I’m reading James Joyce
Some people they tell me
I got the blood of the land in my voice
Today marks the latest installment in my aggressively occasional and profoundly informal Bad Bossing in Literature Series.
James Joyce published the short story “Counterparts” in his 1914 collection, Dubliners. Perhaps you have read it. If not, I suggest you check it out although you will not need to do so to follow my argument here. The opening of “Counterparts” is set in the small legal office of Crosbie & Alleyne located in Dublin, naturally enough. Mr. Alleyne is the managing partner, and Farrington, the main character, is one of his clerks who reproduce legal documents by hand, a meticulous and horribly tedious job in a time before digital scanners and photocopiers or even electric typewriters and correction fluid.1
Mr. Alleyne is a short bald, vainglorious man from the northern part of Ireland, which, in parochial Dublin, makes him a highly suspect outsider (read: Protestant). Farrington is a bulky Dubliner, prone to violence and vainglorious in his own way. He is also given to drink, which is an old-timey euphemism for his acute compulsion to consume sizable quantities of alcoholic beverages throughout the day. When he cannot consume them, he literally daydreams about consuming them.
Farrington is a dreadful employee, sneaking out for a midday pint, shirking his work, lying to his boss, and being all around insubordinate. But the fault is not entirely with him. Mr. Alleyne is pompous and overbearing. He has plenty to complain about with Farrington, but he goes too far, humiliating the man in private and in public. Alleyne has many flaws, including a nonprofessional interest in a client, Miss Delacour. Partially to show off to her, Alleyne abuses Farrington in front of the whole office, concluding with the unwise rhetorical question,
Do you think me an utter fool?
Farrington, still a little juiced from his midday nip, cannot resist a witty retort.
“I don’t think, sir,” he said, “that that’s a fair question to put to me.”
Alleyne becomes irate, Delacour is visibly amused, and Farrington must apologize under the threat of immediate dismissal. The scene is vivid, with the tiny boss raging shrilly and shaking his fist in the face of the larger man:
You impertinent ruffian! You impertinent ruffian! I’ll make short work of you! Wait till you see! You’ll apologise to me for your impertinence or you’ll quit the office instanter! You’ll quit this, I’m telling you, or you’ll apologise to me!
Even back then, the use of the phrase “impertinent ruffian” spoken in a squeaky voice and accompanied by a feeble fist shaking was pretty funny.
At this point I need to pause to beg your indulgence as I prepare to make a rather audacious statement but one I believe warranted by the evidence.
In my most humble opinion, the office work environment of the Dublin law firm of Crosbie & Alleyne is somewhat dysfunctional.
Let’s explore why. First, whatever his flaws (his own bullying ways, his laziness, his anger issues, his alcoholism), Farrington is still just one lowly employee. The lynchpin of the workplace dysfunction is Mr. Alleyne, the managing attorney. If Alleyne were literally punching Farrington, he would be punching far above his weight, but he figuratively punches down, well below his class. And this abusive behavior is not reserved for Farrington as we learn a bit later in the story that he “had hounded Little Peake out of the office in order to make room for his own nephew.” Mr. Alleyne is not a man who values his employees, but he does relish bullying them.
Nonetheless, Alleyne’s small stature symbolizes his weakness and ineffectiveness as he rages indiscriminately and lands few blows. The story opens with a bell ringing “furiously” and a “furious voice” yelling at Miss Parker through the tube.2 Note that Miss Parker is simply the one charged with relaying a message to Farrington so that Alleyne’s mistreatment of her only demonstrates the haphazard and gratuitous nature of his bluster.
Toward the beginning of the story, when Farrington attempts to excuse his poor performance by blaming the chief clerk (“But Mr. Shelley said, sir—“), Alleyne impersonates Farrington, and then adds, “Kindly attend to what I say and not to what Mr. Shelley said, sir.” In one stroke, he not only humiliates an employee, but he undermines the hierarchy of the workplace. If he thinks Farrington is lying about what Mr. Shelley said, then Alleyne should confront that issue directly. If he thinks Mr. Shelley is possibly at fault here, he should broach his concerns (in private) with Mr. Shelley. Instead, he renders his chief clerk immaterial while perhaps letting Farrington get away with a lie. In addition this game of asking a question and then immediately mocking the answer is apparently an Alleyne family favorite, an old bully’s trick meant to blame and demean, not to correct behavior or fix a problem.
Alleyne repeatedly wields only one weapon of any puissance: ”I’ll lay the matter before Mr. Crosbie.” Every time he utters this craven threat, though, Mr. Alleyne reinforces the fact that he has no actual power or authority, which is why, despite his incompetence and open contempt for his workplace, Farrington manages to continue in his job.
In addition to his evident impotence, Alleyne’s open and inappropriate flirtation with Miss Delacour telegraphs to his employees that he selectively adheres to professional standards while strictly enforcing them in others. Even Delacour is onto Alleyne. She smiles at Farrington’s retort and thus reveals her own contempt for Alleyne, her hypocritical little big man.
Later in the story we learn that Alleyne may have a longstanding resentment against Farrington due to a slight: “Mr. Alleyne had overheard him mimicking his North of Ireland accent to amuse Higgins and Miss Parker.” This revelation further bolsters the observation that the thin-skinned Alleyne has lost the respect of his employees, who mock him behind his back.
To be fair, irrespective of Alleyne’s many flaws, Farrington is a disastrous employee — lazy, drunken, dishonest, and rebellious. He deserves severe disciplining or even firing, but Mr. Alleyne clearly has neither the fortitude nor the authority to do so. Farrington is feckless as an employee, and Alleyne is just as feckless as a boss. These counterparts deserve each other.3
Alleyne’s ineffectiveness amply demonstrates that authority, leadership, and command do not flow from a title, a position, or a hierarchical structure. They must be earned and cultivated, even by the big, bad boss. I am sure that you, like me, have had bosses who imagined their title alone was ample demonstration of their consummate competence, as though getting a job is the same as doing the job. These overbearing Mr. Alleynes shake their tiny fists and rant and sometimes even hurt or fire people, but such arrogance and bullying is the very manifestation of their ineffectiveness and the detriment they represent to their employees and organizations.
If you are a boss, don’t be like Mr. Alleyne. If you are an employee, don’t be like Farrington. But, if you do decide to act like either one (and, yes, it is a decision), just as with the characters in the story, you deserve each other.
PS: My analysis here addresses just the first portion of “Counterparts,” which goes on to follow Farrington into his night at the pubs and then home to a most devastating conclusion. I urge you to read or reread this fantastic story if you have not done so recently. In the meantime, “I’ll say a Hail Mary for you, pa.”
In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink notes, “Jobs that are demanding but don’t offer autonomy burn us out.” This description fits the work of the copy clerk perfectly.
In case you were wondering, the “tube” in question here is a speaking tube, a state-of-the-art, analog, inter-spacial communication device designed to aid transmission of messages between rooms, floors, or nautical decks without the need to leave the room or even open the door. If you are having trouble picturing such a highly technical and intricate machine, imagine a pipe that opens between two rooms. Now, imagine speaking into that pipe. Now imagine listening to someone on the other side reply. There you go. You got it!
Several character pairings or counterparts throughout the story account for its title. Another detail also warrants the title. Much of the action takes place at or around an office counter and at bars, making the various characters mere adjunct components of those various fixed counters — counterparts.