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Alice Munro: “The Office”

Dance-of-the-Happy-Shades“The Office” is the fifth story in Alice Munro’s first short story collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. For an overview with links to reviews of the other stories in this collection, please click here.

Trevor

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.

Betsy

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.

3 thoughts on “Alice Munro: “The Office””

  1. I would hazard the opinion that this early Munro story concretely reveals a trait that does continue in her future work (and all too rarely draws attention): the sense of irony that is essential to supply depth and context to the world that she is portraying.

    As a journalist myself, I have always thought that Munro has a fair bit of journalist in her. Unlike some authors (say her Canadian colleague, Margaret Atwood), she has never been a public personality. On the other hand, neither has she been a recluse — her appearances may be limited but there is no Salinger-like hiding from the world.

    Rather, she is a constant observer who finds a convenient corner to watch everything that is going on. And, as this story illustrates, capture some of the conflicts that are only apparent to the careful observer — in this case, for example, the difference that “house/home” represents to wife and husband. For me as a reader, that ability to supply an added dimension to the “reality” that characterizes her work is in important part of Munro’s brilliance.

  2. Trevor says:

    I agree, Kevin. And there are some fantastic lines in here that show just how closely she is able to observe from that corner, like when she asks her husband if she can get an office and he simply says yes, if you can find one cheap enough. Right after that, she says:

    He is not really like me, he does not really want explanations. That the heart of another person is a closed book, is something you will hear him say frequently, and without regret.

    That “and without regret” is such a keen and unique addition. How fitting that the regret it is talking about is the inability to observe more fully.

    I’d also say that it is that sense of irony and keen observation that makes even a “minor” story like “The Office” so resonant. And we’ve been talking about its topic for decades, yet it still resonates, this woman trying to carve out her place and fight a battle against those who still want to control the space.

  3. Betsy says:

    Kevin – thank you for your observation that Munro’s humor may play out as irony. This is my first run-through of her work, except for a few late stories and “Dear Life”, and most of all I notice how for her the human condition is one of an inevitable push-pull, paralysis and compromise. Even in the title of the last book you hear it – on the one hand a tender letter to “life”‘ and on the other, that difficult situation of ‘holding on for dear life’. I hear that irony there.

    And Trevor, many thanks for your kind thoughts regarding women and writing! Also thanks for the reminder about “A Room of One’s Own”. Munro’s answer to Woolf is tart — first, there are the children to be dealt with, and then there is also society.

    I am reminded that the phrase “the office” has a liturgical ring to it – as if the story is suggesting all the set ways in which the world gangs up on the woman writer.

    At any rate, I think it will be wise to watch the way the humor works. I think Flannery O’Connor has that dark humor that is not so much laugh out loud as finding ways of talking back to God. Or talking back to humanity on behalf of God. Munro’s rural world certainly has echoes of O’Connor. So I think you’re right.

    The title story of this book “Dance of the Happy Shades” surely turns on several ironies, although funny it is not. Ridiculous, perhaps, in the way the mothers completely mis-understand the purpose and perfection of the recital. Terribly serious, in the way the situation plays out. Ironic.

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