Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alice Munro, "Corrie" New Yorker, Oct 11, 2010

Well, my friends, I will take “1 over 70” in preference to “20 under 40” any time, when the “1” is Alice Munro. Ms. Munro is seventy-nine and, thank heavens, still going strong. I have read her new story “Corrie” in the Oct 11, 2010 issue of the New Yorker three times now, and it gets better with each reading, which is one of my criteria for a great story. I thought too many of the “20 under 40” pieces in the New Yorker in the past months needed only a single reading. But that may have been because most of them were chapters from novels and therefore, by my definition, not as carefully written and tightly wound as short stories.

I have recently been in e-mail conversation with Ulrica, one of my readers, who has studied Munro extensively. She notes the frequent comment made by reviewers of Munro’s stories that they have the “complexity” of a novel and asks if I think that a comparison between a short story and a novel always must be aware of the genre difference. I think the genre difference is crucial and that the issue raised by reviewers’ judgment that a Munro story is “novelistic” settles on the meaning of the word “complexity.”

I tried to deal with the issue of novelistic vs. short story complexity a few years ago in an article on Alice Munro in the Canadian journal Wascana Review and would be happy to send a copy of the article to anyone who does not have access to that very fine journal. Ulrica’s question and the publication of Munro’s new story “Corrie” prompts me to visit that issue again. The very fact that “Corrie” covers a time period of over twenty years will probably raise the question for some reviewers, who may assume that the development of characters over time is a novelist notion.

However, after three, going on four, readings of the story, I would insist that ”Corrie” is a classic short story with all the virtues of that form subtly displayed. In this story there is no development over time, and that fact lies at the heart of what the story is about. I make no apologies for the following analysis being a plot “spoiler,” for, as I have said many times, the real reading of a story occurs the second or third time, not the first—which is merely an internalizing of the plot and character configuration to make the important second reading possible. “What happens next” is not so important in the short story. “What it means and how it means” is everything.

The two key words of the first sentence of “Corrie”—“money” and “family”--announces the theme of the story, but one does not know this until one comes to the end of the first reading. The first thing we notice about Corrie, who is 26 at the beginning of the story, is that she is always laughing or on the “verge of laughing.” The first thing we notice about Howard Ritchie, who is only a few years older, is that he is “already equipped with a wife and a young family.” The only thing we need to know about Corrie’s father is that he owns a shoe factory, has lots of money, and soon after has a stroke--all of which makes Corrie alone and available. Although Ritchie finds her somewhat “tiresome,” she has money, and he knows that “to some men that never became tiresome.”

Oh, one more thing about Corrie—she is slightly lame from a childhood bout with polio. Why is she lame? Well, for one thing, it makes possible this response from Ritchie, which announces the beginning of their affair: “He hadn’t been sure how he would react to the foot, in bed. But in some way it seemed more appealing, more unique, than the rest of her.” Ritchie has never had sex with anyone but his wife, and Corrie is a virgin, “a complicated half truth owing to the interference of a piano teacher when she was fifteen.” (We may or may not recall this detail later in the story when Ritchie begins taking piano lessons)

Ritchie is religious, but keeps it to himself because his wife, who is very left wing, would make a joke of it. Corrie already makes a joke of religion for herself, when she says she has never had time for God, “because her father was enough to cope with.”

Enter Sadie Wolfe, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the serpent in the garden, or maybe the red herring. Hired to help care for Corrie’s invalid father, Corrie tells her she is too smart to do housekeeping and gives her money for typing lessons. However, (and here is where the point of view of the story is handled so slyly by Munro that we are kept more than a little off guard), Sadie takes another housekeeping job and, at a party, discovers that the man who has been coming to visit her previous employer, Corrie, has a wife. Ostensibly, Sadie sends Ritchie a blackmail letter, threatening to blow the whistle on him to his wife. When he tells Corrie about this, she agrees to pay the blackmail payment (we are not told how much money, for that would elicit an unnecessary judgment on our part—how much is it worth to keep an affair secret?), which she gives to Ritchie twice yearly, which he places in a P.O. box in Sadie’s name. Then, As Corrie expresses it when she gives the money to Ritchie twice a year, “How the time goes around.”

The reason Corrie pays the blackmail demand is not only that Ritchie does not have it, but that he would feel he is taking it away from his family. “Family. She should never have said that. Never have said that word.” Ritchie’s family is the unspoken factor of the affair.

After arrangements for this on-going blackmail payment is settled, the story shifts to focus on Corrie, whose father dies, after which the shoe factory is taken over by a large firm that promises to keep it running. When the company closes it, she decides to turn it into a museum in which she will exhibit shoe-making tools. When the company tears the building down, she decides to take over an old library in town, which she opens two days a week. These two ventures would seem to be mere plot elements or place keepers for the time that passes, if it were not for her remark to Ritchie when he comes back from Spain with his family, “You’d think my place were a shine the way you carry on.” This motif of places in which the past is enshrined—the museum and the library—is also emphasized by the fact that the most prominent business in the town is a furniture store “where the same tables and sofas sat forever in the windows, and the doors seemed never to be open.”

This static relationship continues until there is an abrupt shift. In September, Corrie learns that Sadie Wolfe has died and that the funeral is scheduled for a church in the town near the library. When she goes to the reception following the service, she meets the woman for whom Sadie worked, who praises Sadie, telling Corrie how much the children and later the grandchildren loved her, and how she kept her illness (probably cancer) to herself. “She was absolutely not a person to make a fuss,” the woman says. The minister agrees, “Sadie was a rare person.” “All agreed. Corrie included.” This is a restrained reference to the fact that Corrie has never had children of her own and never will have. It also suggests that Sadie may not have been the kind of person to blackmail someone. But then, who knows?

When she awakes the next morning, “She knows something. She has found it in her sleep. There is no news to give him. No news, because there never was any. No news about Sadie, because Sadie doesn’t matter and she never did.” Corrie realizes there was never a post office box, that the money was kept by Ritchie for the trip to Spain and other family expenses. “People with families, summer cottages, children to educate, bills to pay—they don’t have to think about how to spend such an amount of money.” (Now we know why “family” and “money” are the two key words in the first sentence.)

Corrie now tries to get used to this “current reality” and is surprised to discover that she is capable of shaping another reality. If Ritchie doesn’t’ know that Sadie is dead he will “just expect things to go on as usual.” Corrie thinks she could say something that would destroy them, but she does not have to. She knows that what she and Ritchie have had—what they still have—demands payment” and that she is the one who can “afford to pay.”

The last paragraph of the story, after this realization is:

“When she goes down to the kitchen again she goes gingerly, making everything fit into its proper place.”

This seems to me a wonderfully self-reflexive ending to a story in which, indeed, as is appropriate for the short story form, everything does fit in its proper place.

If this were an actual real-life situation, or a novel about a real-life situation, then we might ask the following questions:

“Why does Corrie put up with Ritchie for all these years? What kind of experience do they have together? Why doesn’t Corrie find herself a good man? Why is Ritchie such a son-of-a-bitch?” But the story is not about such issues. Corrie is not a real person; she is a paradigm of a woman having an affair. The story is about the affair as a universal, classic phenomenon. Ritchie is not a real person; we know very little about him, about what he thinks. He is a paradigmatic married man having an affair.

And what paradigmatically characterizes an affair?
Well, for one thing, the “other woman” must be an object of desire to the man, but not necessarily an object of desire to all men. That’s why Corrie is both rich and crippled. She has something Ritchie wants, but is flawed by something that other men may not want. And what is Corrie like? We know nothing about her except that she does not take things too seriously—thus often on the verge of laughing—and that she accepts her responsibility in the affair to the extent that she is willing to pay for it. And what kind of life does Ritchie have? All we know is that it is a life with his family. We do not see Corrie crying about being left alone when he spends time with his family. For after all, this is what she has bought into. What is her life like during these years of the affair? We know nothing particular about it. We just know it is static, frozen in space—like an artifact in the museum or a book in a library, or the furniture in the window of the furniture store.

I would be most happy to hear from my readers about this story. There is much more to say about it, I think, but I have said enough. I look forward to hearing from you.


Nik Perring said...

Hello! I've been reading this blog for a good old while now and have only just realised that I've not yet left a comment. I think all I want to say is: I love your blog and I love what you're doing for the short story. And, thank you.

Keep up the splendid work!

All the very best


Ulrica said...

I see similarities with this story and some of Munro's earlier work. For example "The Love of a Good Woman" where the revelation or the revealing of a truth gets displaced and instead of bringing about a change, the keeping of the secret bring about a totally different possibility where there is a shift of power. The main character, Enid, in "The Love of a Good Woman" decides not to confront her potential lover with the question whether he killed Mr. Willens or not, and sees a whole different possibility coming to her when she understands that it's not up to her to judge or ask questions. The interesting thing in both "Corrie" and "The Love of a Good Woman" is how the drama, and the whole twist of events takes place in the mind of the protagonist so nothing much happens on the surface level, but the internal drama of Corrie's final realization will put everything that has been going on in the story up until the end in a totally different light. I know that endings in short stories are important that way, but the question I'm asking myself right know, and Charles, and all of you who are reading this blog, is if novels can't do that to, make the readers see all the preceding events in a different way?

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Nick, I appreciate your reading my blog entries; I am very happy you find them interesting and helpful

Charles E. May said...

Ulrica, I love "The Love of a Good Woman" and have written some remarks about it; it is often cited as the true test of "novelistic" versus "short story" ways of meaning. Let me mull over your comments a bit more. My first reaction is that the difference between the two forms depends less on the final revelation than on the different levels of thematic significance they convey. Maybe not; I would like to hear what others say.

Kseniya Melnik said...


Thanks for this anlysis...it clarified some themes for me and made me appreciate the structure of this story. However, perhaps I'm dense, but I still feel a bit duped by Corrie's final realization. If one analyzes the POV's here, it switches between Howard and Corrie depending on the section, though the beginning is heavily Howard's. And it is my belief that this kind of removed third person/omniscient is supposed to be reliable because we are being told the facts (rather than one character's perception of the truth or one character's limited knowledge of another character's doings; if they are perceptions, they are usually indicated as such).

So: when we are told about Sadie's letter in Howard's POV section, I took it for a fact. A) Howard didn't seem to be as cunning a person to be capable of black mail and B) if it wasn't fact, it makes one question what is and isn't fact in the entire story? Was the dinner not truth either? How can we ever trust this narrator.

Furthermore, when in Howard's section we are given quite a bit of insight into what he feels and thinks when he is with Corrie (usually quite dryly), it seems manipulative for the narrator to withhold such big part as blackmailing and guilt that may have come from that.

Lastly: at Sadie's funeral Corrie learns from the other attendees what a wonderful person Sadie was and how unlikely she was to make a fuss, which in her mind, contradicts Sadie's blackmailing habit. Then comes her trying to calculate whether Howard would have checked the mailbox to see if the August money was taken out before he went away to the cabin in September. But there is no factual resolution to this.

That is why I still don't quite understand why she decides that there had never been any blackmailing or why Munro brought it about in such a deceitful way.

Or is this all in Corrie's head? And there was blackmailing, after all.

As for the ending epiphany. On one hand I understand what Munro was going for with the present tense: it's almost as if Corrie's life had started anew with this knowledge and she has to learn to walk again, seeing her life and love affair in such a different light. But I still feel the present tense is a bit gimmicky and attention-pulling, which is so unlike Munro. I think it would have been just as effective in the past tense. The sentence "And after all, if what they had - what they have - demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay." is very nice and true.

Charles, what do you think? I cannot figure out this detective story? :)


injamaven said...

This kind of puzzle story 'Corrie' reminds me of what hard work Munro's earlier story 'Wenlock Edge' also was. I had to read it over and over, and finally saw the timing of events held the key.
In 'Corrie' I'm still confused about what detail, exactly gave her the revelation about her hush money. We never know for certain whether or not Sadie's blackmail existed. And what was that about the fur collar? -- the last church's tacked on steeple? Munro leaves you with intriguing puzzles. . .

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for your comment, Injamaven. I think I may have responded to most of your remarks in my subsequent blog post on point of view and secrecy in "Corrie." The steeples theme is mentioned several times--first when Ritchie is called in to do work on the existing church, later when Corrie makes a sarcastic remark about the steeple like an upside cone being a sign of loss of faith, and then in reference to Sadie being buried in the new church. Not sure, but suspect Munro is setting up a little pattern here to suggest Ritchie's hypocrisy--being so religious, being an architect of churches, and being so uncharitable.

Jeff said...

I just read this story and the comments and queries about it in this blog.
While I understand and endorse the variance of conclusions that readers have come to about what happened to the "blackmail" money, it seems that no-one mentioned the brief note that Corrie did send, and the brief reply. (Not that they clarified what really happened.) It seems that Munro's ambiguity is her strength.
Consider that when Corrie met the women at the Church, they never said why they held Sadie in such high regard. When I got to this point, I strongly suspected that Corrie would discover Sadie was also having an affair with the man who brought her money twice a year. It made me wonder if Munro actually writes so that the reader's imagination will be stimulated to imagine their own plots and conclusions. If that be so, it would answer my persistent question about why so many seem to hold her writing in such high regard.

sylvia maria said...

Wow. Way late to this conversation, I know, but I just read "Corrie" in "Dear Life", have been reading and re-reading it, finding others' insight online, etc.

So, Jeff, you say "When I got to this point, I strongly suspected that Corrie would discover Sadie was also having an affair with the man who brought her money twice a year." The exact thought went through my mind too! Howard and 'Lillian' ('Sadie') were complicit!

And 'Lillian" was shrewd enough to pull the wool over all those churchladies' eyes.

Not sure this explains the new steeple, tho!