PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Munro, “Corrie” from The New Yorker

Stonework by Lew French

Stonework by Lew French

“It isn’t a good thing to have the money concentrated all in the one family, the way you do in a place like this,” Mr. Carlton said. “I mean, for a girl like my daughter Corrie here. For example, I mean, like her. It isn’t good. Nobody on the same level.”

Corrie was right across the table, looking their guest in the eye. She seemed to think this was funny.

“Who’s she going to marry?” her father continued. “She’s twenty-five.”

Corrie raised her eyebrows, made a face.

“You missed a year,” she said. “Twenty-six.”

Here’s another one that should be read, not read about. Yet, it’s impossible to discuss without spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

On first read, I was disappointed: it’s a simple story, and even allowing for that, there’s what seems to be a cheat. But that’s what second reads are for, as explained by Prof. Charles May’s first blog post on this story:

[A]s 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.

(I’m going to rely extensively on Professor Charles May’s other two blog posts about this story as well. The comments are well worth reading, too.)

It doesn’t always work this way, but in this case, my second read opened up a treasure chest I simply did not recognize the first time I’d read it.

The dinner guest is Howard Ritchie, a (married) church architect Mr. Carlton has hired to fix the Anglican church steeple: “No hope looking to the Anglicans to do anything – they were a poor class of Irish Protestants who would have taken the tower down and put up something that was a blemish on the town.” How that leapt out at me on second read. In fact, there’s a great deal of symbolism about religion in this piece, as well as literature. I don’t believe it’s by accident Corrie has a lame leg, and is reading The Great Gatsby at a crucial point in the plot; Munro alludes to this in her Contributor Notes, in fact. I need to read Gatsby again.

Corrie shows Howard around the estate – her father is pretty much the lord of the fief, owning the shoe factory where everyone works – and tells him she’s about to tour Egypt. She’s ambivalent about the trip; does he think that would be fun?

“I have to earn a living.”

He was amazed at what he’d said, and, of course, it set her off giggling.

“I was speaking in general terms” she said grandly, when the giggling finished.

“Me, too.”

Some creepy fortune hunter was bound to snap her up, some Egyptian or whatever. She seemed both bold and childish. At first, a man might be intrigued by her, but then her forwardness, her self-satisfaction, if that was what it was, would become tiresome. Of course, there was money, and to some men that never became tiresome.

This, too, turns out to be foreshadowing. Or, perhaps more accurately, the germ of an idea.

On her return, Corrie drifts into an affair with Howard, and we learn she is a sort-of-virgin: at fifteen, she took piano lessons, and “had gone along with what the piano teacher wanted because she felt sorry for people who wanted things so badly.” Again, this leaps out on second read as an important aspect of her character.

Then comes the cheat. I’m still undecided; Professor May discusses it at length in his second blog post on secrecy and POV. Howard tells Corrie that Sadie, a former maid at her house, saw him attending a dinner with his wife, and was now blackmailing him:

She said this in a letter…Would his wife be interested in getting this information? was the way she had put it.…

Corrie decides she will pay the blackmail; after protesting too much, Howard agrees, and reveals further details about the arrangements:

[H]e remembered another thing from her letter. It had to be in bills, he said…A postal box was to be taken in Sadie’s name. The bills in an envelope addressed to her, left there twice a year. The dates to be set by her. Never a day late. Or, as she had said, she might start to worry.

Something about this scene struck me as off. The phrasing is odd. Prof. May calls it “free indirect discourse;” I really need to buckle down and do some study on point of view. Whenever it crops up, it’s crucial, and I only have a slippery grasp on the concept, not enough to really think in terms of what kind of discourse a passage is written in. However, I did notice the passive voice, having been scolded so many times for that sin.

Here I will invoke a quote by James Cary, used by Prof. May, who, at age 9, wrote it down on an index card as it seemed important to him (dang, I was reading the Jim Kjelgaard series about anthropomorphic Irish setters when I was 9):

Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’ – Joyce Cary

She wrote a clumsy passage because it needed to be clumsy. What seemed irritating on first read later became evidence of intricate craftswomanship, the touch of a master. I still think it’s a cheat; but I’m only about 53% convinced of it, and even if it is a cheat, I greatly admire the skill it took to pull it off. I don’t have the command of the topic to explain it, so I urge anyone who’s interested to check out May’s second post on secrecy and POV where the passage is examined in detail. I can follow his reasoning; I’m just not at the place where I can own it yet.

I call this a cheat because it feels to me the letter is presented to the reader, as well as Corrie, as fact. Again, I defer to Prof. May; I have some work to do before I can fully grasp the intricacies of narration at work here. In the meantime, I can still admire it, now that I’ve looked at it closely.

Move forward twenty years: two decades of meeting when possible, of Corrie hearing of Howard’s trips to Europe with his family, of his beginning piano lessons (oh, really? Piano lessons, eh?), of the collapse of the shoe business and further isolation of Corrie, of changes to the town (the Anglican church is gone, and another has sprung up) – all of these events are important, each and every one in itself and as an aggregate – and what must be forty or so payments of “ill-gotten gains” to the evil Sadie. Corrie is now working in the library a few days a week, and she’s reading Gatsby when she hears that Sadie has died at age 43. That night she starts several letters to Howard, to tell him the news, that they no longer have to worry: “The days of the Blackmail are over. The sound of the cuckoo is heard in the land.”

She falls asleep, and wakes up.

There’s always one morning when you realize that the birds have all gone.

She knows something. She has found it in her sleep.

There is no news to give him. No news, because there never was any.

She’d been set up by Howard as his human ATM, handing him envelopes of cash every six months, never questioning that he passed them to Sadie via postbox… Sadie had nothing to do with this.

This would seem to be the end of the story, but there is yet another twist:

But then there is a surprise. She is capable, still, of shaping up another possibility….She could say a thing that would destroy them, but she does not have to.

What a time it has taken her, to figure this out….

[I]f what they had – what they have – demands payment, she is the one who can afford to pay.

May’s view is that Corrie and Howard are not to be seen as individual people, but as paradigms for adulterers; the story itself is a paradigm of adultery. With that in mind, when I read that line about paying, I get chills. Corrie, with no family, no friends, no standing in the community, really has little to lose, whereas Howard, with his family and his career, would indeed pay more dearly.

I’m reminded of a news item I saw about stonemason Lew French (photo of his work shown above), who fits stones together in exquisite harmony; how he would distinguish between the right stone and the almost-right one, between a beautiful one and a nothing stone, when they look the same to anyone else, and ends up with glorious fireplaces, walls, passageways, even a stone cottage, held together by nothing but stones gripping each other like they were created to do so. That’s what this story is, with words, sentences, images, themes, threads, symbols, instead of stones.

But only on second (or more) read.

5 responses to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: Alice Munro, “Corrie” from The New Yorker

  1. Pingback: PEN/O.Henry 2102: Wrap-up « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Alice Munro: “Amundson” from The New Yorker, 8/27/12 | A Just Recompense

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  4. Pingback: Alice Munro: “Axis” from The New Yorker, 1/31/2011 | A Just Recompense

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