Mention Herman Melville and you might imagine the massive white whale from his novel Moby-Dick. However, he also made his mark with his lesser known short-story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” which tells the story of the scribe Bartleby, who stops working, becomes depressed, and eventually dies of starvation.
Depressing? A little. But in honor of Melville’s birthday, let’s discuss the continued relevance of “Bartleby,” especially with the 2008 economic crash and the 99% movement’s critique of big banks, capitalism, and Wall Street. Not only has the story remained relevant politically, it’s also had an impact on office politics. Throughout the narrative, Melville riffs on typical “office personality types.” And what better way to talk about them than to compare them to the most popular show about the workplace, The Office.
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The Bumbling Boss
In Melville’s story, Bartleby’s boss has his employee’s best intentions at heart but ends up providing little support—and instead watches Bartleby waste away. Sure, nothing that serious happens on The Office, but Michael Scott can definitely relate. While he cares for most of his employees (minus Toby) and tries his best, most of the time he ultimately fails to provide value.
The Office Drunk
Meredith and Turkey are two peas in a pod. Much of Meredith’s behavior is a reflection of some of her old drinking habits—and that makes her unpredictable. Turkey, while certainly less wild, is not the model employee either: He drinks at lunch and ignores work in the afternoon.
The Entitled Millennial
Nippers is an entitled employee who is overly ambitious and self-important. While Kelly lacks in ambition, she certainly doesn’t lack in self-importance, thinking the world revolves around her, her relationship with Ryan, and her obsession with pop culture.
In “Bartleby,” Ginger Nut is merely an errand boy who hopes to do better in life, while his Office counterpart, Ryan, is arrogant, calculating, and manipulative. Sure, Ryan has his moments of redemption, but overall Ginger Nut is the better intern to have in the office.
“I would prefer not to.” Bartleby says those words 14 times throughout the narrative, and even though Toby never says that phrase exactly, I’m sure Michael Scott thinks he has. Toby is so wildly unpopular that he’s often the loner in the office, with no friends.
While obviously not a direct comparison to The Office (where are Jim, Pam, and Dwight?), Melville’s “Bartleby” remains relevant, despite being written more than 150 years ago. So next time you’re at a literary trivia night and someone asks, “What else did Melville write?” You’ll be able to answer “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street.” For even more information, check out our infographic!