"The Office” is the fifth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (click here for links to reviews of the other stories in Dance of the Happy Shades).
I want to start this story by remarking on how funny it is. I don’t think many people think funny when they think Alice Munro (though, of course, she is often humorous). This story is very funny, and yet bitter. We laugh, but at the same time we step away hoping we took it seriously enough.
“The Office” is a woman’s practical attempt to follow Virginia Woolf’s advice to find “a room of one’s own.” We get humor in the first line, when this idea come to the woman as she’s doing domestic chores: “The solution to my life occurred to me one evening while I was ironing a shirt.”
It’s the 1950s, and writing is not a woman’s field of work. And while I do think some things have changed for the better, this is still something we have to fight against. My wife is a writer, and this next passage perfectly encapsulates what she often goes through:
But here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me: I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous; phony, or at least unconvincing. Try again. I write. Is that better? I try to write. That makes it worse. Hypocritical humility. Well then?
It doesn’t matter. However I put it, the words create their space of silence, the delicate moment of exposure. But people are kind, the silence is quickly absorbed by the solicitude of friendly voices, crying variously, how wonderful, and good for you, and well, that is intriguing.
The judgment, maybe unspoken, is there. People think you have other things that need tending. Munro goes on: the narrator’s house is large enough to write in, but it’s not her space. Contrast this to the narrator’s husband who can come home and occupy a space and not be bothered: “Everyone recognizes that his work exists.” But for the narrator: “I could more easily have wished for a mink coat, for a diamond necklace; these are things women do obtain.”
Nevertheless, her husband does allow this request. He doesn’t out-and-out support it by offering any kind of assistance; he merely says, “Go ahead, if you can find one cheap enough.”
And she does. What I’ve recounted above is mostly preamble (though I found it thought-provoking and funny). The story really seems to begin when the narrator moves into her new office and begins to frustrate her new landlord, Mr. Malley.
At first happy to have her there, Mr. Malley offers all kinds of assistance. He wants to do what he can to make it fit for a woman. The narrator does not want this, attempts to let him down easily, but soon his solicitations, more and more overtly signs of war, make her go on the defensive.
In contrast to what I’d consider to be “typical” Munro, this story moves along at a brisk pace and is relatively straightforward, though it still offers a lot of food for thought both above and below the surface.
Munro hits a self-deprecating and wry tone in the first sentence of “The Office,” and doesn’t miss a beat from there on:
The solution to my life occurred to me one evening while I was ironing a shirt.
With that, she embarks upon a funny riff about getting herself an office that culminates with how working at home is one thing for a man, another for a woman. No one, for instance, expects him to answer the phone. He is permitted to go into a room, shut the door, and do whatever. But a woman?
Imagine . . . a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them. A woman who sits staring into space, into a country that is not her husband’s or her children’s is likewise known to be an offence against nature.
She goes on to remark:
So a house is not the same for a woman. She is not someone who walks into the house, to make use of it, and will walk out again. She is the house; there is no separation possible.
In this story, with the support of her husband, a woman takes a modest little room to be an office in which to write, only to discover that her landlord cannot let her be. It seems as if (circa 1952) just knowing that a woman is a writer sets a person’s teeth on edge.
When she does find a suitable room, the landlord makes repeated attempts to have her decorate it. When she tries to cut him off, he also suggests that the former occupant, a chiropractor, had got up to no good in this very office! Some of the adjustments he made!
The efforts to decorate continue, as well as the suggestions that she herself is up to no good. He even suggests that because he has never seen her name in print, perhaps she is not really a writer. One evening, from the street, the writer spies the landlord in her office.
Of course, he came in at night and read what I had written!
Munro is very funny. I enjoyed the measured progress toward the denouement, each of the landlord’s self-important maneuvers being more off-base than the last.
It’s a rewarding read, especially for any woman who has ever felt she had to justify the time she spent . . . writing.
Munro is on the attack against the sense that when a woman writes, it must be a waste of everyone’s time. This is the fifties, of course. In her interview with The Paris Review, Munro remarks that whenever she actually had an office, she found it impossible to write. Munro, of course, did write at home her whole life.
What strikes the reader is her wonderful timing. This story and “An Ounce of Cure” both show that Munro could have been distracted by editors wanting to buy only funny stuff. Instead, she chooses otherwise. Nevertheless, her wonderful capacity for humor will still be there. It will be interesting to see in the books ahead how the humor plays out when it isn’t her primary device.