I want to devote this week to a comparison of themes in two similar classic short stories from the 19th century–Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Cloak”. Both texts comment upon the world of bureaucracy, business, office jobs, materialism, and menial work by focusing on the odd, seemingly one-dimensional people employed at a dead-end office job. As creative writers, both Gogol and Melville were fascinated by the idea of men employed to simply copy the words of others all day long like a machine, and each crafted a story in which some turn of events occurs that highlights the absurdity of office work.
As you read both texts, I want you to consider how Melville and Gogol take essentially the same subject matter; a professional copier in a dead end office job, and use it to comment upon their culture and society. What similar visions of bureaucracy and business do they share?
Background on Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was born in the Ukraine and became one of the best known writers of fiction in Russian. He was deeply interested in traditional slavic folklore and his stories often merged folktale-like elements of fantasy with realistic depictions of life in Russia, much like Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground. He criticized bureaucracy and political corruption in his fiction, while incorporating absurd and surreal plotlines for satirical effect. For example, his short story “The Nose” is about a government official whose nose decides to run off one day and have adventures while the official tries to chase it down. The nose turns out to be better at the official’s job than he is.
You’re probably thinking that a man who would write a story about an escaped nose running amok in Russia might be a little crazy, and you would be correct. Gogol was a brilliant writer, but also notably eccentric. My favorite story of his bizarre behavior is from when he faked his way into getting a job as a history professor at the University of St. Petersburg. He was hired to teach medieval history, but he knew very little on the subject. On the first day of class, he simply made up a bunch of stuff about medieval history and then in later classes pretended he had a toothache so that he didn’t have to talk to his students. (The Culture Trip)
Background on Herman Melville
Herman Melville (1819-1891) is one of the most widely read American novelists around the world. You probably know him best as the author of Moby Dick, the story of a whaling captain’s singled-minded obsession with hunting down a white whale. For Moby Dick and other novels such as Typee and Omoo, Melville drew upon his own experience as a sailor and a whaler in his twenties. While his more simple stories of adventure on the open seas and travels to exotic lands were best sellers, Moby Dick was actually a colossal failure. In his first few books, Melville wrote in a more popular accessible style, whereas in Moby Dick, he began to transition toward his now famous style of long, deeply descriptive and contemplative writing. It was not until after his death that Moby Dick gained appreciation and eventually became known as one of the great works of American literature. The term “white whale” has entered the American lexicon to refer to anything that a person obsesses over in a self-destructive way.
“Bartleby the Scrivener” sticks out among Melville’s most famous work because it is not about adventures on the open seas. Rather, the work of a scrivener in an office on Wall Street is about as big of a contrast to the life of a sailor as one could imagine. Yes, this is the same Wall Street as the one we hear of today when we mention trading in stocks and securities. Melville’s story depicts the business center of Wall Street in its infancy, yet can you see some similarities between the corporate life of Wall Street in the 1850s and today? Remember the “Occupy Wall Street” protests from a year ago? Bartleby was doing practically the same thing 160 years ago by refusing to work, sleeping on Wall Street, and getting in the way of the powerful businessmen trying to work around him.
Common Themes to Compare in Gogol and Melville
Labor and Drudgery
The most obvious comparison between the two stories is that Akakiy and Bartleby have similar jobs. They are both professional copyists, meaning that they are employed all day to copy entire legal and company documents by hand. They aren’t writing creatively, or even making edits, instead, they literally copy what has already been written by someone else day in and day out. Think about what kind of a job that would be. What impact on the mind and the personality would that have? What kind of a person would voluntarily take and enjoy that job? Remember that Bartleby is originally a model employee and that Akakiy actually turns down an opportunity to do a job that required more than copying. What does this say about them as individuals? Or, do they even have individuality if all they do is copy others for a living?
For both Melville and Gogol, these copyists were a symbol of the average office worker in modern society. Bartleby and Akakiy are the everyman, yet, in being exactly what the workplace demands of the modern man, they become nobody. They both occupy a space in their narratives that literary critics would call “the other.” This refers to those against whom “normal” individuals define themselves. Think about how we all know some odd or “different” people in our lives, and how we wonder about their mysterious yet bizarre lives. We are both attracted to and appalled by their eccentricity. We want to understand it, but we also don’t want to get too close to the unknown. We also know that if we act as the opposite of them, we reinforce our own normality and allegiance to the group that defines itself in opposition to the other.
Bartleby and Akakiy are this “other”. In both stories, their fellow workers are both strangely drawn to their quiet, mysterious inner-lives, but not enough to treat them humanely. Akakiy’s co-workers make fun of him and taunt him as he tries diligently to work. Bartleby’s boss is absolutely fascinated by his initial work drive, and then even more obsessive over the enigma of Bartleby when he decides to do no work at all. Think about some eccentric people you have known. What makes them so interesting? In Akakiy and Bartleby’s cases, they are eccentric because they lack very basic human elements. They don’t socialize, they don’t express the full range of human emotions, they don’t (at least at times), even seem to desire much.
Materialism, Desire, and Productivity
We all know what materialism and why it is bad to be considered “materialistic.” Yet, we all cannot avoid having desires for material objects, both those that serve a purpose, and those that are just for show. However, at first, it appears that both Bartleby and Akakiy have no material desires. Think about it, what exactly does each character want? Part of why they stick out in their offices is because their co-workers can’t figure out what they want. They don’t seem to care for money, or social status, or any material comforts. Our desires are normally what fuel our labor. We work because we want to satisfy our needs and have a little left over for fun stuff. Yet, what do Bartleby and Akakiy desire? Do they even have the capacity to desire?
Akakiy eventually does develop desire out of necessity. He needs an overcoat or else he will freeze. Consider how this need for a coat turns into desire and gives Akakiy his first feelings of materialism. At first he just wants the old one patched, but when that cannot be done, he agrees to have a new one made. The tailor then integrates some luxurious elements to the coat, and suddenly Akakiy feels fancy (with apologies to Iggy Azalea). How does this coat change the way he sees himself? Then, consider how the coat changes the way his co-workers see him. Finally, think about how the theft of the coat changes (and ends) his life. What might Gogol be saying about materialism and desire through these changes in Akakiy’s life?
Bartleby, on the other hand, never desires at all. His favorite line is “I would prefer not to.” His only desire is to not do anything, to negate, to be nothing. Sigmund Freud called this the death drive, the tendency in all people to want to indulge in self-destructive behavior because life is so stressful and the burden of self-preservation is so taxing. Ultimately, the death drive is our desire to just let go of ourselves. Freud believed that we repress the death drive through repetition compulsion, meaning that we immerse ourselves in work and productive behavior to drown out these thoughts and never question that self-preservation should be the goal of human existence.
Bartleby’s scrivener job can be seen as repetition compulsion. He literally repeats other peoples words all day long as a job. Suddenly, for no reason at all, the repetition compulsion stops. He is no longer the perfect worker, but in fact, he becomes the worst possible employee. As the story goes further, his refusal to be productive at work becomes a refusal to live. He refuses to leave, then when he is arrested, he refuses to eat, and eventually he dies. His refusal to work thus begins his drive towards death.
Think about what Melville might be saying about the relationship between work, life, and death. Is he questioning the purpose of work? Think about Melville’s own life and work. He was a young sailor, then a novelist, and ironically enough, spent his last years working office-type jobs after his popularity as a writer faded.
The 19th century and it’s industrial revolution created a boom in the size and scope of business in the western world. Multi-national corporations worth millions began to form, financial companies and banks expanded their powers, and the manufacturing of new products and technologies flourished. This changed the nature of work, creating the need for an expanded class of management, and thus office work. While pencil pushing and administrative work had always existed, it expanded dramatically in the 19th century as the scale of business operations grew. Thus a new middle class of office workers like Akakiy and Bartleby grew as well.
Today, most Americans work for sizable businesses and office work has become the norm. But imagine living at a time when this kind of work went from a small fraction of the population to a sizable portion of the population. Think about how working in an office (with its stresses, its culture, and its social structure) impacts the nature of work and influences how we live our lives and think of ourselves. In Bartleby and Akakiy, Melville and Gogol were contemplating how the nature of office work and business is changing the average man and turning him into a different kind of person. What kind of person is this? What kinds of thinking could Bartleby and Akakiy symbolize as the new face of the office worker?
Along with the rise in business and corporations came a rise in the level of state bureaucracy. Administrative functions of government expanded to serve a rising population and support business ventures. Now, when anyone mentions bureaucracy, it is almost always in a negative tone. We all complain about bureaucracy, with its confusing hierarchy of offices and departments and piles of paper work that we have to navigate in order to get something as simple as a licence plate, a voter ID card, or filing your taxes.
If you have every had to file any special forms with government offices in order to get something you desperately needed, you probably understand how frustrating it is to deal with bureaucracy. Think about the delays, the needlessly confusing forms, and how the workers seems to be indifferent to your very important needs. We hate bureaucracy because it is dehumanizing. It takes our basic human needs and assigns us numbers and forms instead of addressing our worries and problems.
Both Bartleby and Akakiy have been dehumanized by bureaucracy. Think about when Akakiy’s coat is stolen. How is he treated by the police? Consider when he tries to appeal to the “prominent personage” for help. How is he treated? Analyze how Gogol describes the prominent personage and how he inflates his sense of self-importance. How is Gogol criticizing bureaucracy? It is revealed that Bartleby was once a bureaucrat at the end of his story. He worked in the dead letters office. Dead letters are letters that cannot be sent to the desired addressee and cannot be sent back to the sender. Melville seems to think this is a depressing place to work. What do you think the symbolism of this job is, its impact on Bartleby, and why Melville thinks this explains Bartleby’s behavior?