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Our world of words.

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Words are a serious business, but sometimes only tell half the tale. Phil Parrish explains why a 19th century American short story has a few things to say about employee engagement…

“I’d prefer not to.” Four simple words which can seem so commonplace. But when they repeatedly come from the mouth of a disengaged employee, or the pen of a master storyteller, they can soon turn haunting.

The workshy colleague is Bartleby the Scrivener, a copier of legal documents in a 19th century Wall Street law firm and one of the most demotivated workers in the history of American literature. The tale’s unreliable narrator is Bartleby’s unnamed and self-absorbed boss. And their creator is Herman Melville, best known for his epic novel of seamanship and obsession, Moby Dick.

Despite the vast difference in length (Bartleby The Scrivener has a mere 14,355 words while Moby Dick busts the 200,000 mark) there are dark parallels between the two stories, with both lead characters seized by a weird mental paralysis that chokes their ability to connect with people.

The unhinged Captain Ahab cannot get past his demented pursuit of the whale – “From hell’s heart I stab at thee” – while the timid, preternaturally reserved Bartleby is unable to utter anything other than “I’d prefer not to”; a career-damaging cop-out he repeats to his boss whenever he has the temerity to give him something to do.

Tantalising puzzle

At first the scenario is comic, as we watch your typical office power dynamic unravel through the perspective of Bartleby’s increasingly perplexed, yet maddeningly obtuse, line manager. Some would say the supervisor brings it on himself, positioning his employee from day one in front of an office window where the sole view is grim, claustrophobic yet metaphorically apt brickwork.

The story ends on an image of confinement too, as workplace deadlock turns to complete mental deterioration. Passive, uncommunicative and wasting away, Bartleby is imprisoned in a New York jail, where he eventually crawls into the foetal position in the courtyard to let death draw in. The narrator remains mystified, unable to explain the behaviour of his charge. And Bartleby, of course, prefers not to either.

Neither does Melville for that matter. Apart from alluding to Bartleby’s previous job as an administrator of letters meant for people who have since passed away – an experience which may or may not have triggered his downward spiral – the author leaves the story open-ended, a tantalising puzzle inviting myriad interpretation.

Economy of words

Is it a lament on some people’s inability to truly express their feelings? Or maybe it’s an insightful, prescient look at mental illness in the workplace, and a reminder that we all bring our own personal baggage to the office.

Perhaps it could be a satirical jab at greedy businessmen so obsessed with profit they forget their duty of care. Or finally, a stinging critique of a selfish society that can’t protect its most vulnerable, that ultimate yardstick of how civilised we are as people.

Maybe it’s all of these things. As someone who writes for a living, what I love most about Bartleby The Scrivener is the way such depth of feeling and mystery is created from such economy of words.

Melville’s work can be read in under an hour, but it still packs a titanic punch, epitomised by those four simple words repeated again and again, the fulcrum on which the story leverages its strange, unsettling power.

Beneath the surface

Bartleby the Scrivener teaches us to heed language closely, to listen to the quiet and understated voice in the corner, to feel the undercurrents stirring within the most minimal of phrases, and to recognise that for all their power, words, speech and stories never quite manage to tell the whole truth.

In the final analysis, Melville’s cri de cœur is one of empathy: the ability to look beneath the surface of what’s being said (or not said), imagine yourself into another’s perspective and understand that the most powerful human need – to connect with others – can be expressed in very different ways.

As Bartleby’s boss sadly demonstrates, ignoring such cries is dangerous. Chances are we’ll misread the situation, make the wrong call, do more harm more than good and end up making genuine communication a virtual impossibility, stranding us in a no man’s land of dysfunction and distrust.

And we’d all prefer not to do that, wouldn’t we?

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