Bartleby The Scrivener’ Through the Deconstructionist Lens
Deconstructionism is based on language’s failures and inabilities to communicate properly, taking into account temporal and spatial relationships. In this excerpt, Bartleby has just told the lawyer, “I would prefer not to,” for the first time:
“I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to” (Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” paragraph 22).
Reading this novella through the deconstructionist lens was both humorous and enlightening. Here, I will go into brief analysis of this passage and, consequently, form a discussion on the narrative’s entirety as it seems impossible for me to just choose one excerpt.
In my chosen quote, the lawyer is shocked at his new hire’s response to his request. He “assumes” (and, yes, the retrospective humor is not lost here; I allude to paragraph 147) that he must have heard Bartleby wrong. As language is inherently fallible, it makes perfect sense that the lawyer might believe a message was misinterpreted or lost in translation. Deconstructionists argue this is often, if not always, the case; when it comes to the written word, there will always be contradictions and an infinite amount of possibilities as there are infinite number of potential readers.
Derrida’s theory of “differance” is my focus for further interpretation. “Differance” being “the concept that an act of writing conveys, simultaneously, presence and absence. On the face of things, a communicative act is present, but it also absorbs and them disseminates a plurality of intertextual echoes or traces of accidental utterances and slippages that contaminate meaning (“difference”) and slippages from other “absent” utterances, past, present, and future. In embodying a world of different, conflicting utterances within and beyond itself, a sign infinitely defers reaching a final, signified meaning. A signifier can thus only relate to other signifiers” (McGuire, 8-LIT 500 PowerPoint, slide 101). Bartleby’s use of the word “perhaps” stands out to me. Preference is neither a point-blank affirmative nor negative; rather, it acts as a metaphoric linguistic tightrope walker, an actively-passive resistance. From the opening lines of the text alone, the lawyer is unable to make an affirmative statement, using words/phrases like: “rather,” “would seem,” “somewhat singular,” “might have been,” “if I pleased, I could relate…” (Melville, ““Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” paragraph 1). These words and phrases operate on a plane of unreliability and the author seems to want the reader to know that (if, however, we are going to take into account author intent, as deconstructionists would argue against this). Regardless, it creates a scene of ambiguity, indetermination and indiscernibility right off the bat that is only compounded upon later.
As noted by Joseph Suglia in his paper, “I Prefer Not to Misinterpret,” Bartleby’s takes his job description so literally that is destabilizes the office. On paper, he is the “perfect” employee; however, the lawyer’s judgment in regard to and, as the reader, our understanding of, “perfect” alters while reading the novella. Bartleby, to a fault, carries out his job description and no more. He acts as a quiet rebel, an actively-passive worker, which unnerves his boss and co-workers. Despite their feelings against him, his coworkers begin using the word “prefer” in the office without realizing it; much as we shape language, it appears to occasionally return the favor. Reading this story today, and not in 1853 as it was written, immediately our minds probably go to HR or some like-minded faction of the workplace, and this is our temporal interpretation. Bartleby participates in the capitalist world of 19th c America, his compliance is a conditional one, and his submission to authority is on his own terms. Additionally, he notes that the office itself offers deconstructionist debate. The lawyer’s office is full of failed separations, both physically and metaphysically. We’ve got a window with an obstructed view of a “dead” wall, ground glass folding-doors, and a screen that provides privacy and openness at the same time.
Binary opposites further a deconstructionist agenda. Some that I found include: love/hate, anger/compassion, alive/dead, solid/spectral, inside/outside, Turkey/Nippers, acceptance/resistance. Most, if not all, of these can be flipped on each other to produce differing interpretive results. For example: Turkey and Nippers are described, each at length, throughout this novella. Each of their personalities harbors eccentricities that the lawyer has to deal with as they are presented throughout the work-day. “Their [Nippers’ and Turkey’s] fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances” (Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” paragraph 13). (The word “natural” raises a whole other debate… for another time). The lawyer relates times of day with which worker is in certain frames of mind. In this way, his signifiers are the men’s dispositions and his signified are the times of day. These signs exist only for him alone, and expand upon the deconstructionist mindset that inherent semantic discrepancies exist in the minds of each to him/herself, creating personal biases from experience that alter perceptions of reality.
Additionally, the ambiguous concept of time can be broken down using deconstructionism. The passing of time is most often quite vague: “[S]ome days now passed,” “for such a period,” “it was the third day, I think…” (Melville, ““Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street”). As readers, we were never given firm dates to go on.
According to Deleuze, Bartleby sends “language itself into fight…open[ing] a zone of indetermination or indiscernibility in which neither words nor characters can be distinguished.” Like some of the other stories we have analyzed as a class, no character has a name (except, of course, our protagonist, Bartleby). The rest simply go by nicknames; nicknames that have been discretionally given by our already-proven unreliable narrator, the lawyer, and are based alone off of his personally biased character-traits such as appearance and behavioral tendencies.
Lastly, a comment on silence (I’ve opened a deconstructionist “field day” with that one). Throughout the novella, Bartleby’s silence establishes conflicting reactions among other characters; it evokes both distance, and the desire for proximity. And, when Bartleby does, in fact, speak, his silence calls attention to itself: the language highlights its own absence in all other moments. And in those moments, as supposed by Gilles in his paper, the lawyer wants to turn to language to describe Bartleby’s silence, as if silence was a removal of language, rather than language a supplement to silence.
- Deleuze, Gilles. “Bartleby; or, The Formula.” Essays Critical and Clinical. Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1997.
- Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, Third Edition, Ed. by Julie
- Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2017, pp. 474-495.
- Gilles, Todd. “Using Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Teach Deconstruction in the Introduction to Fiction Classroom.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction. Web. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019. https://www.scribd.com/document/240708247/Deconstruction
- Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” The Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 9. Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1979.
- McGuire, Richard. “8-LIT 500.” Literary Theory 500, 2018, Southern New Hampshire University. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation.
- Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “The Class of 1968—Post-Structuralism par lui-meme.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, Third Edition, Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael
- Ryan. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2017 pp. 445-465.
- Suglia, Joseph. “I Prefer Not to Misinterpret.” Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia, 2015, drjosephsuglia.wordpress.com/category/bartleby-the-scrivener-herman-melville-deconstruction/.
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