Prompted by O'Connor's account, I think of the short story as a prose equivalent of a sonnet, in which the first part depicts an issue and the later part brings a transformation, or a new perspective.
Among the great writers of short stories, after Turgenev and Maupassant were, of course, Anton Chekhov who is generally thought of as the greatest of all, O'Connor himself and, more recently, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.
Cynthia Ozick has said of Alice Munro: "She is our Chekhov." It was two years ago when I went to see and hear Munro when she made one of her rare public appearances at a PEN Canada event in Toronto, a fundraiser in a packed hall. I was eight rows back, and I felt privileged to be in the same room with her. She said, then, that she was retiring from writing, but I notice that her stories have continued to appear in the New Yorker.
"The bear came over the mountain" is a story that was published by McClelland and Stewart in Munro's (2001) collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage. The story was renamed and republished in 2007 by Penguin, as the title piece of the same collection of stories, now called Away from her, which is also the title of the film of the story, directed by Sarah Polley. The film, in which appears the ever graceful Julie Christie as Fiona, is excellent, but the short story is even better. It is about a man, Grant, who has been a professor, one of those who had affairs with his students. But a scandal threatened, and Grant took early retirement. As Munro says in her story: “without making the error of a confession—he promised Fiona a new life.” They moved to a house near a lake, in the country. Now, 20 years later, Fiona starts to show signs of Alzheimer's disease. After a period of deteriorating abiliites, she decides she should be in a facility with nursing care. Grant remains in the house in which they lived together, and Fiona moves into the facility. In the first 30 days, a new resident is not allowed visitors, and when Grant does visit he sees that Fiona has become attached to Aubrey, a man in a wheelchair who, as a result of an accident, can scarcely speak and can do little for himself. Fiona, a helpful person, has become devoted to Aubrey. She is polite to Grant, but seems not to recognize him as her husband. Now comes the delicacy of Munro's story. The facility into which Fiona has moved is an enclosed world, with its own customs and its own relationships. Outsiders can only observe. It's a bit like the university: an enclosed world, with its own customs and its own relationships. Grant visits the facility frequently, and with Fiona's absence, he feels more and more attached to her. Fiona was always fond of irony, not easy to pin down: in Grant's epiphany, he starts to wonder whether her intimacy with Aubrey might be an ironical commentary on his previous life at the university. Knowing this in advance will not spoil the story or the film; there is still much more to happen. And what is the place of voluntariness in all this?
As in Chekhov's stories, there is no moralizing, but there is something of the same wry humour about our human condition. The film rates as a four on our five-point scale; you can access a review of it by clicking here. But for me the short story gets five stars.