Monday, October 18, 2010

Alice Munro's "Corrie": Secrecy and Point of View

There’s nothing I enjoy more since starting this blog than interacting with readers who are reading the same stories I am and have thoughtful things to say about them. Kseniya has a very insightful comment and query on Alice Munro’s “Corrie” that I think deserves a second blog entry on that story. Her question made me go back and read it twice more. So at the risk of sounding, at best, academic and, at worst, pedantic, I post the following post script to Munro’s story.

Kseniya points out that the point of view of the first part of the story seems to be that of an omniscient teller, although it stays within the perspective of Howard Ritchie. She says that when we learn about Sadie’s letter threatening blackmail, we believe the omniscient teller to be telling us the truth. Kseniya also says she takes the letter for a fact because Ritchie does not seem cunning enough to dream up this scheme. Furthermore, she says that if the letter is a lie, the reader begins to wonder what is and what is not fact in the story, thus raising the issue of an unreliable narrator. Moreover, Kseniya suggests that since we are given quite a bit of insight into Ritchie’s mind in the first part of the story, it seems manipulative of the narrator to withhold the fact that he keeps the money.

Here is my own take on the point of view issue in the story: First of all, I think that a writer of good short stories, such as Alice Munro, is very careful to make the technique of the story parallel the theme of the story. The key to the success of any affair is secrecy. And although “Corrie” embodies a complex of themes about infidelity--cheating, concealment, guilt, compensation, money, family, stasis--secrecy is the central theme. And to illuminate this theme, Munro must manipulate the point of view very carefully.

Because this is a short story concerned with the themes mentioned above, not a novel concerned with the particulars of the characters’ behavior and thoughts, what we know about Howard Ritchie in the first section of the story, even though we seem to be within his perspective, are only those things that contribute to the theme the story develops. We only need to know the following: that Ritchie is “equipped” with a “family”; that he is conservative; that he is somewhat awkward about how to respond to Corrie’s lameness; that he feels he has no time for anything but earning a living and caring for his family; and that he suspects that when Corrie goes to Egypt she will be snapped up by some creepy fortune hunter; that he finds her behavior verging on the tiresome; that he knows, from his own experience, that for some men money never becomes tiresome.

If we only seem to know a few facets of Ritchie’s feelings and thoughts, it is because we only require these to respond to the theme. And based on this knowledge, I would say there is nothing to suggest that Ritchie would not exploit Corrie for her money.

In the second section of the story, which introduces the blackmail letter from Sadie, the point of view is carefully controlled, as is the voice of the verbs. The information about Sadie working in a house in the city after leaving Corrie’s employ is revealed in passive voice. Noting that Sadie continues to do housework, the narrator says, “This was discovered on an occasion when Howard and his wife were invited to dinner, with others at the home of some rather important people in Kitchener.” Who discovers it? Ritchie, of course, since we are still within his perspective.

However the account seems to focus on this being Sadie’s discovery. This ostensible shift takes place very subtly in the following sentences: “There was Sadie waiting on tables, coming face to face with the man she had seen in Corrie’s house The man she had seen with his arm around Corrie when she came in to take the plates away or fix the fire. An unknown woman with him, who, the conversation soon made plain, was his wife. It was also made plain that his wife had not come recently into the picture. Her time had overlapped with Corrie.” This is not Sadie’s perspective, but what Sadie’s perspective might have been from Ritchie’s perspective.

There does not seem to be any question that Ritchie has actually seen Sadie at a party he and his wife attended. However, since we have been limited to Ritchie’s point of view and have no reason to think we have shifted into Sadie’s point of view, this seems clearly to be Ritchie’s account of the encounter, in which he assumes that Sadie knows that his affair with Corrie is illicit, but does not know what Sadie intends to do with the information. By the time Ritchie tells Corrie about all this, he has tentatively decided what he will do.

Ritchie has been brought up in a fiercely religious household and knows that someone must pay for breaking the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” He knows he cannot pay, for he has little money and has a family to support. And why should not Sadie pay, since she has no family responsibility, doesn’t care for money, and is crippled? This is all rather harsh when expressed so blatantly, which is one of the reasons that Munro keeps it secret. The only relationship in which we see Ritchie engage is with Corrie, and since the key to his relationship with Corrie is secrecy, what we know about Ritchie is only what Corrie knows.

When we read the line, “Sadie said that she had not gossiped about it all,” we know that this is something that Ritchie has told Corrie, not necessarily something that Sadie has told Ritchie. Ritchie’s account of the contents of the letter to Corrie is told in a coy way that, we later learn, does not sound like Sadie at all. “Would his wife be interested in getting this information?” is the way Ritchie says Sadie put it. Even more unlike Sadie is her ostensible remark, “I would hate to have to break the heart of such a nice lady with a big silver-fox collar on her coat.” Corrie wonders how Sadie would even know a silver-fox collar from “a hole in the ground,” asking Ritchie, “Are you sure that’s what she said.” The silver-fox collar, which Ritchie finds hypocritical of his wife to wear, given her left wing leanings, is a little detail of verisimilitude that Ritchie invents to make his story seem credible.

In this conversation, the point of view perspective subtly shifts to Corrie, for she wonders what if Ritchie rejects her offer to pay the blackmail, what if he thinks it is a sign that they should stop. “She was sure there’d be something like that in his voice and in his face. All that old sin stuff. Evil.” When Corrie says, “You’d feel you were taking it away from your family,” Ritchie’s face actually cleared, although Corrie fears she should never have said that word “family.” Ritchie then suddenly remembers something else from the letter—that the money has to be in bills. “He spoke without looking up, as if about a business deal. Bills were best for Corrie, too. They would not implicate her.” Ritchie is obviously thinking on his feet here. And indeed it is a business deal.

It is September when Corrie hears about the death of Sadie. She has given the money to Ritchie to deposit in Sadie’s box in August. Corrie knows that Ritchie has not heard about Sadie’s death, and she also knows that Sadie was not able to pick up the money this time because of her illness, so she wonders if Ritchie has checked to see if the money has been picked up; she thinks not since he has not contacted her.

When she wakes the next morning, “She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.” She realizes that the news of Sadie’s death that would have freed them from the blackmail and the “queasy feeling” she has always had of “the never-quite safeness of their affair is no news to Ritchie at all, because Sadie does not matter and never has. The “family” theme is echoed, as she thinks that the twice-yearly sum of money would have gone straight into his pocket, for he is a man with a family, children to educate, and bills to pay. What makes Corrie come to this realization? All the same things that have made the reader come to the realization: her knowledge of Ritchie, her knowledge of Sadie, Ritchie’s account of the nonexistent letter, his failure to contact her about the money in the mailbox.

We do not get inside the mind of Corrie in this section of the story any more than we get inside the mind of Ritchie in the first section. We have no particular information about her feelings. We only know she is trying to adjust to the realization she has come to and that she feels a sense of emptiness—“a cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.” She then comes up with another possibility. She knows that Ritchie may never know of Sadie’s death since he has no connection with her and no connection with the family she has worked for. He will therefore expect things to go on just as they have—with Corrie giving him the money twice a year and him pocketing it.

Corrie could say something, but she knows that what they have demands payment, and she is the one who can afford to pay. And so, she will continue to pay, for what difference does it make if the money goes to Sadie or to Ritchie, for she has already made it clear that she is willing to pay. Of course, a day may arrive when Ritchie will find out that Sadie is dead. What will happen then? This just means that for Corrie, one sense of “never-quite safeness” has taken the place of another. Everything is in its proper place—in Corrie and Ritchie’s lives and in Alice Munro’s story.

Well, that’s how I read the story. I would love to hear other readings. Thanks, Kseniya, for sending me back to the story.


elliot said...

Charles, I signed on today as one of your "followers"; you might want to check my blog, too, "elliotsreading." We cover a lot of the same ground and share similar views, I think.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Elliot. Good to hear from you. I found your blog this past summer when you and I were both reading Wise Blood at about the same time. I have you bookmarked.

Ed said...

I am glad you picked up on Kseniya's comment. She put her finger right on something about the story that had been nagging me, too. I disagree with your take on it, though. I believe that the passage in the story from the dinner party through the description of Sadie's letter is simply unsatisfactory.

What makes a mystery story - and that is what this story is in part - attractive is that the secret is there all along, waiting to be revealed. There is nothing inconsistent between the ultimately-revealed secret and what is on the page. The reader need look only at the clues on the page. But the reader cannot do that here, because the description of the letter not only is not at all clearly from the point of view of any one character but also is not at all clearly from the point of view of any character. The description really does seem to be a third-person factual account, as Kseniya points out.

Munro tries to achieve on the cheap what she could have achieved through a better-written passage. Munro either should have rewritten the entire passage, or at least the description of the letter, as a dialogue between Howard and Corrie or should have altered the dialogue that follows the description of the letter to suggest the alleged letter's contents. That would have been difficult to do, but Munro is certainly a talented enough writer to have done it, and so I am surprised that she did not. Her failure to do it makes the entire story less satisfactory than it could have been.

Charles E. May said...

Ed, I guess this is a case of where we may have to agree to disagree. I like the way Munro handles the concealment of the party/letter business described by Ritchie. It strikes me as an effective use of free indirect style in which we seem to be getting a third-person factual account, but in which we are really getting the account from Ritchie's perspective, which is couched in the mode of secrecy and concealment so crucial for the adultery story. James Wood spends the first chapter of his book How Fiction Works on free indirect style and describes it nicely this way: "We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once. A gap opens between author and character, and the bridge--which is free indirect style itself--between them simultaneously closes that gap and draws attention to its distance." Instead of allowing the reader to see more than the character sees, which is often the case in free indirect style, Munro uses it to allow Ritchie to create a fiction to set up his scheme to get Corrie to "pay" for the transgression. Why is this concealed from the reader? Because it must be concealed from Corrie. I certainly don't think Alice Munro is achieving something "on the cheap" here, as you put it. And I certainly don't think this is a mystery story in the usual generic sense of that word. But I am certainly open to further discussion about this issue from you and others. Thanks so much for arguing the point with me.

Ed said...

You were watching a magician. He called an audience member up to the stage to look through a deck of cards. Then the magician took the deck and turned it face down, and the audience member pulled out a card, hiding it from the magician. The magician then told the audience that the two of clubs had been chosen. The audience member showed the rest of the audience that, indeed, the magician was correct. You clapped. You didn't know how the magician did it, but you were impressed by his card-forcing and sleight-of-hand skills. Now, however, you discover that the magician had no such skills. Instead, he simply had planted a confederate in the audience, a confederate that concealed the fact that the entire deck was made up of twos of clubs. Don't you feel a little cheated? You thought you were experiencing an illusion, but all you got was a trick.

Having read "Corrie," I have the sensation you have after learning of the magician's confederate. I was confused because I recalled reading that a letter existed. Has Corrie been duped, or is she instead only imagining that she has been duped? I doubt that Munro intends me to think that Corrie is imagining things, so I must resolve my confusion by accepting that the paragraph describing the letter, including the quote from the letter following it, is not a factual statement but instead is a paraphrase of Howard's telling of his tale to Corrie. In other words, I have to accept, as I begin reading it, that the letter paragraph is the real beginning of the subsequent conversation between Howard and Corrie.

But that is too much of a stretch. Two paragraphs before the letter paragraph is a description of the dinner party, which I accept as fact. I do not doubt that Howard and Sadie saw one another, that Howard was with his wife, etc. And I do not doubt the truth of the very next paragraph, i.e., the paragraph between the dinner paragraph and the letter paragraph. That paragraph describes Howard's assessment of the dinner party, but nothing indicates that that paragraph is a paraphrase of Howard's tale to Corrie. So when I begin the letter paragraph, I take it as fact, not as paraphrase. Until Corrie speaks, after the letter paragraph, nothing indicates that Howard and Corrie have been speaking. Although what Corrie says ("How would Sadie know a silver-fox collar...") indicates that Howard has told her about a letter, nothing indicates that he has done anything but accurately recount for Corrie the contents of the letter paragraph, which by the time Corrie speaks I have already accepted as fact.

To my taste, Munro has pulled a trick, not created an illusion. She wants me to accept that a letter exists so that she can then pull the rug out from under me, just as that rug is pulled out from under Corrie. That is fine. But at least Corrie accepts that a letter exists after having the opportunity to listen to Howard and judge his credibility. Munro denies me that opportunity, giving me instead a fake third-person narrative. I don't expect to have more information than Corrie, but I also don't expect to have less. As I wrote before, I can't believe that Munro, as skilled as she is, could not have conveyed Howard's tale clearly within the context of a conversation between Howard and Corrie, since that is how Corrie herself learns about the letter. If Munro believed that actual dialogue would not have worked, then she perhaps could have used indirect quotation or paraphrase of Howard after a conversation clearly had begun, or perhaps she could have ditched the letter paragraph altogether and just alluded to the letter and its contents in conversations between Howard and Corrie. Instead, as Bertrand Russell might have said, Munro's approach has all the virtues of theft over honest toil.

Ed said...

Thanks very much for your reply. I'll gnaw this bone again.

Suppose you were watching a magician. He called an audience member up to the stage to look through a deck of cards. Then the magician took the deck and turned it face down, and the audience member pulled out a card, hiding it from the magician. The magician then told the audience that the two of clubs had been chosen. The audience member showed the rest of the audience that, indeed, the magician was correct. You clapped. You didn't know how the magician did it, but you were impressed by his card-forcing and sleight-of-hand skills. Now, however, you discover that the magician had no such skills. Instead, he simply had planted a confederate in the audience, a confederate that concealed the fact that the entire deck was made up of twos of clubs. Don't you feel a little cheated? You thought you were experiencing an illusion, but all you got was a trick.

Kseniya Melnik said...

hanks Charles and everyone else,

It seems that Munro has been cheating on the reader with the POV.

I am still not quite happy with the way Munro handles the secrecy, though I understand its importance to the design and theme of the story.

One way to have done this would have been to use conditional in a few sentences in the paragraph that starts "Indeed, it wasn't." As in "Sadie would say that she had not gossiped about it at all. She would say this in a letter." and continue with the rest as is.

To a first-time surface reader, this might indicate that Howard is looking back in a sort of cinematic, philosophical jump-forward way on the night when Sadie discovered his infidelity and his life as he knew it was over. This is well within the flexibility of the third person. But it could also mean that screws are turning in his head regarding the way he's going to twist this, the role Sadie would supposedly play in his blackmailing scheme. He's going to use her. She would write this letter.

The line about the silver-fox collar is good, but at that point it's not enough to tip us off. Sadie does work in rich houses a lot; she could very well tell a fox collar from "a hole in the ground."

Ed said...

Kseniya, using the conditional, as you suggest, would be a marked improvement on what Munro did. With your conditional, a reader might vacillate between interpreting the letter paragraph as Howard's ruminations on his possible loss of Corrie and threat to his marriage and interpreting it as his plotting to hornswoggle Corrie. The passage then would be ambiguous, but not vague, and this reader, at least, would not feel cheated.

But I still prefer the notion of somehow taking the letter paragraph and skillfully incorporating it within a conversation between Howard and Corrie. If your conditional were used, then either interpretation of the passage would involve choosing between one thing Howard may be thinking and another thing he may be thinking. Corrie, however, is privy not to what Howard is thinking but only, at best, to what he tells her he is thinking. So if the conditional were used, the reader would know both more than Corrie, since the reader could choose between two possibilities of what Howard's thoughts are, and less than Corrie, since the reader would not be privy to the entire conversation between Howard and Corrie. That situation strikes me as unsatisfactory, although for a different reason from the reason why Munro's actual passage is unsatisfactory.

I wish I had some specific suggestions for what I would like to have seen, but my creative writing is limited to grocery lists.

Charles, I apologize for posting a comment a couple of days ago and then immediately afterward a version of a portion of the same comment. Google told me the first posting had not gone through, so I tried to break it up, and then the first one did go through.

Margaret said...

I'm just now reading "Corrie" in the O'Henry awards collection, and I wonder if you've read that version. Several one-sentence paragraphs have been added to the ending, and I wonder what you think of these edits. They change the end--she wavers--and it made me begin to waver on the issue you've been discussing above--whether a letter actually exists. I also think it's interesting that Munro would change a story for its inclusion in a prize anthology. I can see doing it before putting the story in a collection, but the story won on its original terms.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Margaret, for calling my attention to Munro's addition at the end of the version of the version of "Corrie" that appears in the O. Henry collection. I did not reread it there, and I should have, since I know that Munro often makes changes in stories after their initial appearance in magazines or journals.

I don't know what kind of arrangements Munro made with the O. Henry publishers about reprinting the story as it appeared in The New Yorker or as it will appear in her new collection entitled Dear Life, which is scheduled to come out in November 2012.

In my opinion, what the the new additions achieve is to emphasize that Corrie's decision not to tell her lover that Sadie is dead and thus let him know that she knows what he has done with the money is not an easy decision, but one she is not sure about.

Just after the sentence--"What a time it has taken her, to figure this out"--Munro adds:

"She could say right now, what does it matter? Whatever goes on will go on. Someday, she supposes there will have to be an end to it. But in the meantime...." Then there is the original sentence, "if what they had --what they have--demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay."

The concluding added sentences suggest that she is not sure what she will do--should she tell him, should she fly away, should she remain quiet?

I am not sure this really changes anything except to make her final decision less than a final decision. It does, I think, make Corrie more believable.

Thanks again for calling my attention to this. I will watch for it in the collection in November.

sloopie72 said...

Hello, Prof. May - I've just finished this story as part of the PEN/O.Henry collection, and your three-post analysis has been invaluable.

I'm still struggling with the "did she cheat?" issue (that is, did Munro cheat in how she revealed the letter, not did the characters cheat, which, obviously they did). After first read, I felt strongly that she did in fact "cheat". And as I wrote the sentence before, it occurred to me - of course she did, it's a story about cheating.

But your comments about POV and the clues buried there are well-taken. I'm not comfy jumping on the bandwagon, but I'm fine with considering it to be a matter upon which honorable men (and women) can disagree.

I love your paragraphs about first read, second read, etc, in the first post of this 3-part series; it's true, this story does grow and change with multiple readings. The first few paragraphs are so loaded with tiny details that meant little during the first read, but become richer with meaning every time.

I have more work to do to understand free indirect discourse, and I think these posts will be critical to my understanding.

Thanks for your work here.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to sloopie72 for this thoughtful response to my discussions of Alice Munro's story. I appreciate the kind words and am very happy my thoughts on Munro have been useful in some way.