Charity as Purchase: Buying Self-Approval in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

In this critique, the author is making the argument that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a critique of American capitalism. Bartleby is said to be a prime example of an alienated worker who is unable to express himself and is forced to copy legal documents that hold no meaning to him, which he is doing for a firm whose purpose is to protect the wealthy and their private property.

Nancy D. Goldfarb, the author of this article, makes some comparisons between Bartleby and the lawyer. Unlike Bartleby, the lawyer is shown as someone who likes the monotony and being detached from his work on that personal level. He enjoys the solitude in his quiet office, where he conducts his work taking care of the wealthy also. Nancy states that Karl Marx, by writing this story, was doing so in response to the very similar work conditions that were being experienced in the United States during this time period.

During this time period greed, materialism, and self-interest were rampant in the American workplace, which is what Nancy is calling extreme capitalism. Andrew Herman says that philanthropy is used for wealthy men to use their financial worth as an equivalent to their moral worth. After running an extensive study, Herman then said that the “narrative of fortune and virtue” split the world into two categories, which is what is given (fortune) and what is accomplished (virtue). They use these two terms to create a set of values and behaviors that allow them to have something to identify with morally. It gives men a way to create an image for themselves and in their eyes create a path that makes them responsible for their own destiny. This also legitimized the power and privilege of the wealthy, using their wealth and fortune to show their virtue.

Capitalism and philanthropy are initially shown to have a mutually beneficial relationship in the story, showing in the relationship between the lawyer and philanthropist John Jacob Astor. Astor employed the lawyer and praised him highly for his services, which the lawyer takes pride in, as Astor is the first multimillionaire in American history. Astor was regarded highly by society, due to his wealth and generosity, which caused the lawyer to aspire to be like him. The lawyer seen here is noted as very different from the narrator, whose hindsight is 20-20 and enables him to see every interaction he has with Bartleby as the story goes.

It gives him the opportunity to think back and causes him to wonder about the role he played in Bartleby’s homelessness and death. We are seeing into his mind as he copes with guilt in how he might have negatively added to this man’s life and led to his end. The narrator represents himself as Bartleby’s benefactor to ease his conscious, which is showing how he is being biased and only presenting us with information that would leave a favorable impression of him.

Melville wrote the lawyer in a way that he didn’t come across as a good man trying to become a better person or prosecuting him for what he did, but rather shows how he impacted Bartleby’s death and focusing more on Bartleby and his character changes. The lawyer does not see what happened to Bartleby as a result of an unjust social system or as his fault at all. The narrator sees what happened to Bartleby as a solitary incident and not a rampant problem in the social structure that he is a part of, despite the fact that this situation was used to represent a growing problem in the population of citizens in the city during midcentury America.

Bartleby brought this situation into the light, bringing about a public debate over the poverty that Americans were experiencing in the 1840’s and is still used in discussions about welfare and charity today. There was a tendency for people to view this sort of poverty as just a moral failure by the party experiencing it. At the same time charity and philanthropy were seen as viable ways of redistributing wealth to balance the social structure, so it would seem more equal. This was not the case, as it was like putting a bandaid on a much deeper situation that was just growing worse.

In the story the lawyers narration is consistently pointing to the ways that capitalistic ethic ultimately resulted in the loss of true charity and philanthropy, by instead showing individualism, self-promotion, and the value of money and profit over people. As an employer, the lawyer is a representative of a capitalist economic system, by on the surface treating his employees with generosity, but in reality this just serves his financial interests. He does things like giving his worker a more “respectable” looking coat, which while it may seem he would do something like this to keep his employee warm, he is doing it to improve the overall image of his business.

The narrator also constantly downplays the fact that his employees are poorly compensated for the amount of work they put in. The narrator does something similar with Bartleby in that he feels that he is doing him a favor by keeping him as an employee. He makes a comment about how it’s good of him to keep him because otherwise he will go work for someone lesser and starve, making it seem like he is just and “doing the right thing” for his worker.

When the lawyer finds out that Bartleby has been living in the office and realizes that his employee is homeless he has an opportunity to do something good for him and be a real friend. He initially shows empathy by imagining how hard and lonely it must be for Bartleby to be there all alone. He almost immediately transitions into a different thought process, influenced by his wealth and superiority over Bartleby. Instead of seeing Bartleby as a fellow human, the lawyer assumes the role as his physician and gives up in defeat towards his patient, whom he could not heal.

He then severs his connection with Bartleby, which in turn causes him to sever his connection with God. He stopped attending church when he finds out Bartleby is living at the office, as he says he no longer feels deserving of divine grace. There are several instances where the lawyer tries to offer Bartleby cash to help him, instead of offering compassion or sympathy towards his employee. When Bartleby goes to prison the lawyer then hires a “grub-man” to bring him better food. He compares himself to the Good Samaritan, who provided food and money for the man he rescues.

The narrator shifts from thinking of Bartleby as a fellow human to finding him a nuisance. In doing so he is putting all priority on his public image. He admits that he never fully viewed Bartleby as a human being. He doesn’t try to learn anything about Bartleby until the occasion arises when he might have to terminate him. His humanity towards him ends when his association with him begins to jeopardize his public image and reputation in the workplace. When the lawyer no longer has Bartleby in his life, he starts to suffer from an absence of meaning or purpose. It is a consequence of his values, which causes him to defer to the most powerful, regardless of their morals. He has an absence of commitment or concern for others, as he only has to focus on his work and the philanthropy he seeks out. He, and his life, are defined by the appreciation and business he receives from the wealthy men of which he conducts business with.

Melville’s critique of the narrator comes together when he visits Bartleby in the tombs for the final time. He condemns himself for his choices and impact on the world whenever he finds out Bartleby has died. He says that by choosing money over service to humanity and sacrificing connections for the sake of his own personal gain that he resembles Job’s kings and counselors, who built a desolate place for everyone. He believes that our world is made up gestures that disguise themselves as charity in place of having a word full of love and genuine compassion for one another.

This story shows that clarity and philanthropy can be used to serve the interests of those who are more privileged at the expense of those who are poor and in the lower, working class. Melville implicates philanthropy as a tool of capitalism through the lawyer. Though philanthropy can be motivated by good intentions, it is also frequently misused as a tool to improve public relations and put a band-aid on problems in our country that need to be better addressed.


Read more