the mountain, the folksong’s lyrics inform us, but to absolutely no avail. No stout Cortez, this bear: he may have scaled the heights, but the only vision he’s vouchsafed is a self-defeating one. It is in fact, rather worse than nothing: given that “the other side of the mountain” is a replica, more or less, of what he already knows or has experienced, he might just as well have stayed where he was. By moving mountains to keep his wife from the hell of Meadowlake’s second floor, Grant has played a doubly losing game: not only has Fiona dismissed Aubrey from her consciousness, but she has rescued herself without her husband’s help, while he, by manoeuvering Marian into surrendering Aubrey, has landed himself in a considerable mess. Grant, in other words, has become the ursine bumbler of the story’s title, losing in the process the far more daunting lupine identity he had once exulted in.

6The power dynamic of Grant and Fiona’s lengthy marriage is a key element in this story of ceaseless shifts and transformations. Fiona, who had had her pick of suitors, settled on her fellow student, the rather wet-behind-the-ears Grant, a country boy of humble background. More surprisingly still, she had seized the initiative by proposing marriage to him. We are given to understand that Fiona made this unusual move not from the dictates of passion, but because she’s divined that life with Grant would be “fun,” by which she means that in his company her own gift for life would flourish. It may be a mésalliance in conventional terms, but for fifty years this marriage is a conspicuous success, especially as far as Grant is concerned. He has begun by playing Galatea to Fiona’s Pygmalion: his confidence in himself is bolstered by his marriage to the beautiful daughter of wealthy and distinguished people, and he proceeds to climb the ladder of academe, enjoying success as a professor of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature. By the mid-point of his marriage, Grant has reached his zenith and achieved ascendancy over Fiona, who, unable to have children, devotes herself increasingly to her mother, who is dying of throat cancer, and who works at unglamorous jobs in the university’s registrar’s office and then as a coordinator of volunteer services in the hospital where her mother had died. All this time she is being deceived by her husband, whose dalliance with a stream of students, both mature and young, boosts his confidence to dizzying heights. Grant, no fool, is aware of the “blasphemous” nature of his conviction that he has “increased in wisdom and stature/And in favour with God and man” (BCM, 266). Nevertheless, his “gigantic increase in well-being,” persists as he goes from one conquest to another, becoming that age-old form of the sexy man on the prowl: the wolf. Though he is never named as such, it is clear that the designation is a fitting one.

7A significant part of Grant’s research deals with the Fenris wolf, a gigantic creature who is one of the children of the evil god Loki, and who, according to Norse mythology, will annihilate Odin at Ragnarök, the end of the world. Until Ragnarök, however, the Fenris wolf is held captive by the gods, fettered by an indestructible silken bond: it is possible to see the retired and reformed Grant, safely removed from the pool of nubile campus women, as similarly disempowered. A previous attempt to diminish him had been to no avail: one of his student lovers had painted the word “Rat on his office door, presumably when he ended their affair. That Grant was not ratted out in consequence was due as much to Fiona’s dismissal of the episode as prompted by nothing more than the student’s bad crush (BCM, 251) as to the fact that Grant’s university had yet to begin taking serious measures against sexual harassment. For his part, Grant believes he’s behaved decently to all the women in his life, especially his wife: unlike many of his colleagues who have abandoned wives and children to live a bohemian life with student mistresses, Grant has never spent so much as one night away from Fiona. His decision to take early retirement, removing himself from temptation in order to give his wife “a new life” is, however, an admission of weakness. For he realizes that Fiona’s ignorance, or forbearance, cannot weather any more trials; for him to lose Fiona, it’s suggested, would be to lose the spark of life itself (BCM, 242). When, through no fault of his own, he does lose Fiona to Meadowlake and Aubrey, Grant loses the last remnants of his former well-being, metamorphosing from wolf to bear.

8Bears, as any Canadian with experience of wilderness hiking and camping can attest, are not to be trifled with. But the bear of Munro’s title seems more a bumbler than a predator. Though we can’t view him as anthropomorphized à la Goldilocks, we can link him to the cruelly-treated dancing bears of European fairgrounds or, as in “Rose Red and Snow White,” to the prince-inside-the-bear-suit, whose nobility is sadly travestied by his fur and claws and lumbering gait. There is something undignified in being this kind of bear, Munro suggests, drawing our attention to the “shame” Grant feels at being “duped” in various contexts (BCM, 251). She ensures that Grant is humbled and outwitted in his attempt to rescue Fiona, and in describing Aubrey, Grant’s rival, as having the beauty of “a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse,” (BCM, 256) she seems to be demoting Grant once again. Whether Aubrey is to be seen as a race horse or work horse, a Northern Dancer or a Boxer from Animal Farm is not the issue. The words “beauty” and “powerful” confer dignity on Aubrey, keeping him from being a mere travesty of suitor or lover. And the adjective “discouraged” is immediately qualified: “But where Fiona was concerned he was anything but discouraged” (BCM, 256). In fact Aubrey’s relationship with Fiona is described as one of “command” rather than “supplication”—the exact opposite of Grant’s dealings with his demented wife (BCM, 255). And Grant’s prowling after the lovers makes him appear, he fears, “foolish and pathetic and perhaps unhinged” (BCM, 261).

9If the animal imagery allied with Grant proves restless or unstable, what of the characterization of Fiona? In her prime, she had possessed the elegance and éclat of a Russian wolfhound: their “long legs and silky hair, their narrow, gentle, intransigent faces made a fine match for her” (BCM, 245). The two dogs of this breed that she adopts, almost as substitute children, emphasize this association. But the dogs reach the end of their lives, and in due course, Fiona reaches the end of her working intelligence. Once established at Meadowlake, we find her transformed into the bluebird that decorates the nameplate on her door. Bluebird of happiness it is not: Munro spells out the degradation, or inaccuracy of this metamorphosis, at least in Grant’s eyes, by having him react to the Disneyfied emblem with “a truly malignant dislike” (BCM, 262). Yet a transformation has certainly occurred during the thirty days after Fiona’s admission to Meadowlake, thirty days during which Grant has been forbidden to visit her, so that she may get used to her new home and feel permanently settled there. When he sees her at last, Grant discovers that Fiona has gained weight: her face is puffy, “the flab on one cheek hiding the corner of her mouth, in a way it hadn’t done before” (BCM, 254). She no longer wears her distinctively elegant clothes, but is dressed in a mish-mash of outfits from the laundry collective: vulgarly bright colours and materials, so that she begins to resemble one of the local (i.e.lower-class) women at their supermarket (BCM, 263). Most disconcerting of all, her “angelic halo” of long, radiantly-white hair is eventually cut short (BCM, 263)—something which cuts Grant to the quick, though Fiona professes not to have noticed this significant change in her appearance until he points it out to her. From wolfhound to bluebird: from Snorri Sturluson to Walt Disney: what a steep decline!

10Yet Fiona, who is rarely to be found in her room with its appalling nameplate, leaves the bluebird association behind and acquires another identity, this time floral. By the end of the story, Grant detects a faintly rotten smell, like that of cut flowers kept too long in water, coming from Fiona. An earlier, stronger version of this motif appears in the skunk lilies that, come spring, displace the barren snow in the “sunken hollow” to which Grant and Fiona, in their heyday, used to ski. Though Fiona is not explicitly linked to these wildflowers, the bright yellow of their petals brings to mind those yellow post-it notes with which, we’ve been told, Fiona had labelled the most ordinary objects at the start of her illness. The petals also prefigure the yellow dress “oddly short and bright” that she wears at the story’s end—though she protests that “I never wear yellow” (BCM, 284). It was Fiona, after all, who had once informed Grant that skunk lilies have the rare capacity to generate warmth through their yellow, candle-like petals. Munro has spent a good deal of time before this on the loving care which Fiona takes of the anxious, dependent Aubrey, underlining the warmth of their relationship as they hold tête-à-tête in the brightly-lit and tropically-heated conservatory. And at the story’s close, as spring displaces winter, a miraculously-improved Fiona waits for Grant by an open window through which the scent of lilac blossom mixed with manure wafts in.

11Lilacs and manure: lilies and skunk squirt: oxymoron, paradox, or just one of life’s jokes? The lilies with which Fiona is associated are, we remember, skunk lilies: fauna harnessed to flora in an oxymoronic way. A secondary meaning for the noun “skunk” is a detestable person, which hardly seems appropriate for Fiona. To be or get “skunk” can mean simply to be drenched by the animal’s obnoxious spray, or to be intoxicated or disapproved of. One other slang definition of the verb seems especially appropriate here: “to defeat thoroughly in a game, especially while keeping an opponent from scoring.”2 Is this not what Fiona accomplishes when Grant comes to her, at the story’s end, with his plan for her deliverance? If so, then Fiona is certainly true to her Icelandic heritage, the mythology and sagas Munro weaves so intently into this story. Fiona’s mother, we learn, is Icelandic, or at least, still speaks the language (she coaches Grant as he prepares to read aloud to his class the “Hofuolausn” or ode to honour King Eric Blood-axe.) Though “Fiona had never learned her mother’s language and [...] had never shown much respect for the stories that it preserved” (BCM, 264 )—stories that are Grant’s professional bread and butter as well as his chief scholarly interest—she had, before dementia derailed her, developed an interest in Iceland, fantasizing about travelling there one day, in the footsteps of William Morris and W.H Auden. Grant’s second gift to Fiona once he has moved her to Meadowlake (the first had been a bouquet of appropriately-named Narcissus) is “a book of nineteenth-century watercolours made by a lady traveller to Iceland” (BCM, 264)—a curiously pallid approach to a country whose most prized literature specializes in the “majestic and gory” (BCM, 266). One thinks of the Gudrun of the Volsung Saga, slitting the throats of her young sons to revenge herself on her husband, or the Gudrun of the Laexdela Saga, arranging the murder of the lover whom she believes has spurned her for another. Next to these foremothers, Fiona may appear watered-down indeed, and yet her beauty and spirit, her refusal even in her youth to fall in with convention, whether by refusing to join a sorority or by defying worldly wisdom in her choice of a husband confer on her something of the stature of those strong-minded women of the sagas who hold their own, and more, against formidable men.

12Reminiscent of the Icelandic sagas, too, is Grant’s prophetic dream, part retroactive guilt, part foreboding. It is a complicated dream involving a letter he receives from the friend of a girl with whom he’d had an affair: the letter, “sanctimonious and hostile” (BCM, 250) warns him that his former lover is threatening to kill herself, and that he is to blame, though Grant can’t credit this, since “he had parted from [her] decently.” Nevertheless, he is distressed enough to show the letter to a colleague whom he had always assumed to be a friend. This colleague, like Grant, had gone in for serial infidelity, yet his response to the letter is also sanctimonious, and threatening as well: “[...] if I were you I’d try to prepare Fiona.” Heeding this advice, Grant goes off to find Fiona at a Meadowlake which turns out to be the former grim version of the residence, stinking of urine and bleach. He finds her in a lecture room dominated by a “flock of cold-eyed young women all in black robes, all in mourning,” who eye him vengefully. Fiona, by contrast, sits unconcerned in the front row as if at a party

Holding out against the tide […] as if the dramas […] being played-out […] in bedrooms and on the dark verandah, were nothing but childish comedy. As if chastity was chic, and reticence a blessing. (BCM, 250)

13Fiona’s blithe dismissal of the girl’s suicide threat does not reassure Grant, but chills and terrifies him: “[...] he saw what she could not—that the black ring was thickening, drawing in, all around his windpipe, all around the top of the room” (BCM, 251). Thus, Grant’s dream has conflated his worst fears from the past and concerning the future: that he will lose Fiona, either to the sexual deceptions and betrayals he has practiced or to the ravages of her illness. Since Fiona is to him life itself, what he is being threatened with is not the suicide of a discarded lover, but rather his own extinction. And even though he is able to rationalize this message from the unconscious, separating its elements into the real and imaginary, he is no more able to prevent the worst from happening than are any of the Icelandic heroes able to forestall the doom foreshadowed in their dreams.

14Instead of a ring of mourning, vengeful women, what Grant ends up with, however, is a suburban matron, Aubrey’s wife Marian. Whereas Aubrey is fleetingly likened to a horse, Munro repeatedly insists on our recognizing Marian as fauna, fruit and flora. Thus she has a “catlike” way of flicking crumbs from her lips with her tongue (BCM, 278), a trait that Grant later connects with the sexual satisfaction promised by the “practical sensuality of her cat’s tongue” (BCM, 283). Most prominently, however, Marian is associated with the litchi nut and its “oddly artificial allure, its chemical taste and perfume” (BCM, 280). As important as the litchi’s shallow layer of glaucous fruit in this characterization is its disproportionately large stone. Our attention is thus drawn to Marian’s contradictory elements. Firstly, she is a creature of the flesh, as distinguished from the rarified, fine-boned Fiona. Grant spends a fair amount of time appraising the paradox of Marian’s body: her wrinkled neck and “youthfully-full and up-tilted” breasts (BCM, 276), her “trim waist and wide buttocks” (BCM, 272). Marian, we learn, is several years younger than Aubrey, and, we may assume, Grant. With the tight belt she affects, her “artificially reddened” hair, (BCM, 272) her intriguingly-tilted eyes and “fruity lips” (BCM, 276), Marian is a flashily sexual being in a way Fiona isn’t now, and has never been. (When so many other women were embracing the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, we are told, Fiona had never been one of the “loose wives” on campus: irony rather than sensuality is her strong suit [BCM, 258, 265]). Secondly, Marian is significantly more than her ample flesh: the litchi’s huge seed is constituted, in her case, by what Grant identifies as ”the stone of blameless self-interest inside her robust pulp“ (BCM, 282).

15Yet in addition to Marian as cat or litchi nut, Munro offers us a less overt connection of Marian with those problematic bluebirds that appeared on the nameplate of Fiona’s door. Seen in connection with Marian rather than Fiona, the bluebirds lose their “malignancy” for Grant. Marian’s eyes are a robin’s egg or turquoise blue: her living room boasts two layers of blue curtains, plus a matching blue sofa (BCM, 273). It is as if the bluebirds, which were mistakenly attached to Fiona, had taken flight to land on Marian, the owner of that ceramic tree trunk with amputated limbs holding the coffee mugs in her kitchen (BCM, 274). In the course of the story, Marian becomes Fiona’s replacement and, in some strange way, her alter ego. For though Marian is so different from Fiona in the way she dresses, wears her hair, decorates her house, and most of all, uses language, she shares certain traits with her, from her “gemstone eyes”–Marian’s are turquoises, Fiona’s sapphires (BCM, 283, 243) to an agency that could make Grant seem passive in comparison. Just as it was Fiona and not Grant who proposed marriage, so it is Marian and not Grant who makes the first move in arranging a date at the Legion Hall. If Marian commits that unforgivable sartorial faux pas of wearing a tartan pants suit, then Fiona has let herself be dressed in equally kitschy colours and styles. And if Marian is the epitome to Grant of the kind of realist bred by childhood poverty, and permanent financial insecurity, the privileged Fiona understands the harshness of life outside her superior circle: due to her work at the hospital she gets more than a glance at “that everyday world [...] where people actually had troubles that were not related to drugs or sex or intellectual squabbles” (BCM, 252). Finally, Marian, like Fiona, is associated with those skunk lilies in the sunken hollow: immediately after Grant observes the lilies, and remembers the information Fiona had given him about them, he thinks of Marian. Once their relationship is established, Marian will supply the skills as cook and housekeeper Grant observes on the first occasion that he visits her home. She will also bring a sexual warmth to his lonely bed. Yet Marian, like Fiona, is no pushover: she may be perceived by Grant as vulnerable as she leaves him increasingly agitated phone messages, but she also possesses the vigour and life force integral to the skunk lilies growing in such profusion in that “sunken hollow”–a spatial trope for the female body to which Munro twice draws our attention in the course of this story.

16“Things change back and forth all the time and there’s nothing you can do about it” (BCM, 257). In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” identities shift, meanings alter, boundaries dissolve and landmarks prove unreliable. A wolf becomes a bear, a wolfhound a bluebird and then a skunk lily. One character appears as a composite of cat, bluebird and litchi nut, and two women who seem to be polar opposites come to share significant attributes. Such restlessness seems particularly appropriate vis-à-vis the story’s main characters, especially the paradoxical Fiona, whom Munro describes as “direct and vague [...] sweet and ironic.” Even her smile, we’re told, is “lopsided, abashed, sly, and charming,” and her husband concedes that living with her can be like living in a mirage (BCM, 243, 254, 280). As for Grant, he may be in tune with a swinging Zeitgeist, but he is also strikingly conventional and careful in his promiscuity, eschewing “any intention of throwing up work and marriage and taking to the country to practice carpentry or keep bees” (BCM, 252). He stays resolutely loyal (in his fashion) to the wife who has transformed his life and allowed him to re-invent himself socially and culturally; it is his dearest wish—not just a vow, but a desire as well—never to be away from Fiona. Aubrey, who strikes us first as the innocent victim of malign chance or fate, turns out to be rather more complicated than we suppose. Marian reveals that her husband was “shoved out” of his company for doing “something pretty stupid” which left him owing them money (BCM, 277). The consequences of his coma turn out to be a boon as well as a bane, letting him off the hook regarding any attempt by the company to press charges against him for fraud or embezzlement. And Marian, at whose vulgarity Grant baulks at first, ends up by inspiring in him “a twinge of bizarre and unreliable affection” (Munro 283) as he realizes that, unlike Fiona, she is a woman whose value and priorities his mother would have admired. Sarah Polley’s film adaptation of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” expands an aspect of the plot elided by Munro: the price Grant pays for Marian’s agreeing to Aubrey’s return to Meadowlake as a permanent resident. What Munro implies, Polley makes explicit: Marian has sold her house and moved in with Grant: there is no way, no, for Grant to get away from her. Moreover, Marian’s loyalty to the wisdom or at least the worldview of her social class gives her a strength and authority lost to Grant. Because she has kept in touch with reality, and “the truth about life,” Marian has the power to make Grant feel “hopeless, exasperated, finally almost desolate” (BCM, 279), emotions which cancel out the vulnerability he creates in her.

17“The truth about life.” What is this truth? Marian gives us a clue in characteristically down-to-earth fashion, remarking apropos of her husband’s speculations, the virus which has disabled him, the failure of her hopes of upward social mobility, never mind happiness through her marriage—“It’s just life [....] You can’t beat life” (BCM, 278). “That’s true,” Grant responds, not merely flattering his interlocutor, but confirming her insight. After all, what is Fiona’s terrible illness but one of life’s jokes, cruel in human terms, but, as the caregiver Kristy asserts, no big deal in the grand scheme of things. Kristy, it turns out, is the one significant, though minor character in this story associated with neither fauna nor flora. Why, one asks, since even such marginal characters as the mothers shepherding their families on weekend visits to Meadowlake are likened to sheepdogs. Is it that, being a generation younger than Grant and Fiona, or Aubrey and Marian, she is still in the race, still struggling with problems unknown to these couples with their long-term, enduring marriages and financial security? The working-class Kristy is a single parent with a seriously ill child, and another who may have problems with drugs. To her, the Grants and Fionas with their “easy and protected lives” “had got through [...] without too much going wrong. What they had to suffer now that they were old hardly counted” (BCM, 279, 269). This is a kind of realism that puts in its proper place Grant and Fiona’s apprehension of lacrimae rerum—the “sadness” that causes them to stop watching a favourite television serial “before the final ending” because of how the characters age and disappear, and the sets fade (BCM, 249). It is a realism, moreover, that the revamping of Meadowlake cannot do more than defer: the “dribblers, head wagglers, mad chatterers [...] disfigurement as well as verbal and other kinds of incontinence” (BCM, 254) may have been moved out of sight to the second floor, but they remain all too real, as Grant is forced to admit on being warned of Fiona’s decline.

18Given this harshness of life and absurd randomness of fate, what do we make of the ending of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”? The final section of the story is preceded by a chronological jump which, as I have mentioned, elides the arrangements Marian makes with Grant to start a new life. The text’s final section shows us Fiona in her room but not in bed where she had previously languished. She is brightly dressed and looking at the previously untouched book on Iceland, though she does not remember Grant’s having given it to her. This is one clue as to her not being “all there,” though her comment on the foolhardiness of leaving valuable books around seems eminently sensible. It’s a fault she attributes to the “people staying here,” who are occasionally dishonest and incompetent, getting people’s clothes mixed up when they do the laundry (BCM, 283). Fiona then asks whether Grant has checked them out at last—as if Meadowlake were a hotel rather than her final residence: this is another clue, of course, that she is “out of it,” although again, she maybe recalling her husband’s attention to the assertion he had made before moving her to Meadowlake: that it was an experiment, a temporary rest cure, and not a permanent solution to their troubles (BCM, 246). For his part, Grant blurts out news of the surprise he’s brought her–Aubrey. And then something truly terrifying happens: we are given a glance into Fiona’s ravaged mind:

She stared at him for a moment, as if waves of wind had come beating into her face. Into her face, into her head, pulling everything to rags. (BCM, 284)

19Making a formidable effort, she is able to beat back this horrific wind, with the “harsh” rejoinder “Names elude me” (BCM, 284). It is as if she is cutting the ground from under her husband’s feet, forbidding him such feints and tricks as the mention of someone whom she does not recognize, or recognize as having any importance in her life. What threatens is an aporia, an abyss, and what staves this off is something as miraculous and fragile as language.

20Héliane Ventura has demonstrated the crucial role that language, or to be precise, grammar plays in providing the end frame of this disconcerting story. Recovering what we can only call her presence of mind, Fiona stands up and embraces Grant, uttering not a rejoinder, but a message of encouragement inflected by her indecision regarding her choice of past participle:

’You could have just driven away,’ she said. Just driven away without a care in the world and forsook me—Forsooken me. Forsaken.’ (BCM, 284)

21Is she locked in the past, when Grant’s love affairs might have led him to simply drive off and leave her behind, forever? Or is she firmly situated in the present, aware that her accelerating dementia might have led her husband to despair of her ever remembering him, and to stop visiting her? Or is she perched in both past and present? Is the solecism primarily an indication of how her mind has decayed—the verbal equivalent of those rotting cut flowers? Is it a faltering reprise of her “Shallowlake/Shillylake/Sillylake” wordplay after she’d wandered off at the supermarket, precipitating the decision to finally move her to Meadowlake (BCM, 246)? I would suggest that Fiona’s problem finding the correct past tense of the verb “to forsake” is not only a sign of her disintegrating mind, but also a resurgence of the wordplay she and Grant once indulged in with such pleasure—“nonsense dialects, characters they invented” (BCM, 245)—a private joke played with “bantering grace” (BCM, 284). The effect is one of radical ambiguity functioning rather like the rabbit/duck image in Art and Illusion. Once we have perceived the duality inherent in what first appeared to admit of only one interpretation, duality will always be there, either as part of a sequence of interpretative moves, or as a fusion or superimposition of contrasting images. Or in the worst case as a form of baffled confusion, as Grant forsees would proceed from any attempt, on his first visits to Meadowlake, to press Fiona on whether she recognized him as her husband of fifty years: “somehow she would have ended up not saying either yes or no. Or she would have said either one in a way that gave not the least satisfaction” (BCM, 257).

22What satisfaction does Grant end up giving his wife? Significantly, he refuses to look her in the eyes, keeping his face pressed against “her white hair, her pink scalp, her sweetly shaped skull”—the latter an especially poignant memento mori. And then he utters a promise of sorts: “Not a chance.” It is scarcely a resounding affirmation of fidelity. Instead, it gestures to that inexplicable game of chance which is life—that same life which, Marian asserts, mere humans cannot hope to beat (BCM, 278). For my own part, I can’t help hearing in the last words of Munro’s story an echo of the final words of Mansfield’s “The Man Without a Temperament,” in which an invalid wife also asks her husband for crucial reassurance:

’I sometimes wonder—do you mind awfully being out here with me?’
He beds down. He kisses her. He tucks her in, he smooths the pillow
’Rot!’ he whispers. (Mansfield 143)

23The short, ugly word comes across both as a joke he’s making of her fear that he’ll abandon her, and an injunction to hurry up and die.

24Life is a joke to the cruelty of which we respond with charades: this is one possible interpretation of “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The jokes are indeed, as plentiful as they are pitiful. The joke of a wayward virus causing Aubrey to fall into a coma and lose his independence as well as his responsibility for past misdemeanours. The joke of Aubrey and Fiona being reunited after a thwarted teenage romance more than fifty years ago, or of these two aged and demented lovers being spied upon by a former philanderer-turned-cuckold. The joke that fidelity and infidelity now have nothing to do with sex. The joke of the errant husband, Grant, becoming remarkable for his “constancy” (BCM, 248)—which is in itself funny-peculiar, given that by his own admission, Grant’s constancy is a matter of “stalking and prowling” (BCM, 260). The joke that Grant believes Fiona is playing on him by treating him as if he were a new resident of Meadowlake. The joke of Fiona, the wronged wife, getting her revenge on her husband, first by openly taking up with Aubrey in a context in which no blame can attach to her, and second, by rendering Grant’s rescue efforts null and void. The “joke that could never be confided to anybody—[...] that by [Grant’s] bad behaviour he’d be doing good for Fiona” in taking up with Marian: (BCM, 281). Darkest of all, the joke that despite the most heroic of efforts, Fiona will move up to the second floor: the only sequel to her life with Grant is degeneration, alone, followed by death.

25Yet through all this gloom, the last pages of Munro’s story afford us a measure of grace, make of it what we will. That sunken hollow filled with snow and ice and printed with the shadows resembling prison bars is transformed with the coming of spring to a bower thick with bloom: the flowers may be skunk lilies, but they still offer warmth and light. The window in Fiona’s room is open, and what does it matter if the fresh air that blows in smells of manure as well as lilac? Perhaps the true “last words” of this text are spoken not at the story’s end, by Fiona and Grant, but by the level-headed Kristy who, like Marian, is lodged in reality in a way that the affluent and highly-educated are not. “You don’t really want to know,” she tells Grant when he comes to her for information about what goes on in the lives of those moved up to the second floor. “You don’t really want to know” (BCM, 263).

26And yet we do. Fiction like Alice Munro’s simultaneously reveals and disguises truth. We are entertained by the wit and power of Munro’s language and by the beauty of her fiction’s design, while at the same time we register such visions as that nightmare ring of mourning women choking off the dreamer’s breath. The ambiguity, the ambivalence, allow us to catch our breath, to defer the dark. What else is the restlessness, or instability, or fluidity of meaning and image in a story like “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” than a coup de grâce pulled off by a master, giving us as much of reality as we can bear? Lest things get “too dark altogether” (Conrad 171).

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Conrad, Joseph, “Heart of Darkness”, The Complete Stories of Joseph Conrad, London: Hutchinson, 1935.

Gombrich, Ernst Hans, Art and Illusion: a Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, London: Phaidon, 1977.

Munro, Alice, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2002.

Mansfield, Katherine, “The Man Without a Temperament”, Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, London: Book Club Associates/Constable, 1973.

Ventura, Héliane, “The Skald and the Goddess: Reading ”The Bear Came Over the Mountain’" by Alice Munro, Journal of the Short Story In English Special Issue: The Short Stories of Alice Munro 55 (Autumn 2010)

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1 All subsequent references to “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” will be indicated as BCM.


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Bibliographical reference

Janice Kulyk Keefer, Wolf to Bear; Wolfhound to Skunk Lily: Restless Imagery in Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”Caliban, 57 | 2017, 85-99.

Electronic reference

Janice Kulyk Keefer, Wolf to Bear; Wolfhound to Skunk Lily: Restless Imagery in Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”Caliban [Online], 57 | 2017, Online since 24 May 2019, connection on 24 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Janice Kulyk Keefer

University of Guelf

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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