bartleby at the office

1413211764saval666Nikil Saval at Dissent:

Few institutions have offered themselves as less promising for the novelist than the modern office. Work of any kind is a tricky subject for representation; office work—gray, gnomic, and unknowable—even more so. After all, what is it that people do in offices? Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” the locus classicus for discussions of early clerical work, begins by depicting strategies for avoiding work at what is nominally a law office. Few of the unnamed narrator’s employees seem to do much lawyering: Turkey works through the morning, but gets drunk at lunch; Nippers never finds an appropriate position to sit at his desk. And then there’s Bartleby, who, unlike his colleagues, works—and does so without fanfare, “silently, palely, mechanically.” But rather than producing things, he seems to consume them. “As if long famishing for something to copy,” the narrator observes, “he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.” And then—famously—Bartleby suddenly loses interest in his work. The tedium of office life offers a brief moment of satisfaction for Bartleby, which just as quickly vanishes; eventually deprived of his paperwork sustenance, Bartleby starves to death.

While “Bartleby” has remained unmatched as a parable of white-collar alienation (it was adapted to the contemporary, cubicular, and computerized workplace as a film in 2001), its casual treatment of the actual substance of work makes it unexceptional in the history of the literature of the office. Like many office novels that have followed, it is primarily one of manners—or in Bartleby’s case, a lack thereof.

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