Civil Disobedience in Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Seen throughout time, when people in society gain power and become figures of authority, they end up abusing their power in relationship to their inferiors. Abusing their power causes unrest and chaos and it gives these machines an ultimate sense of superiority. This concept has been highlighted through experiments in psychology and through forces of government time and time again. Psychology professor, Stanley Milgram aimed to exemplify these roles through playing with forces of rule and rebellion in the Stanford prison experiment. This experiment attempted to investigate the effects of perceived powers and tested this through the relationship between prisoners and prison officers. This experiment revealed how readily people conformed to the social roles that they’re expected to play in an excessive way. The experiment also showed how the prisoners’ rebellion against the guards was met with heavy retaliation and caused the guards to become increasingly derisive and aggressive. The guards aimed to make their powerful role clear which caused the prisoners to become more and more submissive. Henry David Thoreau addresses this idea of rebellion shown in the experiment in his well known essay, “Civil Disobedience.” The philosopher argues that an unjust government needs to be met with revolt. “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine” (Thoreau 2). Through this Thoreau is encouraging the people to adopt civil disobedience in order to create change as an individual in the face of an unjust government. Thoreau required the utilization of what we presently call ‘passive resistance’ to laws he saw to be treacherous, and anticipated that individual protection from unreasonable laws could significantly affect government and its approaches. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the main character struggles with fighting his respective machine by being trapped in his submissive role. Through the frames of adopting civil disobedience through passive resistance in the face of unjust superiors, Bartleby is able to rebel successfully- unlike the prisoners in Milgram’s experiment. Thoreau motivates Bartleby to disobey the authority in the face of unfair treatment no matter what his role may be in relation to power. Despite being in a position of inferiority, Bartleby successfully applies Thoreau’s values within his office environment, causing him to break free from the chains of discriminatory treatment.
In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” there is a clear distribution of unjust power in accordance with the respective roles within the office which lead rebellion against it. The narrator is played by the lawyer who employs Bartleby because he was in need of another copyist. The setting of this story plays a huge part in framing the roles of the superior and inferior in the face of eventual rebellion. The story is set in an economically bustling time in a law office on wall street, New York in the middle of the 19th century. This highly intensive business setting conveys that there’s no time for personal interaction and, as a result, the relationships of the characters within the story are strictly professional. This contributes to a generic characterization that Melville offers through the narrator which is tremendously critical – this fast paced business world in which they work has no space for individual communication which contributes to the superior and inferior roles being more prominent and ingrained within the workplace. Additionally Melville’s decision of storyteller is especially essential to this story as a first person, central narrator. While he could have picked any number of various points from which to see the abnormal scrivener, his decision of the attorney enables us to see everything through the eyes of Bartleby’s boss, who characterizes his staff as machines and motionless, highlighting his superiority. Bartleby rebels against the very foundation of this capitalist economy as well as the demands of his superior employer. Bartleby challenges corporate ideologies by simply declining to fulfill his role in the office. All copies must be inspected for precision, and so when the lawyer brings in Bartleby and requests that he analyze an archive; Bartleby answers, ‘I would prefer not to’ (Melville 308). This answer shocks the lawyer so much that he is unable to react. Afterward, when an enormous record must be analyzed and every one of the copyists are arranged to look at each page, the narrator again brings in Bartleby, who again answers that he ‘would prefer not to’ (Melville 308) inspect the archive. The usage of the frames prefer uses passive resistance as a way to rebel against the ingrained roles of superiority and through this he exercises enormous power as an inferior. Through this statement Bartleby denies obligingly but by utilizing the restrictive structure ‘would,’ he proposes that there may be a decision in the issue. Then again, this decision and the articulation of good manners through the use of “prefer” is a mere illusion, for Bartleby glaringly will not do anything asked of him. What we observe in his statement is a type of obstruction dependent on seeming to yield while not yielding under any condition. In essence Bartleby rebels against the superior figure head within his office and despite being an inferior he successfully yields power in refusing to acknowledge the demands of the machine.
Through his passive resistance, Bartleby is applying Thoreau’s phrase “government is best which governs the least… or not at all” (Thoreau, section 1). Just like Thoreau, Bartleby was unhappy with the machine that governed his life in his workplace. Thoreau refused to pay taxes which was his duty as a citizen and Bartleby refused to examine a document which was his duty as a scrivener. Despite being inferior to the lawyer, Bartleby successfully attempts to fight the materialistic system of Wall Street by leaving his superior speechless in demanding him further. Bartleby continues to fight the system by denying the economy his status as a consumer. His absence of want for nourishment might be the most relevant case of this insubordination—Bartleby totally dismisses his job as buyer, even when this expending is vital for his very own life. “…he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion” (Melville 307). The narrator also observes how “…he never went out for dinner” (Melville 311). By not giving into the chain of economy Bartleby is not only rebelling against societal machines that keep the financial system up and going but he’s rebelling against every fiber of his being. Bartleby’s character can also be perused as an early abstract acknowledgment of depression. His detachment at work mixes progressively against social conduct, which the lawyer neglects to take note. The clear separation of a lack of individual communication and separation between the inferior and superior in the workplace highly contribute to this.
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