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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Updated January 5, 2022
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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” essay

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“Bartleby the Scrivener” written by Herman Melville in 1853 is a classic tale of the defiance of corporate America. Bartleby uses extreme passive resistance to further his opposition against completing tasks not listed in his job description. This directly correlates with the later created movie Office Space which entails the main character Peter to defy against his job due to the extreme responsibilities given which is not included in his job. Both pieces of work displays an acute amount of missing authority which overall encourages the actions of both Bartleby and Peter. In the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” repetition of the phrase “I prefer not to” reveals the lack of authority the bosses possess over workers. This idea is echoed in the movie Office Space as Peter denies the corporate order, and in response was promoted.

Bartleby’s main form of resistance was seen in a non-violent way, as when he was specifically asked to complete something, he would promptly respond with “I prefer not to.” In his own mind, he’s doing a good job as he’s doing exactly what his job is paying him for, however, he is never going the extra mile and doing little things which are asked of him off the record. With this, he never outright says “No” and it ultimately sounds much more polite. Peter is also seen presenting this passive resistance tone, as whenever his boss asks him to complete a task, he either doesn’t answer or walks by him.

In most companies both of these workers would be fired immediately, however the bosses have no authority over the workers which creates a chaotic work area. This causes the other workers around Bartleby and Peter not want to work either as they are now presented with the idea that there are no consequences within the work area. Although both characters don’t do these actions with the same intent, they are very similar in the manner they complete it. Bartleby is a lazy person who cannot be held accountable for anything that he doesn’t need to do. His boss also does not want to fire him because of the tone and way Bartleby says “I prefer not to.”By this action, it perceives Bartleby to have a nicer attitude about it and not seem like a jerk.

It allows Bartleby to have full control over his boss and neutralize the situation.This phrase can directly be corollated with him being a lawyer, and being able to get out of situations and know exactly what he can and can’t do. As a lawyer, he has to study the law very closely and because of this Bartleby knows his exact job description. Peter on the other hand just simply hates his boss and wants to get fired from his job. In attempt to trying to get fired, the upper level management believes that Peter isn’t being challenged enough and surprisingly gets a promotion. With this, Peter now has full control over his boss because now upper management believes that the boss is the one in the wrong, not Peter.

Although both Bartleby and Peter both possessed passive resistant behaviors, Peter’s was more directly correlated with his strong dislike for his boss. Peter was asked ridiculous requests including coming in every Saturday, and eventually it became too much for him. Bartleby, however, said in the novel “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,’ was his mildly cadaverous reply.” This attitude contradicts the audiences original thought that Bartleby was simply rebelling against his boss solely due to his sheer lazy personality. This allows some predictions by the audience to predict whether there are relationship issues not seen within the novel between Bartleby and his boss.

The boss in both novels are unable to develop a strategy to contain the threat to their own status within the power relations of his organization, the manifests behaviors that indicate he is becoming increasingly more desperate and uncertain about how to act. Bartleby’s continuing insistence on preferring not to do this as well as other work activities deemed essential to the success of this organization, underscores his outsider status as reflected in this dominant discursive paradigm, just as, over time, its unconscious insertion into the casual conversations of the other employees in the office signals its potential to dismantle the terms of understanding on which the business must operate to be successful.

Peter on the other hand each day he goes into the office and stares at the clock while preparing what he sees as unnecessary TPS reports for 8 different bosses. He even goes so far as telling a psychiatrist that every work day is the worst day of his life. In the movie, Peter is constantly being micro-managed by one of his many bosses, Bill Lumbergh, does continuous rounds in the office with his coffee, checking to see if Peter has finished the TPS reports.  Lumbergh’s interruptions constantly distract Peter, and add to his frustration with the company.

These two comparisons are awful similar for hatred of both bosses, and this attitude is enforced due to the lack of power each of the bosses hold.In Bartleby, it was also said “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” This is seen in both works as Bartleby showed massive passive resistance and eventually was stopped being asked to complete tasks. Peter also connects to this as he showed Bill a considerable amount of passive resistance and walked by him whenever he was asked to complete a simple task.

Bartleby and Peter show comparative qualities which notably allows full control over their own bosses. With extreme passive resistance, both characters are able to promptly do as they pleased without any normal corporate consequences. These works show extreme similarity’s in setting as one being set in an older office at the start of the industrial age, and the other being set in office during the compelling office job days. With similar settings, it comes to question that whether bosses were unaware on correct punishments during the time, and brings to light whether either of these characters would be fired during the time period today.

Bartleby’s continuing insistence on preferring not to do this as well as other work activities deemed essential to the success of this organization, underscores his outsider status as reflected in this dominant discursive paradigm, just as, over time, its unconscious insertion into the casual conversations of the other employees in the office signals its potential to dismantle the terms of understanding on which the business must operate to be successful.

As the concerted effort to remove both Bartleby and Peter from the office suggests, their behaviors, in particular, the utterance of a preference that is so at odds with the expectation for how employees are to perform their work functions within the office’s existing organizational hierarchies is powerful testimony to the threat inherent in simple declarations and to the potential they have to upend and destabilize the coherence of official narratives that guide and organize sequences of action inside of ruling institutions.

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” essay

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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”. (2022, Jan 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/herman-melvilles-bartleby-the-scrivener/

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