The Office by Alice Munro, 1962
The magic trick:
Layering a subtle act of feminist defiance beneath the guise of a humorous story
There are many forms of social rebellion. Some are organized, some are violent, some are loud. And then there is the picture of feminist strength demonstrated in “The Office.” It’s a subtle, quiet rebellion, but one that is no less groundbreaking.
On the surface, it’s a fairly silly story, featuring a kooky landlord and a narrative sense of humor. Look deeper and you’ll find a woman fighting to establish her right to work, trying to elevate her hobby into a profession and battle back against a landlord whose turns at comic relief come to represent something more sinister: the judging eye of male society. And that’s quite a trick on Munro’s part.
A house is all right for a man to work in. He brings his work into the house, a place is cleared for it; the house re-arranges itself as best it can around him. Everybody recognizes that his work exists. He is not expected to answer the telephone, to find things that are lost, to see why the children are crying, or feed the cat. He can shut his door. Imagine (I said) 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. 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.