Many people would argue that Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” was written with a main theme of either Marxism or mortality. In “The Silence of Bartleby” Dan McCall said that the story “is not a story, it is a lie” (McCall 103). However, to use one of those main themes; one fails to see the true genius of this literary work. “Bartleby” is more than a work of fiction – it is a study in ineffective management, and the consequences of using the style of management practiced by the lawyer (the narrator) in the story.
In the beginning of the story, the lawyer begins by describing himself, his surroundings, and his employees. He demonstrates that he is an effective manager, by pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each employee, and showing that he takes full advantage of each. An example of this is Turkey – the nickname give to one of his scriveners. Turkey was very effective before 12 noon, but after lunch he would become careless in his work. To this, the lawyer said, “I made up my mind to let him stay, resolving, nevertheless, to see to it that, during the afternoon, he had to do with my less important papers.” (118). However, the lawyer becomes too comfortable- too set in his managerial style. This failure to plan ahead and think outside the box sets him up for failure as a manager. “It is Bartleby’s lack of productivity that begins the narrator’s journey into a strange world he has never cared to know, into a world of horological and chronometrical struggle.”
Although uncommon, or unheard of in the business world at the time of Melville’s introduction of “Bartleby” on the literary world, the story highlights two issues that are timeless, and quite pertinent, even in modern-day business atmospheres: one is dealing with employees suffering from personality disorders, and another is negligent hiring. Negligent hiring is another of the lawyer’s shortcomings as a manager, “After a few words touching his qualifications, I engaged him,” (121). This demonstrates that the lawyer carelessly hired Bartleby without even thinking of checking his references. This proves to be a fatal mistake which he laments at the end of the story upon receipt of some late, yet valuable information concerning his former employee, “The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration” (142). One has to wonder what hiring decision might the lawyer have made had he known of this information beforehand! Though hindsight is 20/20, clearly the lawyer had the wisdom to realize that the strain of Bartleby’s former occupation may have been a hindrance to his success in future endeavors. “On errands of life, these letters speed to death” (142).
Davis states: “whether we attribute special meaning to Bartleby is of no import; rather, it is the narrator’s response, his act of interpreting Bartleby, that gives Bartleby his power…” (Davis 4). This statement is completely true, for it was not Bartleby’s behavior that caused strife in the office, but rather the lawyer’s response to this behavior. A timeless message to all managers in this story is that complacency and indifference in your management style can be just as harmful as megalomania and histrionics.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener” The Norton Introduction to Literature – Shorter Eighth Edition 2002.
Davis, Todd F. “The Narrator’s Dilemma in ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’: The Excellently Illustrated Re-statement of a Problem” “Studies in Short Fiction 34 no. 2” 1997.
McCall, Dan. The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.