Sunday, March 4, 2018

How Jane Austen's Novels Helped Me Appreciate "The Office"

I had very little desire to watch The Office (in this post I will be referring to the U.S. version of the show). In high school, I saw one episode during my religion class as we discussed the rights and dignity of workers-and I was not impressed with what I saw. The show seemed stupid, I didn't know who the characters were, and the whole premise seemed rather pointless. In the years following this incident, I continued to hold onto a negative view of The Office.

I like shows that have purpose, direction, and adventure; shows like Doctor Who that have exciting stories about saving the world from monsters, or shows like Mercy Street, which highlight a dramatic story within a historical event. But a show about a bunch of people sitting in an office all day? Thank you, but NOPE.

One day, my husband mentioned that he wanted to show me The Office. I figured, Well, he's probably just saying that and it will never actually happen. However, one fateful evening last summer, as I was reading Emma, by Jane Austen, my husband enthusiastically declared that he had The Office all queued up for us to watch. Dragging my feet-and placing Emma nearby so I could easily grab it-I plopped into a chair and prepared myself for the worst. 

I could not believe it: My eyes were riveted to the screen, and I could not stop watching. 

I'm pretty sure that, at the beginning of the novel, Emma would be
ALL about owning a "World's Best Matchmaker" mug. 
As I watched Michael Scott meddle in the lives of the employees of Dunder-Mifflin, I kept thinking of Emma Woodhouse. Emma is rather obnoxious at times, and-though she may have good intentions-interferes in the lives of others...rather like Michael. I gasped, suddenly seeing Dunder-Mifflin not as a drab warehouse, but as a microcosm of Highbury. I began thinking of the deceitful Frank Churchill as I grew to know Dwight Schrute more (though he does have a touch of Robert Martin, since he's a beet farmer).  I also started to see some undertones of the warmhearted Mr. Weston in the often-smiling Bob Vance. 

As I began to notice glimpses of Emma's characters among the staff of Dunder-Mifflin, Austen's other works came to mind, particularly as the episodes (and seasons) zoomed before my eyes. In Kelly Kapoor, I noticed undercurrents of the superficial and flirtatious Lydia Bennet. In the noncommittal and wayward Ryan Howard, I sensed a little bit of Wickham. The rather despised Toby Flenderson made me think of Mr. Collins, particularly in the way he would drone on about various topics (in particular, the Scranton Strangler). The passionate Andy Bernard reminded me, in a weird way, of the emotional Marianne Dashwood. The rather quiet receptionist, Pam Beesly? Her inner strength and conviction-which grows and eventually makes itself known-caused me to think of the resolute and steadfast Fanny Price. The lengthy and tumultuous story of Angela's love life made me think of the separation-and reunion-of Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth, and the sweet, naive Erin brought to mind Catherine Morland. 

I never thought I would like The Office because I didn't think, outside of comedic situations, there could be any profound purpose to the show. Yet, as I thought of Jane Austen's characters interacting in her novels, I realized that my first impressions of The Office were hastily made. Just because there are no fights with monsters or dramatic historical events does not mean that the story of The Office must necessarily be devoid of depth. Indeed, let's look at Jane Austen's novel, Emma. What are the big events that form this story? Emma's former governess is married, the long-absent Frank Churchill comes to town, there's an encounter with gypsies, and lots of gossip, awkward social situations, and meddling. At face value, Emma is not very thrilling in its content. Rather than being a story about big, grandiose events, it is about the  interactions between human persons and social classes, with some romance thrown in the mix. Psychotherapist Wendy Jones explores this view in her work, Jane on the Brain, when she writes: 
"Those who fail to appreciate Austen foolishly (in my view) assume that her novels are dull because her situations tend to be relatively ordinary: Darcy moves into the neighborhood; Anne Elliott's family is forced to rent the family home in order to pay their debts (Persuasion); Catherine Morland, who's never traveled, has the opportunity to visit Bath (Northanger Abbey). The action is primarily psychological; Austen focuses on feelings and insights that occur as a result of social interactions in a relatively limited milieu. But for humans and other primates, this is the stuff of our most important events. Austen knew that the real drama of our lives most often comes from our everyday encounters with other people." (38)
Austen's works focus on people, and this is something that The Office does very well. The men and women of Dunder-Mifflin are all very colorful, unique, and many of them grow throughout the course of the show. I found myself continually thinking about what the characters in The Office were going through: their problems, their struggles, and their joys. Within the lives of these people came themes of love, betrayal, faithfulness, and friendship. There is even a beautiful story line about marriage and striving to love one's spouse through difficult times! There are comedic-though cringeworthy-situations that made me laugh and caused me to see how ridiculous my own behavior is at times. I wanted to keep watching the show to see the characters pull through and find joy and love in the midst of sticky circumstances. While people certainly watch this show as a lighthearted comedy, it is also possible to see a deeper level to The OfficeYes, there's more sexual references than you'd find in an Austen novel (though Jane Austen certainly has characters who dip into sexual improprieties), but the actual story and content of The Office thrives off of much more than cheap laughs. In the situational humor, awkward encounters, social commentary, and romance, this show can be quite edifying as it entertains. 

Even though there are no bonnets or awkward carriage rides (though can't you totally imagine Angela wearing a Regency outfit similar to what Mary Bennet might have owned? And there is a Finer Things Club at one point), The Office certainly speaks to my Austen-loving heart. 


  1. I so appreciate this post. I love both austen and the office, but I would not have thought to look for the same themes. You are right, though. Now I have to get my husband to watch the office with me

    1. Thanks, Ellen! I think, in the spirit of literary appreciation, you should definitely get your husband to watch The Office with you and think of Austen as you do so ;)

  2. This is interesting! I hadn't thought of it before, but I really can see how this relates in many ways. We love the Office, although for a period of time I couldn't watch it because it felt too close to a working situation I was in, and I was having flashbacks. And not good ones. ha!

  3. Just reading this now, and though I've not read Emma, it's so cool to see your relating them! I've watched all of The Office, and while I could do without all the innuendos and sexual stuff, I did enjoy the people of it too. I also found it hilariously relatable having worked in office settings myself. Oh man.