Bartleby’s office

Originally in: New Escapologist

Tom Mellors recommends Melville’s short story as early Escapological fantasy.

Before Ricky Gervais brilliantly parodied the tedium clerical culture in The Office, there was Bartleby the Scrivener – one of the first office satires – written by Herman Melville in 1853. Bartleby is important because it gives us an idea as to how offices were perceived in the mid-nineteenth century, when they were just becoming widespread. Nowadays they are the dominant place of work across the developed world.

Melville’s short story is set in a small law office on Wall Street. The office has no view of the outside world as all the windows face brick walls – some of which are just a few feet from the window itself. I worked in basement office for two months earlier this year and I can testify as to how maddening such an environment is. A room without a view feels like a padded cell.

Unsurprisingly, the office workers exhibit signs of illness – both mental and physical – as if the environment is so unnatural that it makes them sick. The young and ambitious Nippers, for example, suffers from severe indigestion. It is so severe that it disrupts his sleep, causing him to be short-tempered and aggressive every morning, but calm and quiet in the afternoon.

Nippers’ colleague Turkey operates on the opposite emotional schedule. Mild-mannered and pleasant in the morning, Turkey is prone to frenetic scrawling and choleric outbursts nearing on violence come the afternoon. Turkey’s Jekyll and Hyde routine is aided, the narrator implies, by his lunchtime ale. So great are his work-related frustrations, it takes only a small amount of alcohol to disable his ability to repress them.

I wonder how many of us have colleagues or bosses who are a bit like this: mild-mannered and pleasant one moment, short-tempered and frantic the next?

It is amazing that Melville, writing over 150 years ago, diagnoses the most prevalent work-related health problems which exist today. From back ache caused by sitting at a desk – something which Nippers also suffers – to stress related illnesses such as stomach ulcers and alcoholism. Melville sees the office for what it is: an environment which slowly kills you.

Melville’s genius however, is in recognising the existential malaise which offices promote. This is where the title character comes in. Bartleby is more like a robot than a human: when he works he does so “silently, palely, [and] mechanically”.

Bartleby is hired by the narrator to work as a scrivener – someone who copies law documents by hand. At first Bartleby is extraordinarily industrious, working the longest hours in the office. When the narrator asks if he will help read the documents aloud however, Bartleby responds with a simple but curt, “I would prefer not to”.

Eventually Bartleby – who nearly goes blind from copying – “prefers” not to do work at all, but rather stares at the brick wall outside his window. After several attempts to get rid of Bartleby – which culminate in moving the law office to a different building – he is imprisoned and eventually dies from starvation, despite being provided with ample food.

Bartleby is a kind of nineteenth century Godot. Who he is, or what he represents, is fiercely debated. It seems to me however, that Bartleby represents the existential crisis which people find themselves in when they do a job which is essentially meaningless. How can you find meaning in your life when your work has none?

Before Bartleby worked as a scrivener he worked in the ‘dead letters office’ in Washington D.C. His job, we are told, was to burn all the undeliverable letters. Dead letters. What a brilliant pun. Every letter Bartleby ever copied in Wall Street must have felt dead, in that emotionless style unique to legal documents.

Melville sees the office, and modern work, as dehumanising. When asked by the narrator – in a bid to get rid of him – if he would like to go to Europe, Bartleby insists that he would not. “I like to be stationary” Bartlebly replies, in another pun typical of Melville.

After eight hours in an office I can identify with stationary too. Some employers prefer it that way. Henry Ford once complained that, “every time I ask for a pair of hands it comes with a brain attached”. At least Ford was honest; unlike the manager in Bartleby. In Utilitarian language he reassures himself that despite Bartleby’s eccentricities, “he is useful to me”.

When Bartleby was first published it went largely unnoticed. The public weren’t ready for it; perhaps because the novelty of offices had not worn off yet. The enduring popularity of the BBC’s The Office on the other hand shows how much things have changed.

People want to find meaning in their lives and they realise that office life will only hold them back. The deadening nine to five has to end before we can take charge of our lives. Leave the Turkeys to their fate – they’ll just end up at the slaughterhouse. Escape the ennui of the office and create meaning in your life, before it’s too late.

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