Extreme Capitalist Work Settings in “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Updated January 5, 2022

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Extreme Capitalist Work Settings in “Bartleby the Scrivener” essay

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In the 1850s, one of the first critical examples towards extreme capitalistic work settings emerged as a short story titled Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-Street by Herman Melville, a writer now regarded as one of the most important authors of American Literature. In this story, the effects of mundane business work settings and occupations are channeled to the tilted character Bartleby, and is told through his employers’ point of view known as The Lawyer.

The imposition of this environment limits the individualism within the employees of The Lawyer, as a result this leaves them feeling alienated among their peers and the rest of society. One may expect to solely focus on the modes of production that caused this system of alienation, which is enforced by the business office setting with no mind for the employees who inhabit them. However, one should recognized where and how these effects take place within the employees themselves. For example, The Lawyer describes his suspicions of Bartleby’s abnormalities even though he is a hardworking employee who performs his tasks with great consistencies: “I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (Melville 6). Bartleby will become the main character that the audience focuses on, due to his behaviors being non-combatable to the norm for Scrivener employees.

However, I would argue that we shouldn’t overlook the other characters in employment, Turkey and Nippers, who both express their habits, albeit in a less inhuman form, compared to Bartleby’s that are a result of their occupations in a business office setting. In order to understand how much the corporate office setting affected the Scriveners, one must take into consideration the type of office they were in the first place. Working for the Lawyer, the Scriveners tasks would be to copy “rich men’s bonds and mortgages, and title-deeds.” (Melville 1)

The task for Scriveners are to copy these documents and receipts in order to refer back to them if need be, an occupation that takes a toll on the employees themselves. Bartleby becomes newly introduce to this type of work of monotonously copying, virtually performing his task all day that ultimately leaves the individual feeling dehumanized. Amy Ronner explains that the employees in these offices become more machine like and for the Lawyer, ‘are just tools that help him make money” (Ronner 641). This increasingly adds to the requirements of the employees who feel less human in their occupations.

Furthermore, Ronner explains that The Lawyer, although not noticeably, exhibits the notion that his employees are only property to his business which reflects the type of documents that he deals with (Ronner 647). With these two factor in play, the office worker overtime feels the brunt force by the system of business work, which leads them to becoming more irritable and short tempered. As a result, the characteristics that the Scrivener faces often results in non-normative behavior that is detrimental to their physical and mental health, and is represented by Turkey, before the arrival of Bartleby.

Turkey is the closest to the Lawyers age, and is one of his best employees, yet he isn’t immune to the consequences of working in a business office setting. As the Lawyer explains, Turkey is alright in the morning, but in the afternoon his temperament acts up and his actions affect his occupation such as when he broke his pens, “and threw them on the floor in a sudden passion,” (Melville 3).

Through these actions, he clearly feels some sort of negative qualities that is derived from his occupation. However, one of the most harmful, yet almost looked over habits that is clearly a result from his job is his usage of alcohol. Though it is not highlighted, the revelation of this fact was uncovered when Nippers told The Lawyers that “Turkey’s money went chiefly for red ink”, another term for wine. (Melville 4) For the rest of the story, Turkey’s drinking isn’t touch on again and the readers tend to forget about it. According to Thompson though, Turkey drinks alcohol because it is a way for him to escape the reality of his occupation (Thompson 227).

Due to his menial tasks of copying, and no more opportunity for advancement in the workplace, the limited functions of the law office setting greatly impacts the employees who see themselves “plateau” in their occupations. Furthermore, Thompson describes that his drinking leaves him in limbo, that in a status sense, he ends up staying a Scrivener from as far as the reader knows for the rest of the story (Thompson 277). More reasons for Turkey’s abnormal actions can also be drawn from modern day examples from older employees in the modern day business office world.

There is no doubt that Turkey uses alcohol to cover his emotions of his role in the law office firm. His example is one that can be seen even in today’s world where many older employees feel their pursuit of opportunity diminishing with each passing year. When the Lawyer points out to Turkey that he drops ink blots on the legal documents, and that it may be best if he rest, he replies he considerers himself to be the Lawyers’ “right man hand” and that old age is “honorable” (Melville 1853). However, this doesn’t stop the fact that his mistakes still stalls the functions of the office that leads to slower production. In some ways, this can be considered a form of denial, even though he does indeed recognize that he is getting and causes a mess from time to time that The Lawyer finds annoying. I would add that Turkey uses alcohol along with his denial as a system of repressing his true emotions that he feels everyday at his occupation.

According to Graham Cole, older employees often use a form of “deep acting” where “the antecedent orientation of this approach enables any negative feelings to be controlled before they take effect” (Cole 32). Turkey uses alcohol, along with a number of micro habits as a system to cope with his own negative feelings, no matter how short-tempered they may be. This system allows him to alleviate his repressions, albeit in an unhealthy manner, and bars him from descending further into a mechanical mode such as Bartleby. In addition to the cause of this eccentric behavior, we shouldn’t overlook that there may also be a threat to his pride.

Incorporated with his increasing age, the older Scrivener will see that other areas of their individuality are threatened as well such as their pride. There is an example from Melville’s story that Turkey does not react well to charity that is offered towards him. When The Lawyer sees that Turkeys’ coat was worn out and dirty, he offered a respectable looking coat to which Turkey denies the offer, leaving The Lawyer believing it had “a pernicious effect upon him.” (Melville 4) This offer is seen as a threat to his ability to remain self-sustaining, though his income is marginal.

Simply put, The Lawyer’s perception on Turkey is that “He was a man whom prosperity harmed.” (Melville 5) However, the Lawyer offers the coat in the first place for his self-interest of abstaining from seeing the filthy coat ever again. If Turkey had accepted the coat, then a subtle feeling of authority is reinforced by the Lawyer on top of his position as his employer. Goldfarb best explains what are some implications of giving a gift in the office work setting other than for charitable reasons are “with implicit expectations that recipients behave according to donors’ wishes” (Goldfarb 246).

Thus this attempted transaction best shows that Turkey maintains his independence from an outside source, even though he may desperately need it. He challenges the system that he works in to keep himself, for the most part, separate from becoming reliant on the very occupation that devalues him the most. This theme of resistance is expressed by another Scrivener in the law office, but comes from a different form of a younger ambitious individual.

Nippers is an ambitious Scrivener who expresses his disenfranchisement that tedious tasks of the mundane business office life leave. He is considerably younger than his counterpart, Turkey, being only twenty five years of age, but also exhibits a similar behavior compared to Turkey. For example, according to The Lawyer, Nippers temperament becomes more irritable in the morning rather than in the afternoon like Turkey. He always meddle with his desk to level it at a certain position leaving The Lawyer to believe that “Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or if he wanted anything it was to be removed from a scrivener’s table altogether” (Melville 1853). In addition, he has indigestion which is caused by “nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying” (Melville 1853).

This is one of the early indicators that Nippers is dissatisfied with his current employment as a Scrivener. The dissatisfaction derives from the fat that he is limited in his ambitions of working where the tasks aren’t challenging or doesn’t produce no noticeable outcomes. Cornwell explains that the ambitious scrivener’s actions are a crutch for him to get through the day of a mundane occupation “because he is younger age, less willing to accept the tedium and the physical confinement of his job…” (Cornwell 95). As a result, Nippers suffer for the inability to overcome the mechanical system that undermines individuals’ desires to move up the latter in a business that serves an important role in greater society. This leads to one of the main reasons why Nippers move to other opportunities where he can rise above the ranks of a common employee.

One reason why Nippers displays eccentric characteristics during his time as a scrivener, is suggested that he doesn’t find any meaning in it, or that it doesn’t make any real difference in the world. This can explain why he conducts meetings with his “clients” as he calls it, because it allows him to feel meaning and leaves him to see his impacts on his tasks. His ambition is expressed in this area as explained by The Lawyer: “Among the manifestations of his diseased ambition was a fondness he had for receiving visits from certain ambiguous looking fellows in seedy coats” (Melville 4).

This area of activity gives Nippers substance in his life, since he is thus free from the limitations as a scrivener in an extreme capitalistic setting. This result is caused by the lack of occupation in his job where he must repeatedly perform the same functions day in and day out. In a study for MIT Sloan Management Review by Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden they discuss some of the factors that leads to employees finding their occupations meaningless: “…they often talked about how to come to terms with the tedious, repetitive, or indeed purposeless work that is part of almost every job” (Bailey & Madden 59).

Although they refer to occupations in the modern world, today’s employees still find themselves in the same shoes the Nippers worn in the fictional setting, and what other employees in the mid 1800s would be part of as well. Nippers is affected by the extreme capitalistic business setting in that it limits his pursuits in life, thus leading him to exhibit certain erratic actions. Although he is younger than his counterpart, and seems to be engaging the symptoms with hopes to escape his occupation one day, not all employees process the same impact of the corporate setting and may very well be fully assimilated into it.

Bartleby is the only character void of any erratic characteristics that stem a scrivener’s job in that he works monotonously to complete his duties. He doesn’t show any signs that would be a cause of irritability for The Lawyer in the beginning and seems only to focus on his work rather than anything else. However, as the Lawyer examines Bartleby he notices that his workmanship goes above and beyond what is normally required, performing his tasks day and night, yet this seems to leave him acting more mechanically (Melville 6). Overtime, we see that he doesn’t act more in the norm of a scrivener by not drinking tea, beer, and seemingly eating only very little which adds more to the idea of him functioning as something else, other than human.

Klaus Benesh reinforces the idea that Bartleby acts more machine like in his tasks of writing, and that although he follows “the daily routine of the office, his behavior is utterly subdued, lifeless, pallid” (Benesh 61). The fact that he continues this type of work keeps him alienated from any other meaningful contact with his peers and outside of the office. Even his small rebellious “I prefer not to” acts as a passive way of resistance that gives the notion he would rather keep functioning on copying papers, instead of other aspects of his job such as reviewing work (Melville 7). In addition to his mechanical state, the setting that he finds himself working in does very little to aid him in achieving any human qualities back. In fact, it may cause him to continue into his decline of ever feeling any real human emotions ever again.

In his new occupation as a Scrivener, Bartleby finds himself isolated by walls both outside his window and even inside the law office, symbolizing how isolated he really is. The narrator describes the view that is in Bartleby’s sight containing a wall of another building with the light coming down from above “as from a very small opening of a dome.” (Melville 6) The facing of blank walls and the small beam of light acts almost as a metaphor to Bartlebys’ own mental states where he feels ultimately alienated due to his occupation, but still close to others who express their own individual characteristics.

Mordecai Marcus explains that both the Scriveners and The Lawyer are trapped in this type of environment and the Bartleby acts as a “double” in order to “criticize the sterility, impersonality, and mechanical adjustments of the world which the lawyer inhabits.” (Marcus 367) This doesn’t aid him in becoming better in a physical and mental way, rather it diminishes his personal freedom even more so. Marcus further explains that “the setting on Wall Street indicates that the characters are in a kind of prison, walled off from the world” (Marcus 367).

There is a reason why Melville adds “A Story Of Wall-Street” in the title, it is a tale that derives from the individuals experience with the extreme capitalistic setting, and shows only an example of something that a group of workers (in this case scriveners) feel. What’s more interesting is that Bartleby had already carried the traits of alienation and machine prior to ever coming in contact with The Lawyer. In order to better understand the cause of Bartleby’s decline to a mechanical being, we must look at his place of employment prior to ever meeting The Lawyer.

Much of the work Bartleby has done can be considered menial at best, which adds more to his decreasing state of mind. The inessential input he has given doesn’t do much to make him feel accomplished, even before he started the role of a scrivener. Towards the end of the story, there is a rumor that makes its way to The Lawyer that offers some possible detail that Batleby was a “subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration” (Melville 29). When a new administration comes in, one of the first things that it does is to make financial cuts that does not serve as a crucial component to the system.

From this, the reader is able to understand that the degree of Bartleby’s job as a clerk was inessential to the company as a whole. Before the ending, the Lawyer suggested to Bartleby a few areas that would be the best areas of occupations that would suit him even though he is already fully mechanized and lacks any ambitious qualities as a result of his occupation. Pribek explains that The Lawyer “is suggesting progressively more unrealistic options, considering Bartleby’s declining activity and anti-social silence. (Pribek 184) Therefore, Bartleby was no stranger to this type of labor, having been very familiar with for possibly an extended amount of time due to how monotonous he behaves.

The task of handling “dead letters” on their own is dull and mundane, which ultimately leaves the workers handling the letters to feel more dehumanize over time. Bartleby was already in this particular position, which The Lawyer understands as being a tedious soul crushing task when he asks a rhetorical question of someone “handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames” (Melville 29). The negative symptoms of the business world is carried over into the modern day Wall-Street society, where new employees are becoming disgruntle in their newly acquired occupations.

In the 21st century, the modern Wall-Street employee does not need to worry about copying or accidently creating ink blots from a shaky hand thanks to advancements in technology. However, just because some of the mundane inessential tasks are removed, does not mean that the employee can fully avoid the side effects that comes from a corporate business world. In Alexandra Michels’ ethnography study for The Sociological Quartelry, she shows that individuals believe they chose their fields “autonomously, but tend to choose the kinds of processes that perpetuate the existing culture” (Michels 530-531). Although we are now thriving in a modern society, especially in business culture, the consequences of an extreme capitalistic setting still adds more weight to the individuals’ mental and physical toll compared to Melville’s three oppressed scriveners.

Michels’ further explains that “the issues of social concern are not inequity, but the harmful consequences that individuals are compelled to inflict on themselves because of the banks’ socialization…” (Michels 531) The office settings and duties that are found in a profit focused culture that is Wall-Street results in employees’ personal health to incline as they continue their functions in their respected fields relating to Wall-Street. If this route continues, then there is no telling how prevalent the business sector will keep creating their own modern day Turkey’s Nippers and worst case scenario, Bartleby’s.

Even though the story was written more the 150 years ago, much of the themes of alienation, ill behavior, and unhealthy modes of production are still relevant to the business offices of the 21st century. Through the examination of the different scriveners’ personalities, causes, and effects of their personal abnormal behavior, we are able to understand how damaging a cultural sector such as Wall-Street can inflict upon the individual life. The mechanical role that employees must adhere to in their personal occupational setting has a great impact on the employees physical and mental health depending on who they are, and what their role is.

Melville may never knew how accurately he portrayed the life of an employee that conducts a soul crushing task, yet he would be more surprised that much of the types of characters, their workplace settings and occupations statuses are evident in modern day America. With the similarities of Melville’s’ story, and the imposition of Wall-Street’s capitalistic culture on the individuals who operate inside, the assumption can be made that this system will subsequently continue on for perhaps the next 160 years.

Extreme Capitalist Work Settings in “Bartleby the Scrivener” essay

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Extreme Capitalist Work Settings in “Bartleby the Scrivener”. (2022, Jan 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/extreme-capitalist-work-settings-in-bartleby-the-scrivener/


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