Here in the opening weeks of the year, everyone is back at work and reminded of the little things that irk them about their job. It may be a lousy parking space, a windowless office, or a boss who doesn’t listen. Many of you also work with an annoyance I like to call a “Bartleby.” Their name may be Josh or Greg or Antonio or Jessica, but feel free to mutter “Bartleby” when you cross paths with them in the break room.
A “Bartleby” is someone who does their job just as asked until one day he decides there are certain tasks he simply won’t do. He gets away with it because:
- You work at a small, understaffed organization and no one has time to argue with him
- You work for an enormous company and no one but you has noticed
- Or, the most likely these days, he has special skills that make him difficult to replace.
Regarding this last one: Anyone who has submitted a project to the design or engineering department and had that department do 71% of what was asked with no explanation as to the missing 29% knows what I’m talking about. You’ve just interacted with a little bit of Bartleby sprung loose from pre-Civil War Manhattan, filling a cubicle here in the 21st century.
“Bartleby” of course is the title character of the Herman Melville short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1856), which Melville first published anonymously as two separate magazine articles in Putnam’s Monthly, a predecessor to The Atlantic. Other than Moby Dick and perhaps the novella Billy Budd, “Bartleby” is Melville’s best-known work and considered one of the finest examples of the American short story form. It also shows up repeatedly on lists of great books and stories concerning the workplace.
The 30-page “Bartleby” is narrated in flashback by an unnamed elderly lawyer. The lawyer hires a young man named Bartleby as his office’s fourth copyist (which was how you got documents duplicated in the days before the Xerox machine). Bartleby is quiet, hardworking, and appears to be without history—no family, friends, no existence before he answered the law office’s help-wanted ad.
For a while all is well. Then one ordinary day the narrator asks Bartleby to perform a routine task and Bartleby replies, “I prefer not to.” The lawyer cannot make sense of this and submits the request again. Bartleby gives him the same answer.
From here things degenerate, first to strange, then to exasperating, and finally to absurd. Any task that is not copying, Bartleby counters with a mild “I prefer not to.” When argued with, he says nothing. Eventually, he tells his employer he is through with copying, too. One strange night, the lawyer stops by the office and Bartleby is there, not working, not making trouble, but doing, well, nobody really knows what he is doing. The door is locked and Bartleby will not let his employer in. Before too long, the other three copyists are slipping “I would prefer” into their regular workplace interactions.
The lawyer moves his business to a new location, but Bartleby returns to the old one and won’t leave, “like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and silent.” The building’s landlord says this squatter is the lawyer’s responsibility. The lawyer begs Bartleby, threatens, pleads, offers to take him into his own home and look after him. Bartleby won’t be moved and is arrested, then taken to prison. The lawyer visits him there only to discover Bartleby has starved himself to death. Melville offers no explanation for any of it.
After “I would prefer not to,” the story’s most famous line is its last one: “Ah Bartleby, Ah humanity.” The lawyer utters it after discovering a single biographical detail about his strange copyist: That Bartleby used to work in the post office’s Dead Letter Office. Melville then throws together a half dozen lines about what insight this gives the narrator:
“Dead Letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune, prone to a pallid helplessness, can any business seem more fitting to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames?”
I don’t think we’re supposed to buy the narrator’s heartbreak. The tone here is markedly different, bordering on goopy, from the rest of the story, which has the cool recall of, well, a lawyerly summation. Also Melville has set up Bartleby as a room with a locked door. Bartleby unexplained is the source of the story’s power. The narrator’s flailing attempt at an explanation only underlines its futility. Which is one of the things I think Melville was after: The sadness of not really knowing something, the pain of connections severed and relationships left incomplete.
Bartleby has been reincarnated many times since his passing over 150 years ago. Albert Camus cited the story as an influence. The comedy of Andy Kaufman, where he would stand on stage saying nothing, reading The Great Gatsby, or singing nursery rhymes, daring the audience to either laugh, shrug, or stay baffled as to when the joke ended and real life began again, is a descendant of Melville’s silent copyist. Chauncey Gardner, the hero of the 1979 film Being There played by Peter Sellers, is another enduring character entirely committed to his own worldview he doesn’t bother to explain. As a result, others (including the President of the United States) graft their own meaning onto his cryptic phrases and actions. Bartleby has also been called an early ancestor to the slacker. Essayist Sven Birkerts has offered the Scrivener up as a model of idleness as a place of contemplation and serenity rather than lazy avoidance of work.
Melville was having a hard go of work when he wrote the piece. Finishing Moby-Dick had exhausted him and the book had sold only moderately. His next novel, Pierre (1852), had been a flop. The prevailing theory of biographers on what Melville meant by Bartleby was that of a writer both stuck with a project he has given up upon (Bartleby refuses to copy after copying morning and night at the beginning of his employ) and who cannot fit into an increasingly commercial society (why Melville called it “A story of Wall Street” even though Wall Street plays a supporting role at best). In the mysterious scrivener, Melville may have seen a version of himself, a frustrated artist, who cannot find space for or welcoming amongst his creations.
A valid theory but not a very useful one. “There’s no place for an artist like me!” seems an anachronistic, uptown problem in a time when there’s a URL (if not an income) for just about every creative flight of fancy imaginable. But Bartleby as a kind of workplace wraith seems far more relatable. Each of us has worked with someone we spent hours in close proximity to, five days a week for months or years and didn’t really know at all. Perhaps neighbors or merchants are the only other people we see with such regularity who can still remain mysterious.
Not knowing usually leads me to create all kinds of nutty backstories—the polygamist in Human Resources, the ex-circus clown in System Administration, the serial killer working in Corporate Development. There are moments—office Christmas parties or smoke breaks in the parking lot—where someone you work with reveals something of herself you didn’t know and briefly, she becomes a person instead of a presence you catch sight of when looking up from your computer or coming out of the bathroom. That might continue until you graduate to being friends as well as colleagues. Or it might collide with your sense of what belongs at the office stays there. If I still worked in an office, I’d ask myself how strange it is that two-thirds of my day and, to a very real degree, my livelihood depends not upon friends but not-quite strangers either, people who can seem less knowable by their regular presence instead of arbitrary appearances in our lives.
“Bartleby” ends up on a lot of lists of “great books about work” and in more than a few melancholy essays about how contemporary writers don’t focus on the workplace much anymore. MFA programs are typically blamed for creating an environment where a certain class of young writer has no idea what it’s like to have a real job before their first book is published. I don’t think that’s quite fair. We seem to have ceded the workplace to television and, to a lesser extent, the theatre as the best mediums to tackle the daily magnetic pulses of working. There we can have a multi-year sitcom called simply “The Office” and everyone knows jokes about fixing the copier and inappropriate workplace behavior will follow. Plays like David Mamet’s “Race” (2009) can take place entirely in a law office as Mamet has been doing for 30 years with workplace dramas like “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “American Buffalo.” Both of those examples seem better suited to capturing the daily toil than flashes of high conflict that characterize the workplace. But I think novels and short stories can just as well. We either haven’t found them or aren’t taking the chances on them we should.
Ah Bartleby! Ah another day at the office.
Kevin Smokler (@weegee) is the author of the essay collection Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School, just released by Prometheus.