Seven Characters Whose Jobs Are Worse Than Yours

Unhappy employee

Happy Tuesday! Tuesdays always find me suffering from semi-midweek malaise, and ready to begin complaining about my job anew—but I always get the niggling sense that I should hold off. Not just because I’m lucky enough to have a job (and I am lucky, don’t get me wrong), but because jobs can get so much worse than mine. If you need a reminder that you’re not the only one working for the weekend, just check out the following literary jobs from hell:

1. Handmaid in a dystopic future (Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood)

Dystopian theocracy brings out the best in all of us, even if your best is the ability to reproduce. After having her real world job revoked, her bank account frozen, and her family taken away, Offred is assigned the role of handmaid for an officer of the new regime. The position requires that she (manually) conceive the officer’s child, and then yield it to his infertile wife. This job is complicated by the officer’s flirtations, and his illegal sharing of contraband from the pre-regime world—such as a fashion magazine—and by Offred’s illicit relationship with the driver of the house. Add the jealousy of the lady of the house, the lewd offers of a too-helpful doctor, and a slew of government spies, and you have just about the worst job imaginable.

2. Unorthodox elevator inspector (Lila Mae Watson in The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead)

Approving an elevator car that crashes within twenty-four hours makes for a bad day for any elevator inspector. Lila Mae’s otherwise perfect inspection record goes down with the car, and, convinced she’s been framed, she not only has to defend herself but the entire Intuitionist school of thought behind her inspection methods—meaning she senses the elevator rather than measures its safety features with tools. The situation gets more complex (and more shady) as Lila Mae discovers a plot to shut down the Intuitionist school for good.

3. Depressed advice columnist (Miss Lonelyhearts in Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West)

A young man with literary ambitions takes a job as advice columnist Miss Lonelyhearts, and is crushed by the suffering described in the letters he receives. Driven to drink, he creates his own problems, harassing the homeless, berating his girlfriend, having affairs with both column readers and his boss’s wife. A definite cautionary tale against mixing your work and your personal life.

4. Partially employed development officer (Milo Burke in The Ask, Sam Lipsyte)

Milo, an aging would-be artist with impulse control, loses his job (failing to win donations for a mid-level NYC university) when he tells another, younger would-be artist exactly how he feels about the demands she makes on his department. Out of the woodwork comes Milo’s outrageously wealthy college friend Purdy, who offers a major donation to the school provided they hire Milo back. The catch? Milo must take a second, unwanted job: caretaker for and spy on Purdy’s illegitimate son, a wounded Iraq veteran with several serious bones to pick.

5. Carer on the donor track (Kathy in Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro)

Anyone who says better jobs await us in the future isn’t thinking of this book. As clones produced and raised for organ harvest, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy submit their whole life cycles to their unenviable job. As children, they simultaneously take care of their bodies to preserve them for donation and create art projects in order to help activists prove they have souls. As adults they become carers, assisting other donors through the ultimately deadly harvesting process, until the time comes when they must donate themselves. Kathy, a carer so skilled she’s been allowed to work seven years beyond the normal timeframe, sees in her work nothing but a gloomy image of her own future.

6. Turn-of-the-century sweatshop seamstress (Esther Gottsfeld in Triangle, Katherine Webber)

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire really happened, and nearly 150 workers (almost all immigrant women), trapped by ineffective fire escapes and locked doors, really did either perish in the flames or in leaping from the windows. In this novel about American’s fourth deadliest industrial disaster, the court testimony provided by Esther, the oldest living survivor, is scrutinized by a nosy academic, much to the distress of Esther’s granddaughter. But the flashback scenes of the sweatshop environment itself, and the tragic oversights that trapped most of the workers (including Esther’s sister and fiancé) inside, really give you the workplace willies—to say the very, very least.

7. Immigration counselor to the not-so-aboveboard (Vladimir Girshkin in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, by Gary Shteyngart)

When Vladimir’s perfectly reasonable job as an immigration counselor proves unremunerative, he does what any young man in need of money would do: accepts a quick cash offer from the Russian mafia. Falsifying documents and fraudulently naturalizing a desperate (and possibly insane) immigrant quickly evolves into a massive Ponzi scheme and a seat in Europe at the right hand of the mob’s boss, the Groundhog. Vladimir even gets the girl before his flimsy job history catches up with him—the Groundhog discovers that Vladimir forged his father’s citizenship papers to curry favor, and, like most careers that are built on hot air, Vladimir’s collapses, and his new full-time gig becomes getting away from the mob he served so well.

What do you nominate as the worst job in fiction?

  • Emily

    I have to admit that I liked the movie of Never Let Me Go better than the book *gasp*. It is absolutely haunting and heartbreaking.