Monday, January 7, 2013

The Three Endings of Alice Munro’s story “Corrie”


Like all good short-story writers, Alice Munro often makes revisions to her stories between the time they first appear in a journal or magazine and when they appear later in an anthology or in a collection under her own name.  She has twice made changes to the ending of her short story “Corrie,” which first appeared in the Oct. 11, 2010 issue of The New Yorker—first in The PEN/O. Henry Awards anthology and second in her latest collection, Dear Life.  She also changed the name of one of the characters in the Dear Life version of the story from Sadie to Lillian.

 The story focuses on Corrie’s affair with a married man named Howard Ritchie.  Howard tells Corrie that he and his wife have gone to a dinner party and saw the woman Sadie Wolfe (Lillian Wolfe in Dear Life), who once worked for Corrie. He says he later received a letter from this woman, threatening to tell his wife about his affair with Corrie.

Later in the story when Sadie/Lillian dies, Corrie goes to a reception following the funeral and meets a woman who Sadie/Lillian also worked for.  All who knew Sadie/Lillian agree that she was blessed, a rare person. Later that night, Corrie thinks about all this and realizes that Sadie/Lillian was not the kind of person to blackmail anyone.  (Maybe Munro changes her name from “Sadie” to “Lillian” because whereas a woman named Sadie might be a blackmailer, a woman named Lillian might not.)

One of the ambiguities of the story results from the point of view Munro uses when Howard tells Corrie about the blackmail threat. The dinner party encounter is described primarily not as if Howard is telling Corrie about it, but rather as if it actually happened, although all Corrie and the reader know about the blackmail threat comes from Ritchie’s account. Munro makes a minor change in the Dear Life version to remind us that Ritchie’s story is the only account we have:

New Yorker version:  “Howard did not tell Corrie about the dinner party right away, because he hoped it would become unimportant.”

Dear Life version: “Howard said that he had not told Corrie about the dinner party right away, because he hoped it would become unimportant.”

One clue in all three versions that Ritchie has invented the letter from Sadie/Lillian is Howard’s quote from the letter: “I would hate to have to break the heart of such a nice lady with a big silver-fox collar on her coat.”  To this, Corrie responds, “How would Sadie know a silver-fox collar from a hole in the ground…? Are you sure that’s what she said.”  When Ritchie replies, “I’m sure,” Corrie says, “She’s learned things then.”  A bit later, Corrie says that Sadie/Lillian was not this smart before. However, when Corrie goes to the funeral reception and hears what others have said about Sadie/Lillian before she died, she knows that Sadie/Lillian has not learned to be scheming. 

Now, let’s look at the changes Munro makes in the ending of the story:


The New Yorker Oct 11, 2010 version:

           She gets up and quickly dresses and walks through every room in the house, introducing the walls and the furniture to this new idea.  A cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.  She makes coffee and doesn’t drink it.  She ends up in her bedroom once more, and finds that the introduction to the current reality has to be done all over again.
            But then there is a surprise.  She is capable, still of shaping up another possibility.
            If he doesn’t known that Sadie is dead he will just expect things to go on as usual.  And how would he know, unless he is told? And who would he be told by, unless by Corrie herself?
            She could say something that would destroy them, but she does not have to.
            What a time it has taken her, to figure this out.
            And after all, if what they had—what they have—demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay.
            When she goes down to the kitchen again she goes gingerly, making everything fit into its proper place.


The Pen/O.Henry Awards version, published April 2012:

          She gets up and quickly dresses and walks through every room in the house, introducing the walls and the furniture to this new idea.  A cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.  She makes coffee and doesn’t drink it.  She ends up in her bedroom once more, and finds that the introduction to the current reality has to be done all over again.
            But then there is a surprise.  She is capable, still of shaping up another possibility.
            If he doesn’t known that Sadie is dead he will just expect things to go on as usual.  And how would he know, unless he is told? And who would he be told by, unless by Corrie herself?
            She could say something that would destroy them, but she does not have to.
            What a time it has taken her, to figure this out.
             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 itBut in the meantime, if what they had—what they have—demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay.
            When she goes down to the kitchen again she goes as if gingerly, making everything fit into a proper place.
            She has calmed down mightily. All right.            But in the middle of her toast and jam she thinks, No.            Fly away, why don’t you, right now? Fly away.            What rot.            Yes. Do it.


Dear Life version, published by Knopf, November 15, 2012.
(The Canadian version was published by Douglas Gibson Books on Oct. 13, 2012)

         She gets up and quickly dresses and walks through every room in the house, introducing the walls and the furniture to this new idea.  A cavity everywhere, most notably in her chest.  She makes coffee and doesn’t drink it.  She ends up in her bedroom once more, and finds that the introduction to the current reality has to be done all over again.
         The briefest note, the letter tossed.        ‘Lillian is dead, buried yesterday.’        She sends it to his office, it does not matter.  Special delivery, who cares?       She turns off the phone, so as not to suffer waiting.  The silence.  She may simply never hear again.        But soon a letter, hardly more to it than there was to hers.       ‘All well now, be glad. Soon.’       So that’s the way they’re going to leave it.  Too late to do another thing.  When there could have been worse, much worse.

The issue, of course, is whether Corrie will tell Ritchie that Sadie/Lillian is dead, and whether she will also tell him that she knows about his lie and his taking her money all these years. However, if she tells him she knows, she will have to end the relationship, and she does not want to do that.

In The New Yorker version, Corrie has not decided whither to tell him that Sadie/Lillian is dead, therefore allowing him to continue to take her money.

The PEN/O.Henry version emphasizes her vacillation between telling him what she knows and not telling him anything.

In the Dear Life version, Corrie has decided to tell Ritchie about Lillian’s death, but she has decided not to tell him that she knows of his lie and his money scheme. 

By telling Ritchie that Lillian is dead, Corrie effectively ends his taking more money from her, for now that she knows the money goes to Ritchie directly, she would feel as if she were paying for his company. The fact that Ritchie replies, “All well now, be glad.  Soon” means that the relationship can continue, for Corrie believes that Ritchie is not staying with her just for the money.

As far as I can determine, Munro has not made public why she made these changes to the ending of “Corrie.”  The Dear Life version may placate some readers who had no sympathy for Corrie’s reluctance in The New Yorker version to tell Ritchie about Sadie’s death.  But readers still may fault Corrie for not telling Ritchie that she knows about his secret. But how can she fault Ritchie for his secret about the money when she wants him to continue to maintain his secret about their relationship? 

I would be interested in hearing what my readers have to say about these three different endings to “Corrie.”

9 comments:

Anton said...

I must admit I had a bit of a shock, when I read the Dear Life version before falling asleep then consulting the New Yorker version online the next morning. I thought my memory was definitely fraying at the edges, until I read your comments and you indicated you would be discussing the issue after the New Year.
I personally find the latest version to be the more satisfying one. It is in a way as if they are an old couple who have adjusted to each other's foibles. It also seems to suggest that Ritchie's did/does actually feel some affection for Corrie rather than just being attracted to her money and an affair as a change from his wife. I enjoy the open-ended finale, even though I suspect they will settle down in a Darby and Joan existence alongside the true marriage.
On another note, I don't have any real picture of the couple, apart from the game leg, and I seem to think Alice Munro is often light on physical descriptions of people (am I wrong?). I will have to read the story again (a good tip, Mr May, your reading the stories several times over, it's only recently that I actually started making small notes in the margins of stories, whereas before I used to wolf down a tale then move on to the next one...).
The Sadie/Lillian name change doesn't really mean that much to me, unless there is supposed to be an echo of sadist or something else equally unpalatable in the name.
I enjoyed the way Ritchie earlier on suggested (in his thoughts, or what I presumed to be his thoughts) that some men might take advantage of someone like Corrie, but only cads, and then we learn that Ritchie is one of those types. And yet the ending suggests that he never was or no longer is. Intriguing.

barbara renel said...

I like the Dear Life ending as I believe it leaves a completely open ending. I don’t feel that Ritchie’s reply, “All well now, be glad. Soon” necessarily means that the relationship will continue. I sense that he could be left wondering just how much Corrie knows and is feeling his way. Or he may have decided to end the relationship because there will be no more payments. If you consider his actions earlier in the story I doubt whether Munro would expect the reader to believe what he says at the end.

Anton said...

Barbara, are you sure that Ritchie has been acting so dishonourably, apart from obtaining money through false pretences? I get the impression, through the free indirect POV (if I understand it correctly and I wouldn't stake my life on it) that R. is genuinely fond of Corrie and has probably told himself a lot of lies about why he entered into this pact with the devil and could be most relieved to have the burden removed.

injamaven said...

what puzzled me is the question of what cause Corrie to decide that the Lilian's blackmail scheme was all Ritchie's idea? She woke up knowing, but what had she seen or heard at the funeral that convinced her?
That's what puzzled me.

Ieuan said...

I think that Corrie has possibly got it wrong at the end in the Dear Life version. You just don't know. That's what I found haunting. In the end she makes a conscious choice to believe what she prefers to believe. There are mixed cues in the story as to whether Lilian is or is not smart and is or is not honest. I'm thinking of the detail of the money for the typing lessons. Corrie's suppressed uncertainty tips over overnight after the surprise of Lilian dying suddenly at a relatively young age and then Corrie hearing many positive things about her at the funeral. This suddenly produces a different world view. Ritchie's brief note neither confirms what Corrie thought before or what she suspects now. So she leaves it, believing what she has based the past 20 years or so of her life on. It's too late to change and she can go on believing what she's been believing. That's what could have been worse. Ritchie's reply could have left no room to believe.

lynn giroux said...

Yes! I agree with leuan's reading of the story. I didn't know there were multiple endings until just now. I read the story today and was unsure about the last few sentences were to convey so I went to see if others had an opinion. Of course they do! And I agree with leuan.
Lynn

Anonymous said...

I wonder what it signifies (if anything)that Munro protrayed Corrie reading THE GREAT GATSBY when receiving the news of Lilian's death. Was it meant as a reference to Gatsby's aspirations and shady dealings, Tom Buchanan's secret life or something else? Neko

Heather said...

How interesting! Thank you for noticing these changes, and writing about them so thoughtfully. I read the New Yorker version four years ago, and found the story very memorable. Last night, when I read it again in "Dear Life" a few things struck me a little differently, but I thought it was just because I knew the ending this time so I read it with different attention.

One of the main thing that interests me now, after reading the others' comments, is that some people here seem to think the relationship will continue. Ritchie's note was ambiguous, so it's true that he may be "feeling his way" as Barbara said. But it seemed to me more like the vague response of a man who wants to extricate himself without confrontation. ("I'll call you tomorrow . . . I'll be in touch . . .Let's get together soon.")

Heather said...

Regarding the question about why she is reading Gatsby. . . One of the questions I asked myself while reading this story is, "Is Corrie a smart woman or not?"

She is independent, self-sufficient, strong in certain ways; but she also misses some obvious clues (although I probably would have too in her situation).

She and Ritchie both seem to think they're clever, and they take pride in their banter and their witty notes--but really, their notes are not very interesting and their little jokes are not very amusing.

So what does she read when she's alone? Gatsby is a classic, a famous book, a respected one, and even a good one. But it's also short. It's easy. High school students read it. People with even mild literary interests read it. People with pretentions of culture read it.

In other words, the clue I took from that detail is: she's bright enough but no great intellectual. All those many hours alone in the library and she's still reading Gatsby? She has not had the curiosity (or passion, or energy, or idiosyncrasy) to delve into anything less obvious?