Bartleby the Scrivener
Passive Resistance in Bartleby, The Scrivener by Melville
A nonviolent opposition to authority better known as a passive resistance. In “Bartleby, The Scrivener” by Herman Melville, it can be seen being used by the main character Bartleby. With his famous quote “ I would prefer not to”. Indicating that he would not participate in anything outside of his job description as just a scrivener. With no hesitation, I believe that this subtle passive resistance displayed by Bartleby is due to the under-appreciation of Scriveners. Being underpaid and overworked, this was Bartleby’s way of saying enough is enough.
In the story “Bartleby, The Scrivener” the lawyer hires Bartleby after advertising the position available. After acknowledging his credentials, for the given job Bartleby would be accompanied by a mediocre pay of 4 cents per one hundred handwritten words. This pay would be considered mediocre to what the lawyer himself would be making in comparison. In fact, all of his workers would be underpaid, Turkey would never receive enough fund to buy nice things, and Nippers would work side hustles to bring in extra funds for commodities. Not only… but also this work would soon begin to take a toll on the young Bartleby. Only being twenty-five years of age his eyesight would begin to perish from the constant straining in the darkness of a room only illuminated by deemed candle lights. The seemingly everlasting isolation of the makeshift cubicle room had also taken its effects, sometimes finding Bartleby to be stuck in a glare out of his window into that of a dark and aged brick wall. Lastly, the separation of employers and employees would be to great for Bartleby to overlook. Bartleby was believed to be the lawyers greatest asset or most valued worker. Being able to work for hours without break, never complaining, always on time and providing consistent quality work in return for minimum pay. His passive resistance and gloomy appearance caused all of his competencies to be overlooked. These factors all contributed to his reasoning of continuing his passive resistance. In hope of the passive resistance getting through to the lawyer in the story “Bartleby, The Scrivener” Bartleby tells the lawyer he will no longer write and when asked why Bartleby replied “ Do you not see the reason for yourself ” Showing his “glazed and dull eyes”.
In conclusion, it would be suggested that the cause of his discontinued works and passive resistance was by the under-appreciation and dehumanization of scriveners. Scrinevers were treating like machines only to soon be replaced by one in the near future. It is believable that Bartleby himself knew of this new era to come showing behaviors in reflection of all others during the nineteenth-century anxieties and resisted the fact of this idea for his exact reason.
Civil Disobedience in Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Seen throughout time, when people in society gain power and become figures of authority, they end up abusing their power in relationship to their inferiors. Abusing their power causes unrest and chaos and it gives these machines an ultimate sense of superiority. This concept has been highlighted through experiments in psychology and through forces of government time and time again. Psychology professor, Stanley Milgram aimed to exemplify these roles through playing with forces of rule and rebellion in the Stanford prison experiment. This experiment attempted to investigate the effects of perceived powers and tested this through the relationship between prisoners and prison officers. This experiment revealed how readily people conformed to the social roles that they’re expected to play in an excessive way. The experiment also showed how the prisoners’ rebellion against the guards was met with heavy retaliation and caused the guards to become increasingly derisive and aggressive. The guards aimed to make their powerful role clear which caused the prisoners to become more and more submissive. Henry David Thoreau addresses this idea of rebellion shown in the experiment in his well known essay, “Civil Disobedience.” The philosopher argues that an unjust government needs to be met with revolt. “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau 2). Through this Thoreau is encouraging the people to adopt civil disobedience in order to create change as an individual in the face of an unjust government. Thoreau required the utilization of what we presently call ‘passive resistance’ to laws he saw to be treacherous, and anticipated that individual protection from unreasonable laws could significantly affect government and its approaches. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the main character struggles with fighting his respective machine by being trapped in his submissive role. Through the frames of adopting civil disobedience through passive resistance in the face of unjust superiors, Bartleby is able to rebel successfully- unlike the prisoners in Milgram’s experiment. Thoreau motivates Bartleby to disobey the authority in the face of unfair treatment no matter what his role may be in relation to power. Despite being in a position of inferiority, Bartleby successfully applies Thoreau’s values within his office environment, causing him to break free from the chains of discriminatory treatment.
In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” there is a clear distribution of unjust power in accordance with the respective roles within the office which lead rebellion against it. The narrator is played by the lawyer who employs Bartleby because he was in need of another copyist. The setting of this story plays a huge part in framing the roles of the superior and inferior in the face of eventual rebellion. The story is set in an economically bustling time in a law office on wall street, New York in the middle of the 19th century. This highly intensive business setting conveys that there’s no time for personal interaction and, as a result, the relationships of the characters within the story are strictly professional. This contributes to a generic characterization that Melville offers through the narrator which is tremendously critical – this fast paced business world in which they work has no space for individual communication which contributes to the superior and inferior roles being more prominent and ingrained within the workplace. Additionally Melville’s decision of storyteller is especially essential to this story as a first person, central narrator. While he could have picked any number of various points from which to see the abnormal scrivener, his decision of the attorney enables us to see everything through the eyes of Bartleby’s boss, who characterizes his staff as machines and motionless, highlighting his superiority. Bartleby rebels against the very foundation of this capitalist economy as well as the demands of his superior employer. Bartleby challenges corporate ideologies by simply declining to fulfill his role in the office. All copies must be inspected for precision, and so when the lawyer brings in Bartleby and requests that he analyze an archive; Bartleby answers, ‘I would prefer not to’ (Melville 308). This answer shocks the lawyer so much that he is unable to react. Afterward, when an enormous record must be analyzed and every one of the copyists are arranged to look at each page, the narrator again brings in Bartleby, who again answers that he ‘would prefer not to’ (Melville 308) inspect the archive. The usage of the frames prefer uses passive resistance as a way to rebel against the ingrained roles of superiority and through this he exercises enormous power as an inferior. Through this statement Bartleby denies obligingly but by utilizing the restrictive structure ‘would,’ he proposes that there may be a decision in the issue. Then again, this decision and the articulation of good manners through the use of “prefer” is a mere illusion, for Bartleby glaringly will not do anything asked of him. What we observe in his statement is a type of obstruction dependent on seeming to yield while not yielding under any condition. In essence Bartleby rebels against the superior figure head within his office and despite being an inferior he successfully yields power in refusing to acknowledge the demands of the machine.
Through his passive resistance, Bartleby is applying Thoreau’s phrase “government is best which governs the least… or not at all” (Thoreau, section 1). Just like Thoreau, Bartleby was unhappy with the machine that governed his life in his workplace. Thoreau refused to pay taxes which was his duty as a citizen and Bartleby refused to examine a document which was his duty as a scrivener. Despite being inferior to the lawyer, Bartleby successfully attempts to fight the materialistic system of Wall Street by leaving his superior speechless in demanding him further. Bartleby continues to fight the system by denying the economy his status as a consumer. His absence of want for nourishment might be the most relevant case of this insubordination—Bartleby totally dismisses his job as buyer, even when this expending is vital for his very own life. “…he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion” (Melville 307). The narrator also observes how “…he never went out for dinner” (Melville 311). By not giving into the chain of economy Bartleby is not only rebelling against societal machines that keep the financial system up and going but he’s rebelling against every fiber of his being. Bartleby’s character can also be perused as an early abstract acknowledgment of depression. His detachment at work mixes progressively against social conduct, which the lawyer neglects to take note. The clear separation of a lack of individual communication and separation between the inferior and superior in the workplace highly contribute to this.
The Relationship of Bartleby and the Narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener
Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” has provided readers and critics with enough material to speculate upon Bartleby’s condition and the message the writer intends to send through the peculiar character. Bartleby’s unique character was so mysterious that it forced readers to look into the motives of the other major character, the narrator. Besides considering the personality and actions of the narrator, others have concentrated their attention on the relationship between the two and the significance of their interaction or lack thereof. For the contemporary reader, Bartleby’s existence could have a double meaning: an alter ego for the alienated person who is living under circumstances completely different from what nature intended it to be and a choice of passive response to societies compulsiveness to adjust and submit to a strict simple but deceptive rules. After reading the short story the question we must all ask ourselves is does this story have a ‘hero’? Who is it? How does this affect the story?
Although Bartleby and the narrator are seen as the main characters, Widmer does not identify a “hero” in the story between those two. In fact, it seems as though he paints the narrator to be more of an antagonist. He feels that the narrator “variously attempts to exorcise his wan demon of perverse will, his own walled-in humanity.” I believe that it affects the story to the point of making the narrator seem less genuine during the times where he tries to help Bartleby. In the story, the other scriveners are very unreserved. So when Bartleby appears at the office and interviews for the job, the narrator thinks that Bartleby will tone the office down some because he was so different than the others. Everyone else worked in a separate location to the narrator, so Widmer believes that the narrator places Bartleby in his office so that he can control him and make him do things the seasoned employees wouldn’t.
The narrator introduces himself and sets the tone for his story in terms that present the reader with the setting that encompasses a claustrophobic world, his office: “ ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings” (Melville, 2330). The repetition of a possessive pronoun announces that the narrator presents a world that he thinks is entirely under his control. Furthermore, he portrays himself as a person who finds a way to go through life avoiding complications, perfectly just into the rules and laws of society, and always choosing the easiest way out of any potential problem. He further describes his lack of ambition as a virtue that helped him keep safe and sound through the years and retainage of wisdom, speared of any turbulence.
The double meaning of the relationship between the narrator and Bartleby must be taken into consideration considering the environment the narrator describes he lived in for most of his adult life. His employees, the only people he introduces as his entourage, appear to be suffering from the alienating effects of their profession. The head of the office seems to be perfectly aware of their flaws and wise enough to make the best use of their hindered capabilities. On the other hand, he lives and works in the same circumstances therefore, making himself subject to similar alienation effects.
Sanford Pinsker, who wrote the article, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’: Language as Wall advances the theory that in order to understand the symbolism of Melville’s short story, one must focus on the details regarding the narrator instead of trying to sell the enigma posed by the scrivener himself. Pinsker further considers the metaphor of the walls in the short story and their importance in defining human relationships or the lack thereof. The description of the chambers occupied by the law firm on Wall Street indicates the power effect of the walls on those who are surrounded by them. No one is spared by the look of walls, not even the head of the office: “owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern” (2331).
The atmosphere of the whole story is complete already within this passage since an utter impression of claustrophobia is set in place. Considering Melville’s biography along with his travels and adventures during his young adult years, one could find a high degree of contrast between the wide and “uncivilized” basis he cruised through and the setting he creates for “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The people living in those chambers seem already dead, like ghost wandering around to tournament others. Questions like: “What is the purpose of their existence?,” “What is the meaning of life?,” “ Do these characters have any other life outside these walls?” arise when analyzing the circumstances Bartleby walked into at the law office. Melville’s exploration into the limitations imposed by an artificial and apparently absurd and purposeless life goes deeper into the depth of human mind and psyche.
The development of the narration gives the reader the possibility to make all kinds of speculations, thus bringing the story closer to being a mystery story. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock starts his analysis of the story with the consideration that it is indeed meant as a modern mystery short novel, pointing out the meaninglessness of some human actions: the conclusion or lack thereof of Bartleby’s points to the unsettling realization that every letter is potentially a “dead letter”- that, as famously proposed by Jacques Derrida, a letter can always not arrive at its destination meaning can always go astray. If this is an inherent possibility of language, then “Bartleby” finally raises the question of what is meant to be.
Barley is frightening to the narrator because he highlights the meaninglessness of work, something the narrator believed in. Once a message is taken out of context, it may become useless for those who are trying to discover its meaning. In this case, one accepts Weinstock’s proposal to consider “Bartleby, the Scrivener” a mystery story. His conclusion would be that not only phrases, but also human beings taken out of context are likely to become useless or, otherwise meaningless.
In closing, other well-known writers such as, David Shusterman agree that Herman Melville did not write the short story with a “hero” in mind. Shusterman feels like even though there is not hero identified, a character to take note of is the lawyer narrator. The narrator goes out of his way to appear like the good guy but his intentions may not be so pure. He wants to be the hero but many believe he takes on a more antagonist role.
- Widmer, Kingsley. “Melville’s Radical Resistance: The Method and Meaning of Bartleby.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 1, no. 4, 1969, pp. 444–458. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29531362
- Shusterman, David. “The Reader Fallacy and Bartleby the Scrivener.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1, 1972, pp. 118–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/364228.
- Pinsker, Sanford. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: Language as Wall.” College Literature, vol. 2, no. 1, 1975, pp. 17–27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25111055.
- Melville, Herman, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” Project Gutenberg, 2004. Print.
Depiction Of Capitalism in Bartleby The Scrivener
Bartleby, The Scrivener: Defiance Against Capitalism
Rebellion has been shown in many ways in literary history, and has been craftily used to show anger for the state of whatever society the characters are rebelling against. Defiance has been a theme in our society for decades, including today as movements such as feminism and bands such as Green Day encourage one another to avoid conforming to societal expectations as a form of subtle mutiny. The story is from the perspective of a lawyer, who views and describes the people who work for him. He comes across a very interesting character, Bartleby, who at first seems to be a very productive worker, but over time loses all interest in performing at all in his career. In the 1853 story, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the author, Herman Melville, makes incredible use of depression and mental illness to symbolize angst against the ever-growing capitalistic society that we live in. An analysis of this story proves how the main character’s depression and apathy towards his occupation as a lawyer as well as his relationship with food is used to exemplify rebellion against the greediness of industrialization and capitalism.
The first step to understanding how depression symbolizes rebellion is to understand how Bartleby seems to portray the depressive symptoms and how that all-in-all affects his work performance. Although Melville never explicitly states that Bartleby has any mental illness, there are clues throughout the story that give us an idea that he lives in an excessive state of melancholia. One of the first indications we see is when the narrator explains to us Bartleby’s physical appearance. After Bartleby defiantly says to his boss, “I would prefer not to” (141) when told to complete a task necessary for his work, the narrator says that “his grey eye [was] dimly calm” (137). Depression is often represented as “colorless”, and Bartleby’s grey eyes and the calmness he shows can be interpreted as symbolism of depression. Bartleby’s behavior in the office after this encounter with his boss shows tell-tale signs of chronic depression such as his direct apathy about his work towards his boss and how his excitement towards his work changes abruptly. “At first, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing”, and then suddenly he stops and stares at the wall for hours, and when confronted about this, he says that “he had decided upon no more writing” (140). Loss of interest in pleasures or daily tasks is one of the main signs of depression, and Bartleby clearly shows this more and more as the story progresses. Not to mention, Bartleby literally stops eating because he just does not care enough which ultimately leads to his death.
We can tell that his depression is genuine and not his own stance against capitalism after looking at actual symptoms of the mental illness, and because usually during a rebellion people fall subject to deindivuation, where their individuality is lost to the excitement of the crowd. Bartleby throughout the story seems too apathetic to everyone around him and the situations he invests himself in to seem like he is vulnerable to this phenomenon. Not only this, but Bartleby is described to just stare at walls instead of doing his work, which does not seem like someone who is angry against his work. It just seems like he has lost all motivation in daily activities. Clearly though Bartleby’s emotional issues are not in vain as Melville seems to really invest the story into the symbolism of anger and rebellion, because although the meaning behind his mental illness may seem superficial, there is much more to it.
Another pivotal detail to understand this theme is how the author uses the element of food in his story. It starts after the narrator has finished describing himself and begins describing the other characters in the story, “First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut” (134). Although he never describes the significance behind Turkey’s name, he explains that Ginger Nut’s nickname is due to his coworkers sending him on errands to get these cookies. Food is what ultimately leads to Bartleby’s downfall, in which he stops eating it. His behaviors most likely symbolize something much bigger than what’s on the outside of the story. Food in relation to the seven deadly sins is equal to gluttony, and Melville probably used that idea to represent the greed that our free enterprise culture invests itself in.
After getting a feel of the true sadness of our main character as well as how Melville uses the element of food throughout the story, the major theme begins to really reveal itself. Bartleby may seem as though he is too depressed to perform his work, and perhaps that is truly the case, but Melville’s intentions for the story was clearly deeper than that. To think that the author’s intent was less cosmetic is evident in Bartleby’s occupation. Everyone in the story is a lawyer, a very critical career and certainly one of the highest paying jobs in our country. Of course, everyone in America plays a significant role in keeping up with everything, but lawyers are a key component because they help run the judicial system. They help keep America as safe of a place as possible. Not only this, but because of Bartleby’s apathy caused by his depression, he does not perform his obligatory work. He may not have the energy or motivation, but the author was likely using this to explain rebellion against capitalism and the state of our society that is obsessed with money.
Food is key, it represents gluttony and in capitalistic America, ‘gluttony’ is what keeps everyone alive. Without money there is really no way to survive, and without greed and heartlessness, there is no effortless way to make money. Bartleby’s behavior towards food as a result of his mental illnesses is the author’s way of expressing anger towards how greedy people in our mess of a society are, and as evident in Bartleby’s job, one of the most important jobs in America, he is making a point against the capitalism that is also key in the survival of our country.
To comprehend the main theme of the story, we need to understand the depth of the sadness of the main character, Bartleby, and how Melville uses food throughout the story. Both the apathy and rebellion of Bartleby’s character as represented by his depression and the gluttony and greed illustrated by the element of food represent an artful revolution against capitalism and greed in our society that is slowly turning cold and heartless as people are forced into societal roles that they do not want to be part of and ‘food’ is turning us all against each other.
Theme Of Choice in Bartleby The Scrivener Novel
In Bartleby the Scrivener, Bartleby is the antagonist who seeks a job, ruins his opportunity at the place of work, and negatively affects the people around him at work. He would, “prefer not to” and would get no work done throughout his time at the office. The protagonist, Bartleby’s employer, gives Bartleby many opportunities to right his wrongs and attempts to get Bartleby to make the right choices in his life. In Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville, a major theme that comes forth is the theme of choice. The choices that Bartleby made give him a job, took away that job, and ultimately brought Bartleby to his death.
One choice that Bartleby made was to get a job. In most other cases, this would be the right choice, but in Bartleby’s case, this choice proved to bring fatal repercussions. When Bartleby first entered the building, the employer of the office was delighted to have an extra man on the job as believed Bartleby, “might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.” (16). This proved to be the wrong choice by the employer, again going back to the theme of choices. In the beginning of Bartleby’s time as a scrivener, he, “did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.” (18). He was a great worker with a strong work ethic, but all that changed as time went on. This choice of acquiring the job as a scrivener was the start of series of negative choices made by Bartleby.
The way Bartleby lost his job was through his choice to “prefer not to.” He would get asked by the employer to do a task, and would politely refuse. The first time Bartleby “preferred not” to was “when he was called to to examine a small paper with me.”(21). (This story was written in the first person, making ‘me,’ the employer). Bartleby stated “‘I would prefer not to.’” (21). This was the first objection of work and Bartleby continued to do this time and time again. The objections began to become out of control and the employer decided to let Bartleby go. The employer told “Bartleby that in six days’ time he must unconditionally leave the office.” (136). Bartleby told the employer that he would “prefer not to.” Since Bartleby would not leave, the employer decided to move the location of the office. Bartleby’s choices not only affected his livelihood, but everybody around Bartleby became infected with the musk of his poor choices.
The choices that Bartleby made ultimately led him to his death at the end of the story. Bartleby’s actions would compare to those of a deadman simply because he did not do anything he was supposed to. When the employer told Bartleby to leave the office, Bartleby would politely decline the order. This forced the employer to have Bartleby arrested. Bartleby went to prison but the employer still cared about Bartleby so he occasionally went to go check on him. When the employer went to go see Bartleby, he saw him, “strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones…” (245). Bartle was a wasted soul. He had nothing to live for as he did have the motivation to do anything. Bartleby’s death was of no shock as he would not eat while in prison and one cannot live without eating. Bartleby died in the prison with the employer near him. The employer felt bad for Bartleby as he described him as a, “man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness.” (250). Bartleby had a hopeless life and because of the choices he made by not eating, working, or complying to anyone’s orders. Bartleby wasted his life over bad choices.
In Melville’s Bartleby, many interpretations of theme arise, but the most prominent theme has to be the theme of choice. Just as Bartleby made bad choices which affected his life negatively, anyone who makes bad choices will receive consequences for their actions. Bartleby’s life in this short story can be taken as a lesson to all people who are lazy, inactive, and just rolling with the system. If the effort to achieve success is not given, success is inconceivable.
Bartleby The Scrivener: Displaced by the Society
“Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet” (1173).
Bartelby the Scrivener died of sadness, feeling trapped and utterly without place in the mechanized society that had sprouted around him. He fell victim to his own desire to resist the mindless adaptation that characters like the narrator achieved so seamlessly. Bartleby’s death plainly points to Melville’s disgruntled view of the modern world; a world where strength comes from weakness and pliability, and where the naturally weak overpower the strong. To define Bartleby the Scrivener in such simple terms, however, is to ignore some important, specific themes that Melville cleverly allegorizes with the characters in the story. To Melville, the modern authoritarian society so minutely divides a person’s responsibilities, it reduces the scope of his ability to interact with himself, nature, and his community. This belief closely follows that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who judged modern mechanized society to be the downfall of humanity because it rendered individuals numb to the range of capabilities that they are naturally endowed with. Melville’s characters in Bartleby, the Scrivener are portrayed as “half-men” who are victims of a society which stifles their natural ability to feel and act according to their romantic role as an individual in society.
American romantics have a unique view of the role of the individual in society. Understanding this role is crucial to understanding the reasons for the tragic failure of romantic values in Bartleby, the Scrivener. To a romantic, the wellbeing of the individual is paramount to the quality of the society they build. Emerson best details the relationship between the individual and society in The American Scholar. He points out that nature and simplicity are more authentic than the hierarchy and divisions of modern society. Divisions and subdivisions of society, caused in part, by the mechanization of industry and commerce, alienate people from the potential richness of the full range of emotions, experiences, and senses that everyone is capable of. Each man is forced to reduce himself to a single function, devoting all of his energy to that one task. He relies on the rest of society to provide for him the rest of the necessities and luxuries of life in return for his hard earned money. As a result, people become absorbed in the plodding of daily life, unable to see beyond their immediate time and place. The farmer “sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond” (842). The tradesman “scarcely ever gives an Idea worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars” (842).
With these criticisms of modern society, Emerson implies that part of returning to simplicity, or at least the first step towards it, is returning to the self. Only then can the spiritual dialogue between man and nature begin. And as a result of this closeness with nature, the “self” is improved, thus improving society as a whole. Emerson describes society as “undefinable” because the souls of its individuals have been replaced with a single plodding purpose: “this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered” (842). A society full of people who experience life to its fullest, by dividing their own energies to a balanced mix of survival, reflection and contemplation, and practicing a trade or job, will form for its self a communal characteristic. The contentment and self reliance of each of its individuals will allow them to pursue, among other things, a communal closeness to ensure security and growth. A society full of such individuals is naturally better than one whose members are consumed with themselves and their small daily tasks.
The narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener seems perfectly adapted to life in an authoritarian world. He is committed only to safety and security. He “has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,” and is therefore an “eminently safe man” (1149). His seemingly natural harmony with the world around him implies that he is not a romantic2E But the narrator possesses some romantic traits that cannot be ignored. He is sensible, sympathetic, and compassionate, and resolves to help Bartleby take decisive action in his life: “his soul I could not reach . . .but if in any other way I could assist him, I would be happy to do so. Moreover, if, after reaching home, he found himself at any time in want of aid, a letter from him would be sure of a reply” (1161). Considering the narrator’s unadventurous, uncommitted lifestyle, this kind of compassion is surprising.
More surprising, however, is the peculiar bond he feels with the confoundingly bizarre Bartleby. After realizing that Bartleby had been making his home at the office, “the bond of common humanity new drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (1160). The fact that the narrator feels he and Bartleby are “sons of Adam” reveals not only that he has a deep well of compassion upon which he draws for Bartleby, but also that the connection between these seemingly polar opposite people runs deeper than both Bartleby and the narrator would probably like to admit.
Bartleby and the narrator are two “half-men” who, together, should make a complete man. The narrator is flexible and adaptable, is well suited to his environment, and in touch with the intricacies of his society and his duty. Although he is hardly a dynamic person, he represents the lowest common denominator necessary to survive the modern society Melville depicts. Romantics of the 19th century probably did not praise men for their ability to adapt and find safety and security at all costs. But the ability to survive without imposing authoritarian values upon other people is certainly a romantic trait; one that the narrator possesses. He is, of course, an authority figure, but one of his perceived “weaknesses.” The inability to stand up to Bartleby’s passive resistance, is actually a respectable trait that points to a compassionate, romantic disposition.
Bartleby lacks everything the narrator possesses, and is therefore doomed to isolation. Unlike the narrator, however, Bartleby acts from his heart. Bartleby is utterly isolated because he is guided by his own emotions, considering only himself in all matters. Even his famous line, “I would prefer not to,” implies that Bartleby, rather than objecting out of logical or ethical disagreement, simply doesn’t feel like it. This loyalty to his own heart is his defining romantic value, one that the narrator betrays by living to please others. Thus, both the narrator and Bartleby posses the necessary romantic traits that, if fused, might make a complete person who represents the kind of dynamic and capable person romantics idealize.
But in the process of dividing humanity into its constituent parts, the authoritarian society has stripped from each of these men a vital part of their being that forces them into an unnatural state of humanity, which dooms them to failure even when in the presence of their complementing half. Bartleby’s resolve to obey his feelings fails to bring about any satisfaction or happiness because nothing in life excites him; he is seemingly incapable of pleasure. As a result, Bartleby wafts about the office devoid of life. Bartleby is “Pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn, dimly calm, cadaverous,” and ” like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, appears at the entrance of his hermitage” (1153, 1154, 1158, 1159). Bartleby, because he finds no connection with his environment, lives in a vividly unnatural state of near-death.
Likewise, the narrator fails to accomplish the one thing that ever aroused passion in him: helping Bartleby. So accustomed to a life avoiding controversy for the sake of his own ease, he finds himself unable to help even one man. With the final quote of the story “Ah, Bartleby. Ah, humanity!” the narrator realizes that he is neither capable of helping Bartleby, nor equipped to alter the human condition. Although few expect one person to alter the human condition, Emerson’s, and presumably Melville’s notion of the role of the individual in society suggests “complete” individuals who exist in their natural state with natural surroundings have a profound effect on the state of humanity.
To a romantic, individuals should be compassionate, spiritual, and capable to a degree that they need only exist to improve the society around them2E As a man who is in command of only the faculties necessary to survive a safe, easy life, the narrator fails to improve the life of a single other man because he too exists in an unnatural state of isolation. Though he survives in his world, he is an insignificant part of a vast machine for which he completes mundane tasks. In this sense he is isolated from himself, and therefore isolated from an understanding of his place in the world.
More specifically, the narrator’s plodding, limited life has rendered him incapable of understanding anything irrational. Richard H. Fogle, author of a brief analysis titled simply, “Bartleby,” points out that “Bartleby’s irrationalism is inscrutable; it is the element of mystery in the world” that the narrator is unable to comprehend (24). This causes in the narrator a “growing sense of fear and anxiety” (24), which points to the narrators inability to understand anything that strays from the linear, the orderly, and conformity. Even Melville’s description of the environment around him serves to illustrate the narrator’s limited view of the world. It appears to him consistently blocked by walls that he feels strangely comfortable with, and in which he even finds “lurking beauty” (1149). These walls shield him from the expansive truth that lies waiting to be discovered. The bleak, cold, gray structures of Wall street displace nature, and provide for the narrator an environment that is sufficient only because he knows nothing of what lies beyond it. Though a certain degree of innocence is a respectable romantic trait, ignorance is not. The narrator’s ignorance is the defining factor of his unnatural state of existence.
Turkey and Nippers serve as more obvious and comical representatives of divided humanity and unnatural existence. Like the narrator and Bartleby their eccentricities complement each other. Turkey, who is old and fading in usefulness, works calmly and efficiently until noon, when he promptly gets drunk and storms about his space in a rage. Young Nippers is “the victim of two evil powers-ambition and indigestion” (1150). Throughout the morning his indigestion makes him irritable and incapable of working efficiently, until noon, when he settles down and produces work on par with Turkey when he is sober. Thus the two “relieved each other like guards, [which was] a good natural arrangement, under the circumstances” (1152). Together, the two make a “good natural arrangement,” but alone, they exist as half-men in an utterly unnatural state. Turkey spends half of his day, and therefore half of his life, drunk and crazy. Nippers spends an equal amount of time grinding his teeth and rearranging his desk in frustration caused by indigestion.
But unlike the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator, Turkey and Nippers actually function properly once they are both viewed as a single person. They complement each other because, as Charles G. Hoffman points out in a review of the story, “they do their duty in the prescribed way at all times, and their irrational behavior follows a pattern that becomes a part of regularity and order rather than an uncontrolled element outside” (24)2E
Contrasting the relationship between Turkey and Nippers, and Bartleby and the narrator, an underlying theme emerges. The authoritarian world in which these characters live demands that individuals be useful to it. Although they represent an efficient duo, each taking over when the other one goes mad, they are useful to society only because they have been reduced to miserable drones that hardly represent the full range of humanity. The narrator and Bartleby, however, are more dynamic individuals whose character runs far deeper. Each possesses romantic characteristics that seem compatible with each other. In a world that supports romantic values, the narrator and Bartleby would naturally help solve each other’s problems. Bartleby’s inexplicable irrationality and self-motivated actions (or rather, inaction) would shed light on a new aspect of humanity that the narrator had previously avoided or been sheltered from. The narrator’s natural “attraction” to Bartleby’s peculiarities would foster an incurable curiosity about a man who resisted every aspect of modern life. The narrator notices the attraction in himself, and is drawn to his “pallid haughtiness,” which “positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities” (1161). Through understanding, the narrator would be more motivated to help Bartleby, and more equipped to do so as well, giving the narrator, presumably for the first time, a sense of accomplishment. In turn, Bartleby would be saved from his own misery, having learned the importance of adapting to survive, perhaps even finding pleasure in some things.
Melville, however, makes it clear that such a scenario is impossible. Romantic values are doomed in a world where people are only worth what they produce for it. No matter how “compatible” the Narrator and Bartleby are, their romantic tendencies are of no use to their society. Thus combining the two to create a “whole” man is futile and doomed to failure, a fact that melville stresses through the narrator’s reaction to Bartleby’s homelessness. Even at his most compassionate moment, when he feels that bond of commonality, he is overwrought with a feeling of disgust by Bartleby’s lifestyle: “My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion” (1161).
The mechanization of society and the trend towards authoritarianism are incompatible with romantic values because they split the role of the individual in society into two: one to make decisions, and one to follow them. The one who makes decisions must take into consideration the profound influence he may have on the lives of his subordinates. Placing the fate of many into the hands of an individual would not happen in Melville’s or Emerson’s ideal society, and is indeed impossible for a man with romantic qualities. The narrator is such a man, and is therefore a poor authority figure. He fumbles over decisions, and seems to have little or no influence on the people around him, namely Bartleby.
Subordinates in such a society are masters of only one task, are therefore consumed with such limited sphere of reality, they are no longer in command of their every faculty. Turkey and Nippers, who loose control of nearly all their faculties for half the day, exemplify this perfectly. Somewhere in the middle, however, lies Bartleby. He has no authority, yet resists subordination. Thus, he and the narrator are two halves of a “complete” man who, because neither fits into the divisions prescribed by society, struggle with their relationship. This bleak world that Melville renders exemplifies his, Emerson’s, and other romantics’ fears of society’s trend towards endless divisions. Readers may be inclined to read Bartleby as a romantic character who falls victim to a society that rejects his values. But Bartleby does not represent a complete portrait of a romantic individual. He is the product of the fission of humanity caused by the modern, mechanized, authoritarian society that has divided his soul and parceled it out to those around him.
Fogle, Richard H. “Bartleby.” Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Casebook for Research. Ed., Stanley Schatt. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1972.
Hoffman, Charles G. “The Shorter Fiction of Herman Melville.” Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Casebook for Research. Ed., Stanley Schatt. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendal/Hunt Publishing, 1972.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Anthology of American Literature. 7th edition, Volume 1. Ed., George McMicheal. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000.
Bartleby the Scrivener and the Intolerance of Mental Disability
Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” presents the mentally troubled title character through the perspective of an ignorant narrator. Having only encountered visible, physical disabilities before, the narrator does not know how to respond to a man with depression. Driven mad by Bartleby’s preferred phrase, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 8), the narrator fails to recognize this phrase as what Mitchell and Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis could label as a subconscious cry for help, and instead tries half-hearted attempts at curing Bartleby. When these fail, the narrator fluctuates between pity and intolerance, never truly understanding Bartleby’s condition, and only accommodating him when believing him to have a physical disability. The inability of the narrator to empathize with Bartleby’s invisible disability and desire to instantly cure him presents a critique on society’s ignorance of depression and response to mental impairments.
Melville initially presents his narrator as an elderly man who sympathizes with his physically disabled employees. His copyists Nippers and Turkey both suffer from extremely visible disorders which occasionally hinder their productivity. Turkey, an elderly man like the narrator, experiences his “[face] blaz[ing] like a grate full of Christmas coals” (3) every day by noon until the evening, drastically impacting his temper and workmanship. Despite the “strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about [Turkey]” (3) that persists for half the day, the narrator considers him invaluable and excuses his disability due to the quality of work he produces in the morning. The narrator tries to accommodate Turkey’s disability by proposing he go home after noon, however, Turkey refuses and convinces his boss that his disorder does not hinder his ability to do his job.
Similarly, Turkey’s coworker Nippers also suffers from a disorder visibly noticeable to the narrator. Nippers’ indigestion manifests as “occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken… and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked” (4-5). This irritability and restlessness, while annoying to the narrator, is balanced out by his “neat, swift hand; and…gentlemanly sort of deportment” (4) and only ails Nippers in the morning—allowing the narrator to empathize with Nippers’ disability and not deem him unfit to work. The physicality of both Turkey’s and Nippers’ impairments helps the narrator understand what happens to them and accordingly try to accommodate his employees.
Despite the narrator’s seemingly progressive view of disability, he does not afford Bartleby the same empathy and accommodation he does his other scriveners due to the lack of visible evidence of the impairment. When Bartleby first reveals his ennui and disinterest in doing certain activities, the other members of his office are confused and unable to comprehend why. Although though the narrator eventually realizes Bartleby has depression, “the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder…it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach” (16), he does not understand Bartleby or adjust his work, instead pitying and resolving to fire him. Unlike Nippers and Turkey, whose disabilities are generally ignored due to their quality of work, Bartleby’s depression is not considered offset by his excellent scribing. As Bartleby’s depression possesses mostly invisible traits, the narrator does not know how to respond due to his unfamiliarity with mental disorders, causing him to become repulsed by Bartleby and deny him sympathy or helpful assistance.
This confusion and ignorance on how to deal with mental disorders causes the narrator to become intolerant of Bartleby. The lawyer and his employees become enraged by Bartleby’s common phrase “I would prefer not to” (8) and view it as a symptom of lethargy and merely refusal to do work he dislikes. Yet, the phrase itself is not a refusal but merely a statement of his internal feelings both about the specific job and about his perspective of life. The wording of the phrase shows “the body…call[ing] attention to itself in the midst of its breakdown and disrepair” (Mitchell and Snyder 64). Unable to express his despondency in any other linguistic form, Bartleby’s repetition of the phrase reveals his inability to find meaning or interest in any activity, yet his coworkers lack the understanding of his situation and mental state to offer support or tolerance.
Only when Bartleby displays signs of a physical impairment is he offered any aid or compassion, “his unexampled diligence in copying by his dim window for the first few weeks of his stay with me might have temporarily impaired his vision. I was touched. I said something in condolence with him. I hinted that of course he did wisely in abstaining from writing for a while” (Melville 18). Upon the hint of a physical impairment, the narrator withdraws his irritation and tries to help Bartleby. The belief that Bartleby may possess a visible disability instantly changes the narrator’s perception of him, showcasing how mental impairments are not considered as hindering or important as physical ones.
However, once the narrator begins to suspect Bartleby has recovered from whatever vision problem he may have experienced, he immediately loses all sympathy for his employee and tries to fire him. When Bartleby refuses to leave, the lawyer loses all patience and begins bombarding him with accusatory questions and considers physical assault (22)—once again revealing his intolerance. The narrator then drives himself mad trying to determine a way to “fix” his Bartleby problem, ultimately opting to run away from that which he could not understand nor tolerate.
Upon realizing he cannot escape this “demented man” (18), the narrator enlists several half-hearted attempts of helping Bartleby. He first tries to guilt Bartleby into submission by expressing how he is “the cause of great tribulation to [the narrator], by persisting in occupying the entry after being dismissed from the office” (25). Once this tactic fails, he then tries to bargain with Bartleby offering several other possible jobs, all which he refuses leading to an irritated outburst from the narrator who then immediately asked “in the kindest tone [he] could assume under such exciting circumstances, ‘will you go home with me now—not to my office, but my dwelling— and remain there till we can conclude upon some convenient arrangement for you at our leisure?” (26). However, these tactics all fail due to the narrator’s lack of knowledge of how to help a depressed individual.
Once Bartleby is taken to prison, the narrator continues to demonstrate his confusion about Bartleby’s mental impairment, yet continues to try to help him. Upon arrival at the jail, the narrator tells Bartleby “nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass” (28), essentially telling him to “be happy.” This fruitless attempt to aid Bartleby cements the idea that the narrator—while trying to be helpful and understanding—truly lacks any experience or knowledge in terms of depression or mental impairments. While he possesses the ability to pity Bartleby, he cannot fully relate to his dejection and thus can only employ tactics he knows to work with physical disabilities. The narrator’s unfamiliarity and misperceptions about how to help someone with invisible disabilities reflects how society treats those with mental impairments.
The lack of any character in Melville’s story offering legitimate support or empathy for Bartleby presents a critique of society and its handling of mental illness. Just how Bartleby’s colleagues perceive him as idle and do not recognize his dejection as a mental disability, society holds a similar ignorance for depression and similar mental debilities. While the recognition of a cognitive disorder may occur like the narrator did with Bartleby, the vapid belief that visible disabilities are more legitimate and manageable limits the amount of help a depressed individual may receive. Despite subtle expressions of despondency like Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” (8), those who do not fully understand the mental disability often fall onto a similar path as the narrator—a character who wishes to help but can only muster pity, resentment, and half-hearted aid for the mentally disabled individual. Through the narrator and other lawyers perceiving Bartleby as a burden and ostracizing him, Melville depicts how mentally impaired individuals can be pushed further into reclusion and solitude. Bartleby’s death so quickly after his incarceration displays how a smallminded and uninformed society worsens mental impairments and further isolates individuals. Melville’s representation of depression in “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street” and how his characters react to it presents a critique on society’s intolerance and ignorance of mental disorders.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” Lexington, KY: Create Space, 2014. Print.
Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.
Melville’s Descriptions of the Oppression of Workers
Imagery is perhaps the most effective way to emphasize a theme. Ironically, Herman Melville chooses to use blankness as his image of choice, and while at first glance, the lack of something may not seem to be a powerful symbol, Melville’s application of it to the common people makes it quite relevant. In “Tartarus of Maids” and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville uses the recurring motif of blankness to inspire sympathy for the plight of the working class and show how their condition allows for the creative and economic survival of the wealthy.By accentuating the pallid nature of all that composes the working class, Melville expresses the inevitable death of spirit that pervades their existence. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator remarks on the initial work ethic of Bartleby by saying, “At first Bartleby did an extraordinary amount of writing . . . I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote out silently, palely, mechanically” (Bartleby 4). The narrator sees the distinct difference between being cheerfully industrious and simply being industrious. There is no doubt that Bartleby copies a large amount of work, yet it is his attitude that troubles the narrator. He has no enthusiasm for what he does, causing the lack of color that the narrator observes, both in his appearance and his demeanor, which becomes evidence for his despondent life. Ultimately, without a spirit to drive him, Bartleby’s body wastes away, sealing Melville’s attempt to win the reader to the cause of the workers. Melville carries over the image of this depleted existence in “Tartarus of Maids.” In this story, the man who heralds from the paradise of bachelors observes, “At rows of blank looking counters sat rows of blank looking girls with blank white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper” (Tartarus 215). The word ‘blank’ appears over and over again just as dismal routine of maids’ lives occurs over and over again. They are like machines, doing exactly the same thing, exactly the same way, every day. Just as machinery is soulless, the girls cannot retain their spiritual-selves for long after they begin work. With the oppressive monotony of blandness and tedium hanging over them, the factory girls are alive, yet with no spirit to drive them, they do not really live. The narrator recognizes this lack of life as he says, “So, through the consumptive pallors of this blank, raggy life, go these white girls to death” (Tartarus 218). Melville nearly personifies the pallor of the girls, saying that the blankness that surrounds their work and graces their flesh will ultimately consume them. Not only will this incredible lack of stimulation bring about the spiritual death of the factory workers, their physical demise is sure to follow, since the body cannot live without the soul, as Bartleby’s death demonstrates. In the factory and in the office of Bartleby, Melville depicts the doomed state of the working class, hoping to win the reader over to its cause.Melville shows how the lower class feeds the creativity of the upper class by providing the blank means in which their own originality can take root. In “Tartarus of Maids,” the narrator observes the work of the factory saying, “Looking at that blank paper continually dropping, dropping, dropping, my mind ran on in wonderings of those strange uses to which those thousand sheets eventually would be put. All sorts of writings would be written on those now vacant things” (Tartarus 220). The narrator marvels at the myriad possibilities that lie in the blank paper, yet there are no such possibilities for the factory girls. The maids are not the ones who will write poems and letters and birth certificates; their chance to exercise originality is wasted to ensure that the wealthy can live and thrive in creativity. Furthermore, the narrator notices a large, ponderous machine in one corner and observes this:“Before it – its tame minister – stood a tall girl, feeding the iron animal with half-quires of rose-hued note paper which, at every downward dab of the piston-like machine, received in the corner the impress of a wreath of roses. I looked from the rosy paper to the pallid cheek, but said nothing” (Tartarus 215). The girl in the corner feeds the machine, not only with paper, but also with her lost chances to create. The time she spends at the machine is time that she could have used to encourage her own originality, but because of her position in society, her creativity is sacrificed so that the lovely ideas of the upper class can be realized. The wreath pattern is not hers, nor is the rose hue of the paper, which can be seen symbolically in the lack of color on her cheek. Finally, in a conversation between the narrator and the boy, Cupid, the narrator asks, “‘You make only blank paper; no printing of any sort, I suppose? All blank paper, don’t you?’ ‘Certainly; what else should a paper factory make?’ The lad here looked at me as if suspicious of my common-sense” (Tartarus 216-217). This question about the absence of printing in the factory simultaneously concerns the lack of creativity. Cupid’s response is simple and answers both questions: there is no printing done, and thus there is no creativity. Cupid seems surprised by the question, indicating that he believes it to be common knowledge that the lower class does not create. Clearly, it is the lot of the workers to provide the means for the upper class to thrive, for as Cupid says, ‘what else should a paper factory make?’ The wealthy acquire the means for both their creativity and their social status by suppressing the expression of the lower class.By producing only blank paper and copies, the working class provides for the economic extravagance and success of the wealthy. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator explains the advancement of his office, saying, “Now my original business . . . was considerably increased by receiving the master’s office. There was now great work for scriveners” (Bartleby 4). As the narrator rises to a higher state, that of a master, he must hire more scriveners to perform the menial work that his business relies on. The more he advances in his wealth and societal position, the more reliant he becomes on the working class. Although his promotion provides jobs for the lower class, Bartleby proves that the work is a detriment to one’s spiritual and physical wellbeing, and thus no favor at all. The uncreative copying of Bartleby upholds the economic security of the narrator, for without his bland work, the narrator would perish. In the same way that the copiers uphold narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the work of the factory girls supports the economic success of the bachelor’s seed business. In “Tartarus of Maids,” the bachelor comments, “It need hardly be hinted how paper comes into use with seedsmen, as envelopes. These are mostly made of yellowish paper . . . of these small envelopes I used an incredible quantity, several hundred thousand per year” (Tartarus 211). The blank work of the factory girls, that which removes the passion from their lives, serves to uphold the extravagant life of the bachelor. Melville pointedly includes the vaguely exorbitant number of ‘several hundred thousand’ to highlight the immensity of the upper class’s dependence on the blank toil of lowly workers. Clearly, the bachelor’s business, and thus his monetary stability, could not do without the sacrifices of the working class. The narrator says, “This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon and frost painted to a sepulchre” (Tartarus 214). The bachelor can see that the white abode of the girls is the ‘counterpart’ to his home of perpetual wealth; one upholds the other. The factory unfolds before his eyes as the foil for his paradise; yet it is a white sepulchre, a place of death. The bachelor is able to achieve economic extravagance only through the bereavement of his fellow human beings. In much of Melville’s work, he champions the common man, showing that his achievements are far superior to the trivial prattle of the upper class. However, in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Tartarus of Maids,” Melville weaves an image of the working class in order to inspire sympathy in the reader. By allowing blankness to accentuate the plight of Bartleby and the factory girls, Melville brings out what he believes to be the true relationship between the poor and the rich; the death of the former ensures the survival of the latter.
Walled in Street
In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the setting contributes to the tone, the style, the theme and particularly the characterization of Bartleby, a scrivener working for the narrator. The parallelism between the setting and the attributes of Bartleby is suggested in the description of the prison yard, where Bartleby is confined. When Bartleby is imprisoned for vagrancy, the narrator visits him and is directed towards the yard. The description of the yard reflects both Bartleby’s desolate mental and social states as well as his passive resistance against the narrator and what he signifies. The story is about Bartleby’s encounter with the narrator, his employee. The narrator chooses to tolerate Bartleby’s preferences until they interfere with the narrator’s work; the narrator is then forced to dismiss Bartleby and relocate his office. This dismissal later results in Bartleby being arrested as a vagrant and initiates the scene in the prison yard, where the narrator goes to visit him.Bartleby’s isolation and desolate mental state is illustrated by the author’s depiction of the prison. The yard of the prison is surrounded by walls of “amazing thickness, keeping off all sounds behind them,” and the “masonry weighted upon me” (556). This description provides a powerful image of being isolated. The author also uses the image of a pyramid, known as an enclosed and isolated space for burials, to describe the prison and further enhance the effect. The images of enclosure and isolation in the prison yard echo earlier images in the story. When Bartleby first arrives at the office, the narrator erects a working space for him that had him facing a view of the wall from the building next door and uses a “high green folding screen…[to] isolate Bartleby…”(536). The setting in the office, which has Bartleby incrementally isolating himself from others by erecting a sense of walls, is taken to an extreme in the yard, where he reaches a form of complete isolation. It is a form of confinement that the narrator interprets as an indication of madness, “I [narrator] think he is a little deranged” (556). Thus there is a connection between setting and state of mind. The physical setting, which is characterized by isolating walls and gloom, echoes Bartleby’s mental state as the narrator perceives it, namely, as deranged. The setting not only reveals Bartleby’s mental state but also his social state. Bartleby’s position in the prison yard, isolated from other prisoners, as stated in the passage “the yard…was not accessible to the common prisoners,” suggests that he has reached the peak of social isolation (556). This is also reinforced by his refusal to converse with the narrator (544). Indeed, throughout the story, Bartleby has been systematically removing himself from society, an estrangement that is enacted in his treatment of space and setting. His cubicle becomes more isolated and he prefers to work alone. However, this movement away from society is not just a general estrangement from the people who surrounds him; Bartleby is also isolating himself from the values of that society, which are inherently capitalist and are upheld by the narrator. The narrator is a lawyer and wealthy man who believes in the US capitalist system. Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire, is the narrator’s hero. When Bartleby isolates himself through strategic spatial development, he is in fact refusing to follow the norms of Wall Street in the same way he refuses to “copy” the documents (546). In effect, Bartleby’s spatial isolation in the prison yard begins to suggest differing implications, namely, that he is engaging in a form of resistance against these social norms and succeeded to some degree. The implications of his success are also encoded in the setting. Initially, the yard seems dank and dark and Bartleby encased in brick. However, a closer examination reveals that something productive can grow in that environment: “…imprisoned turf grew under foot” and “…by some strange magic…grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung” (556). Like the turf, Bartleby refuses to give in to the norms of the environment that he is in, which privileges wealth. The green of the turf and grass here echoes the “high green folding screen” of his cubicle walls (556). But, unlike the cubicle walls, where green is associated with money, here the green suggest the possibility of rebirth and change. Bartleby then, can be seen to engage in a form of passive resistance, encapsulated by the phrase “I would prefer….” (544); this resistance is encoded in the setting, particularly this green turf. Ultimately, the price of this resistance is too high, as it leads to Bartleby’s death. His death suggests that figures like Bartleby, who refuse to subscribe to capitalism, have no place in this society. Indeed, like the dead letters that he once monitored, Bartleby’s message falls on deaf ears, particularly those of the lawyer, who cannot see beyond his own self-interest. However, even though the narrator cannot see it, it is a message that underlies the entire text, even the setting. With a short story, the characteristics pertaining to a character can resonate with the setting of the story. In this case, Bartleby’s social and mental state is mirrored by the isolation of the prison yard, with its thick walls that resemble a pyramid. Bartleby’s passive resistance is also demonstrated through the depiction of the growth of the “imprisoned turf” and grass seeds (556). The characterization of Bartleby seems to seep into the entire text, even the setting.
Bartleby the Scrivener: The Painful Extraction of Genuine Compassion
Though the title may be Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s short story is much more concerned with its nameless narrator than its title character. Addressing one man’s concept of himself and how that concept must be reevaluated when challenged by disruption, Bartleby depicts a man who misinterprets and rationalizes his own life so it is in accord with the ideals he aspires to. At his very core, the narrator is so terrified of confrontation that his reluctance limits his effectiveness as a leader. Nevertheless, he is able to convince himself his weakness is in fact a great quality he possesses, an enhancement upon his stellar leadership ability. The concept is explored throughout Bartleby via the narrator’s description of himself, the bust of Cicero occupying space in his office, the narrator’s handling of his regular employees, and, of course, his relationship with the troubled Bartleby. It is through the narrator’s interpretation of that relationship that the full extent of his reluctance and rationalization is realized. More importantly, it is as a by-product of that rationalization that the otherwise absent concept of genuine concern for others is at last realized, its previous deficiency illuminating Melville’s core theme of a society void of true compassion. In Bartleby, one theme—that of a man’s power of self deception—advances the plot while intentionally leaving the back door open for another, more pressing theme—of a society void of compassion—to make its subtle yet searing entrance.The narrator declares early in his description of himself, “…the easiest way of life is the best.” For him, easy can be equated with free from confrontation. He glibly acknowledges that he is “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury.” Instead, he is content to “do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.” For the narrator, the most apt word to describe him is “safe.” He does not take risks, does not try and reach beyond the readily attainable, does not expend valuable energy without urgent cause. Nevertheless, the narrator also views himself quite nobly, boastfully quoting John Jacob Astor’s description of him as being a man of prudence and method. As clearly as he feels he understands himself, however, the narrator’s self-description is at odds with the qualities to which he aspires and is in fact, as the story continues, quite crippling. The narrator proudly considers himself a transmigration of Cicero but is in fact a pale, shallow imitation.The narrator’s comparison to Cicero is invited various times throughout the text. The cherished plaster bust of Cicero that sets behind the narrator in his office is referred to twice during the story and the narrator’s own assumed attributes, modeled upon the writings of Cicero, are also acknowledged. However, the similarities between the narrator and his idol are only superficial at best. The claim of method alluded to in the reference to Astor is ultimately a false one: instead of the careful itemization of a Ciceronian oration, the narrator’s initially sequenced listings either break down absurdly or dissolve into magniloquence which serves only to damage any neoclassical pretenses he holds. Further, in addition to the rhetorical contrast with Cicero the narrator also has a dichotomous relationship with Cicero philosophically. Whereas the Roman lawyer was an advocate for the people, the narrator admittedly prefers to seek work among the wealthy rather than the poor. The narrator’s world is based upon pride and the perception others have of him, rather than any deep, enduring personal philosophy he possesses. The only true trait he possesses is that of passivity, and that he possesses to an extreme and rationalizes as a good thing. Ultimately, the parallels with Cicero, or lack thereof, serve to underscore the gap between the narrator’s real existence and his own perception of that same existence2E The narrator’s very ideology and concept of humanity are vague and superficial at best and, when contrasted with Cicero’s realization of such values, demonstrate the vast difference between greatness and pretentiousness, between a marble bust and the plaster imitation which seeks to duplicate it if only on the surface.Having thoroughly established his own perception of himself, the narrator proceeds in Bartleby to describe his employees. It is through that depiction that even more valuable insight into the narrator can be gained. Turkey and Nippers are essentially mirror reflections of one another in terms of behavior. One, Turkey, is effective in the morning. Come afternoon, however, his ability to perform the requisite duties of his job rapidly erode and he is no use. Nippers, conversely, is a waste in the mornings but by afternoon is completely competent. The two characters are essentially flat, static characters—their value is in the reaction they elicit from the narrator2E Considering himself a skilled manager in his ability to withstand the idiosyncrasies of his eccentric, unreliable employees, the narrator observes that Turkey and Nippers are effective and ineffective at alternate times. Thus, it is possible for him to maintain efficiency in his office by considering and working around the particular quirks of his employees. While this lack of discipline and accountability would strike many as impractical and the product of a timid, ineffective manager, the narrator views the situation more as a testimonial to his great aptitude in working with unreliable employees, remaining unflustered, and achieving success nonetheless. Again, the gap between the narrator’s reality and his perception of it is challenged. A more confident, realized manager would assert his authority and thus enhance the efficiency of his office. The narrator, however, sits idly by, unable to muster the necessary courage such confrontation would necessitate. The narrator represents an extreme passivity to the extreme eccentricity of his employees—he is the base and they the acids. So long as that is the difference, confrontation can be avoided as the narrator simply works to extinguish the fire of his employees. It is not until the narrator, the base, encounters an even more extreme base, Bartleby, that the veil is pulled back from his inadequacies and he is challenged as a manager. Rather than extinguishing volatility, the narrator must now ignite what has already long been extinguished and it is in that pursuit that he falls woefully short.Turkey and Nippers, as aforementioned, are mirror reflections of each other. They share the same room and are of essentially the same species: one is volatile in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Similarly, the narrator and Bartleby are also cast of the same mold. Sharing the same space, like Turkey and Nippers, Bartleby represents the logical extreme of the narrator’s passivity—so passive that he does nothing. Drawing in part, somewhat satirically, upon the writings of Jonathon Edwards and Joseph Priestley—alluded to as readings the narrator seeks in response to his newest employee—the philosophy can best be paraphrased to mean that whatever it is you are doing at a given time, that is what you prefer. If you are eating a slice of wheat bread, you are doing so because you prefer to. If you are sitting idly by, doing nothing, then that is exactly what you, like Bartleby, prefer to do. The narrator prefers to avoid confrontation, and so that is precisely what he does. The problem inherent to such philosophy occurs when two people have divergent preferences yet must somehow reconcile their differences in order to accomplish a needed task. Henry David Thoreau said that everyone cannot be a hero because there has to be someone to stand by the roadside and wave as the hero passes by. Similarly, everyone cannot always have his or her preference. In the case of Bartleby and the narrator, someone must concede if anything is to be accomplished. Either Bartleby must work, even though he prefers not to, or the narrator must force confrontation. Neither character, however, is willing to make such a concession and, consequently, nothing happens. Instead, the narrator rationalizes his own timidness and justifies Bartleby’s behavior.When Bartleby first begins refusing to perform various parts of his job, the narrator tries to justify the refusal, attributing to Bartleby a vast array of qualities which would make the refusal more palatable; “It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning;…but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.” Bartleby inevitably must draw some comparison to the transcendentalist concept of passive resistance, of which in many ways he is a perfect model. As such, the narrator is all the more inclined to support him and bear with his eccentricities. The narrator is more than compliant in creating excuses for Bartleby if those excuses can procrastinate the seemingly inevitable confrontation. Further, the narrator views sympathy and compassion towards Bartleby as a method of serving his own self interest, declaring, “Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” And so, in the stages of Bartleby’s bizarre behavior, the narrator wallows in his superficiality, viewing a friendship with Bartleby as a method of enhancing his own self, of accruing a greater self esteem. As aforementioned, the narrator diverges from Ciceronian ideals in his lack of true altruistic motive. Instead of genuinely caring, he is driven by his own self-interest and is able to extend the pretense of charity as a justification for his passivity with Bartleby.Furthering the theme of justification and rationalization, when Bartleby refuses to even perform his normal copying duties the narrator initially attributes the refusal to his eyesight suffering as a consequence of poor light, striving to excuse the actions of his employee and thus eliminate any risk of confrontation. As the actions become less excusable or justifiable, however, the narrator begins to seek other avenues to approach the issue. At first he tries to reason with Bartleby, but to no avail. Short of physical force, of which the narrator is entirely incapable, there is no way to expel Bartleby. Rather than be confronted by this failure, however, the narrator instead seeks to find a higher purpose for the events transpiring. That purpose is arrived at by reading the aforementioned sermons of Edwards and Priestley and surmising that Bartleby is sent with a purpose of teaching the narrator compassion. Interestingly, the narrator at last is able to break free from the pervasive self-interest and superficiality that consumes him earlier in the story. Rather than seeking to demonstrate compassion as a means of attaining a nobler vessel, of earning the equivalent of a humanitarian merit badge, the narrator is sufficiently rebuked that he at last seeks to demonstrate true, altruistic compassion. However, the philosophical transformation is only made possible as an artery for him to justify the more compelling of his weaknesses—his unyielding passivity. If the narrator can interpret Bartleby as a messenger to change his attitudes towards his fellow man then he can continue to evade the looming confrontation. Nevertheless, the narrator is at last motivated by true, genuine compassion to try and help the odd Bartleby and his pathetic existence. His overtures of help to Bartleby, however, are futile. Even after vacating the office and offering Bartleby the opportunity to come home with the narrator, no break through occurs. Bartleby remains unchanged, still adhering to his preference of going nowhere and doing nothing. Alas, the true compassion and humanity of the narrator, when finally exercised, falls upon already deafened ears—alluding to the symbolism of Bartleby as a martyr in a society ravaged by self-interest and superficial values, a theme too expansive to be discussed within the scope of this paper. Still, the basic truth remains that for Bartleby, the compassion demonstrated by the narrator late in the story has come too late. Bartleby is the victim of society, fatally scarred by the pervasive lack of compassion that afflicts society. True compassion is finally revealed but the damage has already been done and Bartleby cannot be healed.Ultimately, Melville’s commentary is in many ways centered squarely not upon the reluctance to participate in confrontation as exhibited by the narrator but rather, upon the concept that true humanity is so scarce it is only brought forth as part of the narrator’s rationalization—a last ditch effort by the narrator to avoid the greater of two evils. To Melville, extracting true humanity from a society is akin to extracting vital organs—a painful, often insurmountable task. Had the characters that populate a culture, such as the narrator, always exhibited true virtue rather than superficial kindness and self-interest, vacant philosophizing serving only its speaker’s own sense of grandeur, Bartleby may never have existed (thus, interpreting Bartleby as a product of the vacuous culture which created him). However, he did exist and for Melville that existence resonates as a testament to a bleak society so engulfed in its own self interest that it’s oblivious to the souls left ravaged in its wake. Bleak indeed, but perhaps quite accurate.