The Office

Munro, Alice

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn
  • Date of entry: Nov-30-2010
  • Last revised: Nov-28-2010


A woman writer, frustrated by attempts to carve out space and time for her craft at home, tells how she decided to rent an office. It had to be simple and inexpensive. She finds a suitable room owned by a couple who occupy the apartment below. The wife, who will clean, seems delicate, defeated, but kind. The small upstairs bathroom is shared with unoccupied offices along the corridor and cannot be locked.

The writer sets up a card table and chair, and savors her few weekly hours of solitude. But her landlord keeps interrupting to offer things that she doesn’t want--conversation, a chair, a plant, a teapot, tales of himself, salacious details about her predecessor tenant, a chiropractor.

Conscious of her inability to be rude to someone who is being rude to her, she lets him intrude, annoyed with herself for not being firm. Determined not to let him win by forcing her out of the office, she begins to express her wishes. He resents these attempts at honesty, and she worries that she has hurt his feelings.

Gradually she realizes that he is spying on her through his set notions of what a proper woman should be doing in such a space – or any space. One night she returns to find him peering at her work, hoping, she suspects, that she has written about him. He hints that she has been using the office for parties and sex, and then accuses her of defacing the open bathroom with obscenities scrawled in lipstick. He tells her that the mess could not possibly be cleaned by his wife who is a decent person who stays at home.

The man is insane. The salacious activities of her predecessor must have been a delusion—and he may well have lipsticked the bathroom himself. She gives up the office.


An all-too-plausible story of how a woman, caught between demands of home and needs of a calling, can by lured into the folly of another through goal-directed good manners, politesse, and patience. She responded to the landlord’s advertised request and promised to be a perfect tenant--quiet, reliable, rarely present. Yet, her every attempt to satisfy what he seemed to need results in ever more outrageous expectations and accusations, until their utter unreality is unmasked--Kafka-esque.

This early Munro story lacks nothing of the power of her later work. She observes that a man can work in a house in a way that a woman cannot. “Imagine … a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it. … a house is not the same for a woman” (p. 60).  At the end, without an office, the writer zeroes in on the incompatible views of their shared past. Her former landlord is “arranging in his mind the bizarre but somehow never quite satisfactory narrative of yet another betrayal of trust. While I arrange words, and think it is my right to be rid of him” (p. 74).  

Primary Source

Dance of the Happy Shades, pp. 59-74


The Ryerson Press

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