Financial Success, But at What Price?

November 2005By Mitchell Kalpakgian

Mitchell Kalpakgian is an adjunct professor of English at St. Anselm College and Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is author of The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels (University of America Press), The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press), and the newly released An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press).

Americans in the work force do not generally enjoy a one-month summer vacation such as the French welcome as les grandes vacances. College graduates entering the corporate business world commonly expect to work 60-hour weeks in order to reap high salaries and climb the ladder of success. Many women who hold full-time jobs outside the home also assume the role of homemaker and manage all the domestic activities of cooking, cleaning, and shopping. In adult continuing-education programs, students who work full time and have families encumber themselves with evening courses, adding more responsibility to their demanding schedule. Given the contemporary penchant for shopping at malls, Sunday, the day of rest, has assumed the nature of just another business day. Is the overwork characteristic of modern life heroic or nonsensical? Is it necessary or neurotic? Is it natural or abnormal? Is it humanizing or dehumanizing?

Even though he who does not work does not eat, as St. Paul warned, the obsession with work and the compulsion known as "workaholism" produce many dangerous effects that lead to a desensitizing, deadening, and dehumanizing of the spirit. Books such as The Overworked American by Juliet Schnor and Take Back Your Time: Fighting Time Poverty in America edited by John de Graaf depict the many social ills that obsession with work causes: the neglect of children, the increase in divorce, the loss of health, and the loneliness of the elderly.

Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby," a study of the grave effects of overwork, explores the life of a young man employed by a law firm as a copyist, or scrivener. Bartleby is a punctual, industrious, and steadfast employee, laboring diligently both day and night at his desk to the great satisfaction of his lawyer boss. Bartleby embodies all the virtues of the Protestant work ethic that Benjamin Franklin acknowledged in his Autobiography, qualities such as "silence," "order," "frugality," "resolution," and "industry." However, despite Bartleby's work ethic, the lawyer who oversees his work regrets Bartleby's silent, private, morose disposition: "I should have been quite delighted...had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically." Isolated by a screen from his fellow employees, Bartleby copies, copies, and copies -- without protest, complaint, or weariness.

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