Bartleby the Scrivener
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.
The Dehumanization of Bartleby
The narrator and Bartleby – principle characters of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener – are opposite sides of the same coin. Their perspectives and connections to life seem to be similar. However, the narrator thrives in the post-revolutionary, post-industrial, capitalistic society. Bartleby, oppositely, wastes away in it. Bartleby’s humanity is stripped away from him which eventually kills him. Bartleby is the byproduct of this new America; the narrator is the would-be product. The choices of the narrator limit his perspective. He’s unaware how figuratively and physically surrounded by walls he is. One of his windows has a view of “the white wall of the interiors of a spacious skylight shaft” (1088). This view being somewhat “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’…the other end of [his] chambers offer…a contrast….an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall”(1088). He even calls this configuration a “huge square cistern” (1087) – a receptacle for holding rain, stagnant, or sewage water. He is walled-in and drowning in his life and yet cannot see it. This blind acceptance of capitalism, the new notions of work get paid and die, this “easy life” is what Melville is criticizing. Melville’s narrator is nothing but an “unambitious lawyer,” (1087) perfectly suited to his life in the newly emerging corporate America. In this America people are moving away from the self-sustaining lifestyles of farming and taking mind numbing jobs such as being a ScrivenerThe narrator is convinced “the easiest way of life is the best” (1087). Nothing “[turbulent]…energetic… [or] nervous… [has he] ever suffered to invade [his] peace” (1088). The narrator is a “safe man” (1087) incapable of understanding hardships or his fellow man. He believes in the Four Cardinal Humors, and only understands superficial appearances. He talks of Turkey as though Turkey is a furnace. After twelve o’clock Turkey is “blazed like grate full of Christmas coals… his face flamed with augmented blazonry as if cannel coal had been heaped on anthracite” (1088). While these are the effects of a few beers at lunch hour, the narrator can not make connect those beers to coping mechanisms for this job. Nippers’ out ward frustrations with his job are evident in that he “[can] never get his table to suit him”(1089). While the narrator is aware that Nippers wants “to be rid of the scrivener’s table altogether”(1089) it is not because of the lousy job, it is because Nippers suffers from the “evil powers [of] ambition” (1089). Within the realm of capitalistic ideology a employer realistically can not be completely empathetic to his employee. Priority goals of making money are in conflict with a completely content staff. The narrator is simply unable to empathize with his staff making him perfectly suited to his position. Bartleby and the narrator seem incomplete. Looking at the Four Cardinal Humors, as the narrator does, Bartleby is ruled primarily by Sanguine and Melancholic. Sanguines surrender themselves in a way to a varied flow of images and sensations. Melancholic peoples feel they are not master over their body; the physical body is in control. Melancholics experience this lack of control as pain or feelings of despondency . Bartleby, being that he is walled up, cannot be exposed an array of images and sensations that would sustain him. Bartleby’s body, being outside his control, fails; therefore he prefers not to do any more that would conform to the scrivener position and his fading. The narrator is flexible, adaptable, and well suited to his environment. He is predominantly ruled by the Choleric humor – giving him force of will, enabling his authority in this microcosm – and the Phlegmatic humor, the more etheric of the humors. The Phlegmatic humor focuses the narrator’s attention to his inner world allowing him to remain oblivious to the walls and pains of his outer world. By dividing humanity into its parts, its sum, and attributes the capitalist society has stripped each of these men of their humanity. Bartleby is particularly destroyed. He wafts about the office devoid of life. Bartleby is “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”(1091). He appears “dimly calm … [with nothing] ordinarily human about him”(1092), and ” like a very ghost … at the entrance of his hermitage” (1095). Bartleby lives in a death-like state because he cannot see images of life through the walls enforced on him.In the world Melville is criticizing a man does his work, gets his pay, and dies at the end of a long fruitless life. The tendency is to remove humanity from people. Melville dehumanizes his characters by making them the sum of their titles and attributed. Bartleby, insofar as he is understood, is a scrivener: a human photocopier. His fading is the fading of strengths within men and the dismissal of natural gifts. It is a byproduct of this new America. Bartleby is only a Scrivener joining the narrator’s “corps of copyists”(1091) and is regimented even by language. The narrator brings him into the office and surrounds him by walls in a tiny cubical. While the narrator does “[place] his desk close up to a small side-window,” that window “[commands]…no view at all” (1091). Furthermore, the narrator makes every effort to remove Bartleby from his sight, conforming to ideals of “privacy and society” (1091). Bartleby industriously becomes a machine, “[writing] on silently, palely, mechanically” (1091). As Bartleby slowly degrades into his inanimate state preferring to do less and less, the narrator even starts to see him as office furnishings. Bartleby becomes “harmless and noiseless as any … old chair”(1104). By the end Bartleby dose nothing but shut down; his final sleep, “with kings and counselors” (1111).Bartleby and the narrator seem to have been born into their lives: an unabitious lawyer, a scrivener: an employer, an employee. However, Bartleby is aware of the tedium’s on both sides of the wall. The narrator comes to notice how intolerable his own walls are. By the end of Bartleby’s life the narrator seems uncomfortable in the role he once fit into. He comes to understand what this life can do to a man. He becomes whole. Speaking of Bartleby’s past he says “on errands of life, these letters speed to death” (1111). The narrator takes the role of the hero, understanding “character of the masonry weighed upon [him] with its gloom” (1110). Walls are no longer glorious, and no longer surround him. His office has changed. His perspective has changed. Bartleby’s are gone.
The American Way
The characters of many poems, stories, and other works of art act as critics or representations of the author’s society. American writers Benjamin Franklin and Herman Melville both commented on their respective eras using this method. Franklin uses Poor Richard in “The Way to Wealth” to give voice to a new nation in the late 18th century. Likewise, Melville contemplates 19th century industrialization and laissez-faire capitalism through a nameless narrator in “Bartleby”, the Scrivener. The portraits of America illustrated by these two characters reveal a disparity between the two writers’ views of society. Franklin uses Poor Richard to inspire people to take advantage of the economic opportunities opened up by the new America, thus creating an optimistic view of society. In contrast, Melville’s narrator, the Scrivener, is deeply disturbed by Bartleby, a social outcast, thereby critiquing the American capitalist ideal.
To turn Poor Richard into a glorification of American ideals, Franklin casts him as a model citizen who garners the admiration of his countrymen. The capitalist freedom of economic self-determination – though limited to white males – was developing into an American value during Franklin’s time. Poor Richard’s hard work and good financial sense reflect this ideology, and the social approval he gains honors the American system. Franklin begins crafting Poor Richard’s image by giving him the status of a pop icon. Richard is a writer who creates proverbs on economics for his readers to live by. He says that when walking around town, “I have frequently heard one or other of my adages repeated with ‘as Richard says’ at the end on ‘t; this gave me some satisfaction, as it showed not only that my instructions were regarded, but discovered likewise some respect for my authority” (517). Richard is positioned as an economic role model, much like Steve Forbes or Bill Gates today.
Franklin then illustrates the public’s vicarious respect for Richard’s economic methodology through the character of Father Abraham, a wise old man. In a scene where the townspeople are complaining of their financial difficulties, they turn to Father Abraham for advice, and he plays the role of the stereotypical village elder, quoting one of Poor Richard’s adages: “If you’d have my advice, I’ll give it to you in short, for a word to the wise is enough, and many words won’t fill a bushel, as Poor Richard says” (517). Here, the word “wise” emphasizes Father Abraham’s trustworthiness. This saying enthralls the audience, and the townspeople clamor for him to continue, establishing their respect for Father Abraham. Since Father Abraham is quoting Poor Richard, this respect is really for Poor Richard’s wisdom. Father Abraham continues to quote Poor Richard with a number of sayings that instruct people on how to conduct their finances. The majority of these quotes advocate industry and frugality, values in line with the freedoms of capitalism. For instance, one adage reads, “Sloth makes all things difficult, but industry all easy” (518). After the sermon, the audience expresses its approval of Father Abraham’s advice.
The townspeople’s support for Poor Richard’s sayings gives him the image of an American leader and fosters feelings of nationalism, since the peoples’ faith in Poor Richard translates into a faith in American ideals. This was, no doubt, Franklin’s intention, for Poor Richard is really an extension of himself. In “The Autobiography”, Franklin reveals his support for American social mobility, and makes an effort to be the financial advisor of his contemporaries, thereby parallelling Poor Richard. For instance, upon the recommendation of his friends, Franklin agreed to write the latter part of his autobiography as a guide for young Americans. Furthermore, two of the thirteen virtues he advises – which are comparable to Poor Richard’s proverbs – are Industry and Frugality, both notions related to capitalism (592). Since Franklin is one of the founding fathers of American independence, it is natural to attach patriotic, nationalistic sentiments to his name.
Whereas Poor Richard is a trustworthy and admirable character, whose confidence is backed by the support of his countrymen, Melville’s narrator in “Bartleby”, the Scrivener, becomes a confused and troubled man when his notions of society are shaken. The ensuing confusion and conflicts leave the reader questioning the authoritative processes of American capitalism. Melville represents American capitalism through the narrator and his business, a law office. The tale’s subtitle, “A Story of Wall-Street” (2330), creates an immediate image of American capitalism, since Wall Street is the nation’s economic power plant. Prior to hiring Bartleby, the Scrivener had found a neat order in American business. To him, the relations of authority implicit in capitalism seemed perfectly natural – they were a stable and effective way of getting tasks done. He feels very secure at the beginning of the story: “All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man” (2330). However, Bartleby’s acquaintance destroys his sense of safety. Bartleby’s character is something of an enigma: he is an extremely bad worker, with no concept of business relations or basic social processes. Whenever the narrator asks Bartleby to perform the tasks that are expected of him, he responds with the refrain, “I would prefer not to” (2338), thereby perplexing the narrator.
The narrator is then forced to confront the disparity between his faith in authority and American business, and his concern for Bartleby as another human being. On the one hand, the narrator blames Bartleby for causing commotion, while retaining his faith in the rules of proper business. He thinks of Bartleby as, “incurably forlorn,” (2335) and a “vagrant” (2349). On the other hand, the narrator wonders whether he should forget their business relationship – which is to forget social expectations – and try to help Bartleby as a fellow man by keeping him employed and financially secure. Melville reveals the narrators thoughts to illustrate the dilemma. An example of this internal struggle occurs when the narrator considers throwing Bartleby out on the streets to fend for himself. Melville writes:
What shall I do? What ought I to do…Rid myself of him, I must; go, he shall. But how? You will not thrust him, the poor, pale, passive mortal – you will not thrust such a helpless creature out of your door? you will not dishonor yourself by such cruelty? No, I will not, I cannot do that (2349).
The narrator’s absurd solution to the problem – relocating his entire business office – only adds to the chaos.
By distorting the narrator, a schema of American capitalism, Melville unveils the dehumanizing aspects of the 19th century American workplace. The narrator’s awareness that he must decide between the rules of productivity and Bartleby’s well-being forces readers to question whether capitalism is a civilized and just system. This question was more pertinent during Melville’s time than it is today, because the unchecked, laissez-faire style of capitalism lacked social safeguards such as welfare and healthcare, and workers had far fewer rights. The most eminent opponent of Laissez-Faire government, Karl Marx, wrote “The Communist Manifesto” just five years prior to Melville’s story, and the two works share several major themes. An online copy of Marx’s Manifesto reads:
Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman…it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants.
Here, Marx attacks the draining monotony and strict hierarchy typical of working-class positions in a capitalist system. Melville dramatizes these ideas in his story: Bartleby’s tedious work copying documents leads to his extreme apathy, and his disregard for the narrator’s authority confronts what Marx refers to as a militaristic division of labor. Melville’s critique of capitalism stands in sharp contrast to Franklin’s energizing nationalism.
Many artists today have continued the social debate between Franklin and Melville. Franklin’s nationalistic honor of the “American Way” has found increased support since the September 11th attack. Films like Disney’s “A Miracle on Ice”, which commemorates the United States Olympic Hockey Team’s 1980 defeat of communist rival the U.S.S.R., opened soon after the attack, fostering patriotism and faith in America’s legitimacy. Conversely, other filmmakers work to reveal the harsh realities of capitalism, recalling Melville efforts. David Fincher’s hit film “Fight Club” (1998) portrays the psychological demise of a modern-day office employee, an echo of Bartleby’s character. The movie ends with a chillingly feasible proletariat revolution in America.
Rebels and Non-comformists in the Short Stories of Herman Melville
In many of the short stories written by the American author Herman Melville (1819-1891), the main characters tend to exhibit some form of rebellion, usually against the normal dictates of society or against those who are in power. This trait is most often associated with the non-conformist, a person who refuses to conform to a generally accepted pattern of thought or action. Of course, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” first published in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, contains one of the prime examples of the Melvillian rebel, being Bartleby himself. In essence, Bartleby, along with several other main characters that appear in other short tales, are obviously reflections of the time in which Melville lived and worked when America as a country was filled with rebellion and non-conformists.Bartleby, the alienated man who lends his name to the story’s title, states several times that “I would prefer not to” in regard to doing his job as a scrivener at a law office on Wall Street in New York City. This indicates that his rebellion is passive rather than aggressive, much like the non-violent resistance found in the likes of Henry David Thoreau, one of Melville’s contemporaries. The mystery surrounding Bartleby’s strange behavior – why he chooses to rebel so completely yet so politely – is never revealed in the story, even though the unnamed, prosperous lawyer/narrator suggests that Bartleby may be the victim of extreme isolation from working in the government’s Dead Letter office. Thus, the ambiguity of Bartleby’s rebellion makes this tale more complex and leaves it open to many interpretations.Some scholars have described Bartleby as a frustrated artist/writer who “is protesting the world’s warped preference for money over art” (Hamilton, 220); others contend that Bartleby is a reflection of Melville himself, who understood all too well what it was like to be an alienated worker with a boring, demeaning job in a subtly hostile environment as a clerk in a customhouse (Chase, 178). Bartleby has also been seen as a representative of non-conformity, the alienated modern man who “stands up against an ignorant universe of outdated values” (Peterson, 24). In addition, Bartleby might have been suffering from schizophrenia which raises the possibility that he was mentally ill to begin with or made so by his work situation. Despite these interpretations, the tale ends tragically, for Bartleby is unable to escape the brick walls that surround him, whether the “walls of society’s limits or some barrier inherent in his personality” (Hamilton, 221). But Bartleby may also be “dead” like the letters in the government office, dead in the soul and in his emotional response to society’s dictates to act like everyone else.In regard to the lawyer/narrator in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” some critics have viewed him as profoundly conventional and materialistic, for he cannot understand Bartleby’s dilemma as a rebel. However, Melville inserted some very clever imagery into this tale concerning walls – the lawyer’s office is on Wall Street, Bartleby’s desk in the office faces a brick wall, and in the jail cell, Bartleby faces a brick wall. With these images, it is clear that Melville was attempting to say that the walls are symbols “of society’s blindness to the creative and emotional needs of the individual” (Peterson, 25) as contrasted with the needs of society as a whole. And like many other non-conformists in the history of American literature, Bartleby prefers death over conformity, for at the conclusion of the tale, he apparently curls up in a fetal position on the floor of his jail cell and literally dies from starvation, another symbol of his rebellious nature.Several other tales written by Herman Melville also contain characters that by their very natures are rebellious and non-conformists. In 1856, The Piazza Tales, a collection of Melville’s short fiction, was published by Dix and Edwards; prior to this, between 1853 and 1855, Putnam’s Monthly Magazine printed five (including “Bartleby the Scrivener”) of Melville’s tales – “Benito Cereno,” “The Lightning-Rod Man,” “The Encantadas,” and “The Bell Tower.” Of these, besides “Bartleby the Scrivener,” three contain primary and secondary characters that exhibit the traits of the non-conformist.In “Benito Cereno,” Captain Delano finds himself in some very tense situations when he attempts to help Captain Benito Cereno and the crew of the San Dominick. At the end of this very long tale, the reader suddenly realizes that Cereno is not in command of his vessel, for it is the captured slaves that are truly running the ship. In one violent example, Delano realizes that the slaves are in revolt and that the ship was the scene of a bloody confrontation led by the Negro slave Babo, who also masterminded the masquerade which led Delano at first to suspect that nothing out of the ordinary was happening aboard the San Dominick. As Richard Chase points out, Babo “is a haunting example of the evil that human beings are capable of and the different ways in which evil affects the human psyche” (367). Also, Babo is without a doubt quite the rebel, due to the uprising aboard the ship and his refusal to be chained and maltreated like some wild animal. In contrast to Bartleby, however, Babo represents the flip side of rebellion, for he reacts with much violence instead of passive resistance.In “The Lightning-Rod Man,” the unknown narrator has a confrontation with a lightning rod salesman who attempts to sell one of his devices to the narrator. As they talk, the narrator accuses the salesman of preying on those who fear divine punishment, whereby the salesman attacks the narrator with one of his rods. The narrator then seizes the rod and breaks it, tossing it and the salesman out of his house. This tale appears “to be mocking those who would have us believe in an angry, arbitrary God” (Peterson, 267); thus, the narrator represents another non-conformist who does not fear the wrath of God and realizes that lightning is not something sent from the heavens to instill terror in man. With the breaking of the rod, the narrator is symbolically defying conformity while letting the salesman know that he is rebelling against God and ignorance.In the ninth sketch entitled “Hood’s Isle and the Hermit Oberlus,” part of Melville’s “The Encantadas” series, a ship’s deserter named Oberlus is a misanthrope, or a person who hates human beings and society. In one instance, Oberlus kidnaps two unfortunate sailors and makes them his slaves. He then attacks some other sailors that have arrived on his personal island for provisions and destroys three of their boats in the process. With this, it is clear that Oberlus is also a non-conformist who wishes to be left alone and live out his life as a hermit, one of the proverbial symbols of the ultimate rebel who shuns society and everything that it represents.In conclusion, these four tales by Herman Melville, like so many other stories written during the mid 19th century in America, are primary examples of non-conformity which would soon reflect the apex of society in 1861 when the country was drawn into the quintessential revolt of man against himself in the Civil War.BIBLIOGRAPHYChase, Richard. Herman Melville: A Critical Study. New York: Macmillan, 1949.Hamilton, Robert. “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Rebel Without a Cause?” Mississippi Quarterly. Vol. 9 no, 3 (April 1980): 212-30.Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. R.V. Cassill and Richard Bausch. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.Peterson, Mark. “Melville and His Characters.” Notes & Queries. Vol. 5 no. 3 (June 1962): 23-26.
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.
Displacement By 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)2EContrasting 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.Works CitedFogle, 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.
Sight but No Vision
Never has there been a character quite so open to interpretation than that of Bartleby in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, the Scrivener. In the position of the reader, it is simple to blame Bartleby for an initial lack of understanding after reading the story, though the reader should not be encouraged to take the easy way out. While it appears that Bartleby is blind as to his surroundings and colleagues, in reality his colleagues are the ones blind towards Bartleby’s actions, as well as towards the capitalist system that they are working for.
The lawyer’s positioning of Bartleby’s desk in his office is an example of his blindness towards his capitalist desire for control, and later offers him a convenient explanation that he uses to excuse Bartleby’s actions. In the lawyer’s description of the layout, the text reads “I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus … privacy and society were conjoined” (Norton, 1108). Professor and literary critic Sanford Pinsker takes on the short story in his article “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: Language as Wall, and describes the lawyer’s thinking here: “Removed from sight – the purpose, after all, of walls – Bartleby is, nonetheless, within easy range of verbal commands” (Pinsker, 20). In this, we get a peek into the lawyer’s appreciation and involuntary following of the capitalist system’s status quo. In such a system, he plays the role of the boss, who, of course, is the one in charge, the one of utmost importance, and the one who should benefit most from the layout of an office. He is controlling the office space so as to make his work easier, with little regard for his new employee, Bartleby. It is not that the lawyer is underestimating Bartleby, he is simply unaware of the challenge that is in store for him now that the scrivener is operating under his employment. Later in the story, we see the positioning of Bartleby’s desk return as an excuse for the employee’s actions. One day the lawyer notices that the scrivener has done no writing at all, in fact he “did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery” (1117). Bartleby calmly explains that he will not do any more writing, and provides a peculiar response when the lawyer asks for a reason: “Do you not see the reason for yourself,” (1117). The lawyer is taken off guard, and in his coming answer to the question we once again see his appreciation for capitalism’s status quo of order, and sense – he wants to understand and make sense of the events that happen in his life, and especially the ones in his workplace. “Instantly it occurred to me, that his … copying by his dim window for the first few weeks … temporarily impaired his vision” (1117). The lawyer uses something that he is responsible for as an excuse for his employee’s actions. He is naturally blind to the idea that there could be something more going on here than Bartleby’s apparent “impaired vision”, because it has the potential to disrupt the norms that he is so used to living by. He needs something that makes sense to him.
This narrating character and his lack of true vision is of much importance when attempting to understand the story, as Pinsker illuminates in his article. He writes, “I am convinced that looking an enigmatic figure like Bartleby in the eye is something akin to staring into a blank wall” (17). And so, with the scrivener providing no clear meaning, the attention must shift to “that ‘eminently safe man,’ the lawyer-narrator, whose sensibilities are crucial to an understanding of Melville’s story” (17). These “sensibilities” that he speaks of are the very rules that the lawyer is now pre-disposed to living his life by. He sees whatever it is that he wants to see, because this is the only way that he can understand Bartleby’s actions. Thus, the reader’s interpretation of the story is hindered; we never truly see things through a clear ideology, or through someone who is prepared to take on the scrivener. All that we get is a symbolically blind narrator.
Turkey and Nippers, both colleagues of Bartleby, believe that they see through him, when in reality he is influencing the very way that they think. After overhearing Bartleby explain to the lawyer that he “would prefer not to be a little reasonable”, the two co-workers offer words that discuss what they think will get through to Bartleby and hopefully change his behaviour. Nippers, in his violent morning state, exclaims “‘I’d prefer him; I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule!’”, inferring that he wishes to physically assault Bartleby in hopes of making him act as Nippers thinks a normal person would (1116). Turkey, in his calm morning state, offers his own advice to his boss, “‘I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers’” (1116). Here, the two employees are imposing their personal ideologies onto Bartleby due to their belief that they have the ability to see through him and his behaviour. Both think that they wield enough power to change the scrivener, while actually it is the other way around; the scrivener has been changing them. The lawyer catches on to this phenomenon that Bartleby has brought about in his office. He expresses that he feels “slightly excited” that he is not the only one whose language has been influenced by Bartleby (1116). The large difference between the lawyer and his other employees, though, is that they are blind as to what is happening. The lawyer-narrator explains, “Nippers … asked whether I would prefer to have a certain paper copied on blue paper or white … It was plain that it involuntarily rolled from his tongue” (1117). Nippers, as well as Turkey, are subconsciously repeating Bartleby’s famed expression, and neither have any idea that they are doing it. This further cements the idea that the scrivener’s effect on his fellow employees is something both impactful and hidden from sight.
Finally, in Bartleby’s death, we see that the lawyer is as blind as ever in his concluding attempt at explaining the man’s behavior. Bartleby has been living in the Tombs, (a prison), and the lawyer’s self-imposed responsibility for the scrivener’s well-being drives him to frequently visit the man, and attempt to better his time spent in incarceration by paying off inmates to take care of Bartleby. Upon Bartleby’s death by starvation, and thus, the lawyer’s personal failure, we see the narrating character clinging for reason and explanation for the tragedy, drawing back to his capitalist desire for order and control over a situation. His relief, then, comes in the form of the Dead Letter Office, “When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the motions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?” (1127). The lawyer-narrator continues to attempt to explain the life of Bartleby, though something is different this time around, allowing him to be more confident in his tone. Sanford Pinsker further explains this in his paper’s closing paragraph, “rumors about the Dead Letter Office provide the lawyer with a convenient platform … But this time, of course, Bartleby cannot interfere … Death may well be the final barrier which human understanding cannot cross” (26). The main idea to take from this is that Bartleby is no longer present to interfere with the lawyer-narrator’s thinking. There is little difference between this explanation and his earlier ones that deal with Bartleby’s behavior, but now, at last, he is the boss once again, free from the challenging scrivener whose rhetoric works against his thinking. The lawyer is blind to this, and it is easy to tell that he believes this idea to be something special, or something different, that explains Bartleby and his unusual life and death. He wants this to explain it all, but, in short, it is a leap.
Interpreting a text like Bartleby, the Scrivener and its title character is fun because of the surprising amount of possibilities that they come with. With that being said, it becomes easy to limit thinking into a narrow, tunnel-like vision when attempting to make sense of the story and its events. If the reader wants to get the full experience, as Melville intended, let them be reminded to keep their eyes, as well as their mind, open.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 1102-1128. Print.
Pinsker, Sanford. “‘Bartleby the Scrivener’: Language as Wall.” College Literature 2 (1975):17-27. JSTOR. Web. 21 November 2016.
Machine Over Mind
The abstract notion of fulfillment is one that creates a never ending search. The issue that prevails is that it is intangible and therefore cannot be classified with the least bit of certainty. Society on the other hand, is run by the rule of mathematics, sciences and absolute answers. The intangibles are too philosophical and there are too many variables to account for, so in place of that the economic machine was created. American culture is driven by money, dependent upon success, and engulfed by tangible goods by which individuals can express their wealth to the rest of the world. Herman Melville explores this notion in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as he criticizes the belief that financial success or an esteemed social status are synonymous with fulfillment. Melville uses the array of different characters to expose the internal struggles of society as it rages against the inner workings of the economic machine.
The pressure to succeed and thrive in today’s world is one that can be overbearing for even the strongest of souls. Nippers, one of the clerks employed by the narrator, is a young man who is said to be the “victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion” (7). He constantly feels the urge to rise in the ranks of the legal world, yet this only strains his productivity and renders him unable to work in the mornings. Melville uses the term indigestion to represent uneasiness and anxiety that his dreams will never manifest into reality. Contrary to Nippers, Turkey is an elder fellow of 60 years-old who symbolizes the tendency to “burn out” after ambitions run dry. Each day Turkey shows up ready to work in the same meticulous manner he has in all the years prior. However, as soon as the clock hits noon he proves himself to be completely ineffective. Constant errors arise in his work in compliment to his irate outbursts. This is a result of not simply a morning of work, but rather the culmination of tough working years with minimal salary. A once hopeful employee, full of ambition and glee, is now a bitter old man who is only reluctantly adding fuel to the machine. To add to this notion of burning out, Melville includes the character of Ginger Nut as a foil. Ginger Nut is merely 12 years-old, yet his father has already forced him to work in order to set him up for success. Earning only one dollar an hour, he does anything from cleaning to running errands for the law office. The sad reality is Ginger Nut does not know better, and from a young age is already beginning the process of running himself dry before he has even had the chance to develop his own unique passions. The pressure to succeed drives the characters to moral ruination.
The split between the social pressure to succeed and moral pressure to do right is enough to buckle the narrator under the weight of social pressures. Charitable acts are a common theme that is strung out by the narrator to assure himself of his morally upright ways. The issue that arises for the narrator is these particular acts are not out of pure kindness, but rather to be deemed as kind by society. This clear distinction is proven by how the narrator immediately abandons Bartleby once he becomes the source of gossip among fellow Wall Street inhabitants. Upon Bartleby’s declaration that he will not be partaking in any more copying, the narrator notes that Bartleby “Not only disarmed me but unmanned me” (19). By unmanning the narrator, Bartleby has broken down his inner barriers. This creates a comfortable sensation within the narrator that he is obligated to care for Bartleby regardless of his eccentricities. This makes him feel like a grade A philanthropist as he should. Bartleby is causing no harm to anyone and even makes the kind remark saying he would “prefer not to quit you” (30). However, the allowance of Bartleby to remain on the premises is abruptly revoked when clients of the law firm begin to think of it as strange. The narrator’s social reputation is at stake and his acts prove that he values that over doing what is morally right. Although he mentions several times that we are all sons of Adam, that belief is pushed to the side when some begin to question his doings. The egotistical atmosphere of Wall Street has created a culture where doing the right thing is not always acceptable and has shifted the priorities to a place where being a prominent figure is more important than being thoughtful. This represents the cynical cycle of social interaction and eventually leads to Bartleby saying, “I know you, and I want nothing to say to you” (38). A world in which Wall Street’s critical perception of all is valued over a strong moral code is not sufficient. In fact, it will bleed into all facets of the working environment until utter despair sets in.
The propensity to consume time with negligible tasks will create a sense of worthlessness. The concept of time is paradoxical in the sense that while it never ends, it is concurrently finite. Life’s clock will tick for eternity yet Melville uses the job of scriveners to show how easily this time can be wasted. Copying documents day in and day out for the duration of a career will damage anyone’s sense of self. If Turkey were to describe his life’s work to a jury, there would be a consensus that there is little to show for all his hard worked years. This in culmination with other short comings has made him feel inferior to others. When addressing the narrator, he uses the phrase “with submission” seven times throughout the text. Melville does this to strengthen his point that a minuscule job is simply just representative of the pointless acts that happen each and every day. Acts that add no value to life, but occur simply because there is a perception that they should be done. It is an ingenious criticism of how society manages to waste our finite time by mindlessly going through the motions rather than seeking out true happiness. The irony in how Bartleby is perceived versus what he is standing for is too much to ignore. For obvious reason, he is looked at as more or less of a charity case or someone who is mentally ill. However, putting his “eccentricities” aside, it is clear that he is the wisest of all. He understands how insignificant his tasks are and eventually comes to the conclusion that they are simply not worth doing. The narrator is befuddled by this notion as he still believes that his “most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (18). However, earning a mere four cents per every 100 words of copying is no where near the recognition needed to satisfy or fulfill an individual. For this very reason, Bartleby looks past what is thought to be normal and realizes he’d “prefer not” to do just about anything. The inability to reach a level of attainment renders an individual to do not much more than stare at a lifeless brick wall.
A demoralizing end is in store for those who fail to discover a sense of purpose that is in alignment with society’s status quo. A false sense of acceptance and tolerance has never been more prevalent than it is today. All of the previous points conjoin under the belief that society has created a place where one’s purpose is predetermined and anyone who wishes to deviate from that will be shunned. Wall Street is the epitome of economic power and accomplishment. By making the choice to have Wall Street as the setting, Melville demonstrates that money certainly does not equal happiness. Bartleby is surrounded by success every day, yet it does not appear to be the least bit important to him. He feels alone in a crowded room as the narrator decides to “isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice” (11). Money, popularity, or companionship did not give Bartleby a purpose in his life and for that reason he felt absolutely nothing. The machine has brain washed society to the point where it is unable to accept anyone whose sole purpose is not to become wealthy or successful. Bartleby became just another example of how unforgiving the world can be as when the end came, he “preferred not to” take one more breath.
Herman Melville depicts the erroneous nature of society to value money and power above all else. The economic machine fuels daily life further and further in the wrong direction by valuing physical objects over joy and fulfillment. No longer are people searching for what will produce happiness, but rather working themselves to death in attempt to make their wallets heavier. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” shows what will become of our generation if there is not a distinct shift in mindset over what is important in life. The characters within the plot so accurately depict the inner struggles of humankind to live life in the most outstanding manner. A harmonious heart filled with joy will always reign above the bank account filled with barren green paper.
Melville on Inequality: A Study of the Shorter Fiction
There is, perhaps, no other American author whose work has been so hotly debated than Herman Melville. The white whale at the center of his most famous work, a juxtaposition of gender in America, an odd scrivener, and his much discussed story of a slave mutiny in “Benito Cereno”; the meaning behind Melville’s work has remained mysterious. The reason there is so much contention about his work, is because Melville was not writing as an all-knowing observer of American society, but as one of the masses trying to define an ever-evolving America. In Melville’s short stories, he used symbolism and characterization to define not only the one-of-a-kind America, but also his own feelings of disillusionment and guilt living in a time and place that he was able to capture beautifully through literature. De Crèvecoeur asked his famous question, “What is the American?” in America’s infancy, and Melville is one of the quintessential American authors whose work answers that question. Although descriptions of rolling hills and odes to freedom made for patriotic reading, they weren’t a very accurate portrayal of American life.
A recurring theme in Melville’s more honest portrayal of the country is inequality, especially in his short stories that were published for Putnam’s Monthly such as “Benito Cereno”, and “Bartleby, The Scrivener” (Post-Lauria 2). As Melville says in “Hawthorne and his Mosses”, a literary critique that reads more as a love-letter to his peer than a straightforward review, “Whereas great geniuses are parts of their time, they themselves are the time and possess a correspondent coloring,” (“Hawthorne and his mosses”). This sentence holds the key to all of Melville’s work, for he was a contextual writer, and writing for, “one of the most intellectual and politically progressive magazines of mid-nineteenth century America,” is the context “Benito Cereno” must be taken in (Post-Lauria 3). As the political rival of Harper’s Magazine, Putnam’s was more likely to criticize American society than it’s counterpart, as Melville was more likely to than his fellow authors of the time. Putnam’s was nearly peerless for the time in avoiding, “the popular rhetoric of sentiment,” so Melville was the perfect fit for the subversive paper, and the paper was the perfect fit for his political ideology, and ingrained beliefs about American society that he continuously challenged and examined through literature. Writing his whaling tales, Melville often plundered old whaling journals to transform into fiction.
One of these stolen tales created one of his most subversive works: “Benito Cereno” (Gallaway 241). “Benito Cereno” tells the tale of American Captain Amasa Delano coming aboard a mysterious ship with a Spanish captain by the name of Benito Cereno off the coast of Chile. To interpret Melville’s work shallowly, as many have, would be a mistake, for his work is characterized for its complexity. It’s quite easy to read “Benito Cereno” as a parable of good and evil, in which the white Spaniards represent good and the mutinous slaves represent evil. It’s an oversimplification that the narrator himself makes, but Melville’s narrators often come from a place of naivety, so to take the beliefs of Delano, a representation of America’s ignorance regarding racial disparity, would be falling into the very same trap Melville accuses Delano of. This novella is not a work of good and evil, but rather an, “insinuation and reflection on the persistent intermingling of good and evil and a paradigm of the dangers of warped consciousness,” (Gallaway 242). Delano is the American Hero stereotype, a man that acts before he thinks and sees the world in the dichotomy of good and evil. Melville was actually criticizing the American reverence of this hotheaded caricature of masculinity, for the captain is, “the same narcissistic vision of America’s destiny that planted missionaries and flags in the South Seas and the Melville himself so roundly condemned,” (Gallaway 243).
“Benito Cereno” is characterized by its contradictions, much like the very institution of chattel slavery. The contradiction between Babo the slave, and Babo the leader, between Cereno the meek captor with a key to nothing around his neck, and the stoic Atuful chained, and unchained. Melville even describes the ocean as both “undulating” and leaden (Hattenhauer 8). As a captain of a ship ruled by slaves, Don Benito hardly gives off a commanding presence as he, “at times, suddenly pausing, starting, or staring, biting his lip, biting his finger-nail, flushing, paling, twitching his beard,” (“Benito”) The captain of the starving Africans and bare-bones crew acted more like a prisoner waiting for the gallows than the captain of a ship for a supposedly great nation. Delano observes his dependence on his slave, Babo, with typical American arrogance and anti-royal attitudes, comparing Benito to Charles V. before retiring the throne (“Benito”). Amasa sees weakness in both the slave and master, not that the slave had in fact become the master, because his limited perspective, so when he “remarks that, “this slavery breeds ugly passions in men!”” he does so without, “considering the possibility of its breeding similarly ugly passions in the enslaved,” (Galloway 244). Benito, of course, is no longer the meek man once he takes escapes the ship with the help of Captain Delano. A key symbol in this work is the key around the neck of Don Benito that supposedly unlocks the chains restraining Atuful. Of course, the key is as fake as his dependence of Babo. This key that supposedly grants freedom to blacks once they behave civilly, represented by Atuful’s orders to say “Pardon,” represents the false promises made by white America to slaves (“Benito”). This was a time when many people believed in the “white man’s burden”, the belief that whites had the right to use labor from less civilized cultures because in doing so it civilizes them. Of course, Atuful will never pardon his former master, as slaves could have never fully evolved out of slavery by civilizing, or what is considered civilized in America, because it was just a scapegoat to subjugate a people based on false biological means. This belief of inherent ownership is characterized to the voice of Delano, for he immediately labels slaves as stupid, which prohibits him from seeing what is really happening aboard the San Dominick (“Benito”).
This limited perspective caused by his “Yankee provincialism” is what forms the critique of American society by Melville, similarly used in his short story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (Galloway 249) One hallmark of Melville’s writing is his exploration of structure, often mixing structures, or resurrecting old formats that modern writers had long abandoned. In “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” Melville writes a diptych, “after an ancient writing tablet having two hinged panels,” (Young 2). These parallel tales depict a secret society of merry bachelors, and the dehumanizing world of female factory work. “Bachelors” is a world of “bursting geniality,” in which men that have taken a vow of celibacy share stories of their adventures, pass alcohol with excessive camaraderie, and revel in the company of one another (Young 3). “Tartarus”, however, is a freezing white hellscape, the maidens inside not choosing this life of monotony, but forced in it by the patriarchal structure of society in not just America, but the entire world in a time of rapid industrial invention, signified by the Bachelor’s paradise being in the heart of London, and the Tartarus of maids being in New England. The paradise, however, is dependent on the Tartarus, for the exclusion of women is definitive to their own bond. As Weigman says, “while indeed counters to one another – on one side exists the masculine, symbolized by the repressed homosexuality of Paradise, and on the other in the feminine, marked by the nightmare geography of compulsory heterosexuality – they fail to reflect their opposites equally; instead they duplicate the asymmetrical representational economy of gender in which woman’s difference is articulated by and subsumed into the masculine,” (Weigman 4). “Piercingly and shrilly the shotted blast blew by the corner; and redly and demoniacally boiled by the Blood River at one side. A long wood-pile, of many scores of cords, all glittering in the mail of crusted ice, stood crosswise in the square. A row of horse-posts, their north sides plastered with adhesive snow, flanked the factory wall. The bleak frost packed and paved the square as with some ringing metal,” (“Paradise” 11). Red and white is one of the most powerful color combinations to the human eye. Red symbolizes blood. White can have a variety of meanings, virginity, as in “Tartarus”, sperm as in both sections of the story, and surrender. Red and white even used to symbolize blood and gauze on the candy-striped poles outside barbers’ offices, for barbers used to specialize in blood-letting, the ancient cure for a variety of maladies. “Tartarus” is not the only work to symbolize the oppression of women with the combination of red and white, for Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale clothes those chosen to give birth to the married men of barren women at the top of society in a theocracy based on the biblical tale of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. This color discrepancy between the Tartarus and its fraternal twin of the diptych “Paradise” creates a sharp change in tone from one section to the next. The “Eden” of the bachelors paradise can be imagined in rich tones of mahogany and cherry wood, encasing thousands of books bound in the deepest jewel tones of maroon, jade, and onyx (“Paradise” 3). A warmth beams off of every item in the paradise that Melville describes, leaving the reader feeling the chill of the Devil’s Dungeon Paper Mill, and the harsh rushing of the Blood River in their ears when the narrator makes his way into Tartarus (“Paradise” 9).
Integral to understanding the piece, sexual and gestational symbolism must be understood by the reader, for the machine in Tartarus is life itself, representative of the nine month gestation period women endure to have children with it’s nine minute process. “Nine gentleman sat down to nine covers,” and were served “nine silver flagons of humming ale,” at the dinner, a notification that each man owes a woman the very womanless life he reveres (“Paradise” 5). As the narrator arrives at the “Paradise” and “Tartarus” the end of his journey is wrought with sexual innuendo. As the narrator walks into “Paradise” he notes, “going to it, the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plane into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills,” (“Paradise” 1). With repressed homosexuality bursting in every action the bachelors take, it’s almost blushingly obvious that that deep glen represents the anus. The men are leisurely and casual as they walk through the secret Templar, they can, “take their pleasure,” as Melville says (1). One is reminded of the homosexuality of the Greek upper class, for this is all the homosexual tendencies they can allow themselves in a time so strict. This pleasure of homosexuality is contrasted with the never-ending pressure of heterosexuality that can never stop. As the narrator watches the machine, he’s in awe of it, Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin gauzy veil of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded men it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. (18) This is his view of heterosexuality. It’s forced. Necessary in it’s inability to stop. It’s a vast contrast between that and the warm world of bachelors his narrator prefers. Taken to the extreme in “Tartarus” women often become one dimensional in works written by men. “Tartarus” also works as a criticism of the trend of the one-use female character. In Cooper’s Natty Bumpo works, for example, Cooper often portrayed women solely as seductresses, a distraction from his hero’s journey. The very fact that the Blood River of Tartarus creates white paper is an allegory of this. Blood is life. A body that flowed blood to keep them alive created every single character in both sections of the diptych, creating an even larger discrepancy between single men and women. For something created by the same blood (metaphorically) that created the bachelors to create such “dominated and doomed women,” should be incongruous with life itself (Weigman 3). The narrator himself finds this at odds, for it strikes him, “as so strange that red waters should turn out pale chee – paper, I mean.” (Paradise 14)
Melville’s own guilt at the use of women is apparent in the very thing they create: paper. Not only symbolic in its whiteness, it was his medium. In using paper to represent the single women, derogatorily referred to as girls due to their status as maidens, he admits that he has been complicit in the use of women (Paradise 19). Perhaps as an author famous for his portrayals of male brotherhood so naively appreciated in “Bachelors” regretted the impact of the exclusion of women from his work. Along with the theme of inequality, “Benito Cereno” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” share a naïve point of view. This naivety was not characteristic of Melville himself, for his shrewd and nihilistic personality drips out of every word he wrote, but how he saw the majority of America. No, he was not an all-knowing observer, and he did not know what everything even he wrote meant, but he knew that there was a dangerous ethnocentricity in the United States that prohibited people, like the focus of both short stories, from seeing the truth of inequality in society. As the narrator in “Paradise” steps into a comfortable world of bachelors, Delano steps off his Bachelor’s Delight into the distinct discomfort of oppression. As Harper’s Weekly, the rival of “Benito” publisher Putnam’s Monthly, published sentimental drivel to appease very Americans like these merry bachelors, signifying the upper echelon of American society that cannot see inequality because they’ve been force-fed a certain narrative that whiteness and masculinity are the apex of human ability, while systematically forcing slave revolts like on the fictional San Dominick and causing the suffering of women. As a white man in a time with a strict social hierarchy, it’s quite amazing that Melville was able to so intuitively describe the oppression that is systematic in American culture.
Through a keen ability to describe the social ills through complex storytelling in both “Benito Cereno” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” Melville criticizes the limited view of those with conservative views on gender and race through Captain Amasa Delano and the narrator of “Paradise”. Through these characters limited experiences of complex events, Melville was able to tell his true opinions on the state of the nation in a way that engaged and challenged the reader. His unique voice has come to define American literature as his white wale in Moby Dick defined the obsession of manifest destiny in an era in which he saw America using an unfair military advantage to spread their empire. Melville wrote to define and criticize that very era in America. As an author of with a supreme keenness for inequality and unfairness, Melville’s complex tales leave a truthful and lasting looking glass into the nineteenth century.
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