Bad Bosses in Books

With Donald Trump in the White House, Americans have the bad boss from hell. Not only have his actions been a disaster for the U.S. and the world, but his “leadership” style has driven out a record number of almost-as-abysmal people from his administration.

Trump embodies the worst qualities of a bad boss. Mean, lazy, corrupt, cowardly, erratic, untruthful, incompetent, racist, sexist, homophobic, a sexual harasser, etc. So let’s take a look at some fictional bosses who, while mostly not as awful as Trump, are pretty darn substandard.

How about Captain Queeg of Herman Wouk’s enthralling Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny, which I just read? Queeg is a second-rate captain — not that skilled, cowardly, sadistic, a harsh disciplinarian on trivial matters, has the hypocritical philosophy of “do as I say not as I do,” just friendly enough at times to keep his crew off-balance, and, like Trump, blames underlings for his own mistakes. (Pictured at the top of this column is Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.)

Staying at sea for another paragraph, we of course have Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick, who deliberately puts the Pequod crew in danger as he seeks his irrational revenge on Herman Melville’s titular white whale.

Then there’s the faux-sweet Dolores Umbridge, of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, who temporarily becomes high inquisitor and then headmistress at Hogwarts. She rules the wizardry school in an unfair and ruthless manner (which includes vicious harassment of Harry), and is basically on the side of arch-villain Lord Voldemort.

Umbridge eventually gets her comeuppance — exemplifying a satisfying potential plot rationale for having bad-boss characters in literature. Plus readers empathize with and root for the beleaguered underlings. But good doesn’t always triumph over evil in nasty fictional workplaces.

Of course, novels with workplaces that are depicted at least somewhat realistically will feature plenty of bad bosses. If not, they’re fantasy novels of a sort. 🙂

A boss doesn’t have to be on-the-scene to be crummy. In Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, wealthy widow Francine Whiting almost never visits the Empire Grill she owns, but makes life hell for the eatery’s mild-mannered manager Miles Roby. Why does Francine treat Miles that way? She’s a nasty control-freak, and the rich Whiting family and not-rich Roby family have a complicated intertwined history.

Another bad boss is Vinnie Plum, cousin of bounty-hunter protagonist Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s mysteries. Vinnie is lazy, a gambler, a sexual pervert, and contemptuous of his employees — despite those employees being much better workers and much better people than he is.

Then there’s the bank boss in Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century who fires protagonist Michel Dufrénoy and his co-worker after they make just one mistake.

Also in the bad-boss club are — among others — Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, and Ebenezer Scrooge (until he’s transformed) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Which bad bosses in fiction are most memorable to you?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about dance vs. gym, an unauthorized hotel addition, and more — is here.