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.