The Dehumanization of Workers
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” forces readers to consider the numbing effects of capitalism upon a worker’s mind. Although American capitalism, democracy, and individualism are often seen to be mutually reinforcing the economic, political, and philosophical pillars of American society, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” suggests that capitalism can dehumanize workers and that its stability relies upon the illusion that it is an inevitable, inhuman system.
Bartleby, the Scrivener” implies that this system of social and economic relations is ironically threatened by human desire, choice, and preference, the very attributes that seems to shape our individual identities. As such, the primary guardian of capitalist values, in the novella, is the narrator who represses human desire, choice, and preference to ensure the smooth operation of his law office. In Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” he argues that work in a capitalist society dehumanizes its employees because the upper class regards them as working tools instead of as people.
One way Melville shows the dehumanization of workers is through the lawyer’s introduction of his three initial employees. In this introduction, the lawyer describes how he sees his workers, which mainly consists of how useful they are to him at certain times. For example, he explains how one of his scriveners, named Turkey, [was] a most valuable person to [him]” in the morning, “accomplishing a great deal of work in a style not easy to be matched” (Melville 8). In the afternoons, however, he considered Turkey to be quite impudent because he was not as productive with his work.
In fact, the lawyer even suggested that “[Turkey] need not come to [his] chambers after twelve o clock, but best go home to his lodgings and rest himself till tea time (Melville 8). Similarly, the lawyer describes Nippers (one of the other scriveners who work for him) as suffering from the evils of ambition and indigestion and as a person who “knew not what he wanted” (Melville 10). This description of his workers dehumanizes them because the lawyer does not want to acknowledge the desires or wants of his employees. They are simply being referred to by how well they work for him, based on their usefulness and productivity.
The lawyer is representative of how employers in a capitalist society see their workers as merely working devices. Secondly, the lawyer dehumanizes his workers, simply by the way he addresses them, that is, by using nicknames rather than their actual names. Their nicknames are Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. A turkey is a kind of animal, while Nippers refers to a tool used to squeeze something. Ginger Nut, the office boy’s nickname, is a type of cake that the other workers often eat and the lawyer describes one of Ginger Nut’s duties as the “cake and apple purveyor for Turkey and Nippers” (Melville 14).
Being described by their use(s) in the office is like stating that these workers have no other qualities/traits or purpose, except to work for the lawyer. Once again, Melville emphasizes the dehumanizing aspect of the capitalist system. According to Marx, capitalists are only able to make profits through the exploitation of their workers. Profits are made by the workers producing more, for their boss/capitalist, than they are actually worth and paid for in wages. Melville argues that the capitalists exploit their workers for cheap labor.
For example, the lawyer describes the work of the scriveners, as “a dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair,” (Melville 16) and “to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable” (16). This demonstrates that even the employer thinks that his employees’ work is insufferable. Similarly, the lawyer’s office building is located on the second floor but only offers a view of some walls. The lawyer himself admits that “this view might have been considered tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call “life”” (Melville 6).
These walls allow no view of the outside world and act as a reminder to the workers of where they belong: behind the walls and hard at work. Despite being aware of these issues, the lawyer does nothing to try to improve his employees’ work, nor does he ask them to share their opinions or concerns regarding their working conditions. They are forced to do work without any regard to their feelings or views. This exploitation is further evidenced by how the lawyer expects his workers to drop whatever they are doing when he needs them and to be at his beck and call.
The workers do not have the freedom to express their desires or opinions regarding their work, but rather must simply obey their employer’s orders. For example, when the lawyer wants to finish up a “small affair,” he extends out his copy for Bartleby to read with a “natural expectancy of instant compliance” (Melville 17). Bartleby refuses to perform the task, by saying “I would prefer not to” (17). The lawyer is simply shocked to hear this. In fact, he believes that “[his] ears have deceived [him], or [that] Bartleby had entirely misunderstood [his] meaning” (17).
This shows that the “expectancy of instant compliance” is instilled within he capitalists/upper class and that there is no room for workers who refuse to cooperate with the capitalists system of production, because a refusal to cooperate involves voicing one’s opinion. However, machines and tools do not prefer or want anything; they simply act predictably in accordance with mechanistic laws. Only human beings have free will, preference, and the knowledge that they have freedom of thought and expression. The lawyer’s surprise at Bartleby’s refusal to perform his duties indicates that workers are simply viewed as instruments of labor and production that are considered to have no choice or sense of opinion.
In conclusion, the capitalists system greatly dehumanizes its workers. They are exploited by the capitalists for cheap labor, which is used to fuel their profits. Workers are seen as machines, who must abide to the capitalist system of production, regardless of their working conditions or work tasks. Any refusal to obey these norms of production is looked upon unfavorably and can even lead to the dismissal of the worker from his/her workplace.