Masculinity in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” Essay
Updated: Sep 8th, 2020
Authors often explore the concepts of maleness and masculinity in their literary works regardless of whether they intend to do so or not. The ideals of masculinity may change over time, which can be seen in the books and stories of various writers. The story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Melville can be taken as an example of an interaction between multiple male characters and an interpretation of masculinity. One can discuss and compare several characters from this work. For example, Bartleby, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut all represent different characteristics and portrayals of manhood. This paper aims to look into the themes of maleness and masculinity in the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and see if the ideals of masculinity stayed the same or changed since the 19th century.
All characters that are present in the short story have unique personalities and quirks. For example, Turkey and Nippers, the two scriveners that have been working for the narrator for a long time, complement each other in their attitudes. Turkey is an older man that is complaisant and efficient during the first half of the day and almost useless afternoon due to his growing temper. Nippers, on the other hand, is an active and restless young man, who is rather irritated in the morning and calm after dinner. These two characters contrast each other in their behavior patterns. The author notes that “their fits relieved each other like guards,” agreeing with the notion that Turkey and Nippers show the same characteristics at different points in time (Melville 5). Turkey, however, is a more passive man as he does not demonstrate any signs of wanting more than he has at the moment. He is not ambitious in any way. It is possible that his old age is the reason for his complaisant behavior. However, he does not appear as a man who was active before.
Nippers are rather ambitious, according to the narrator. He pursues other deals and communicates with other working people regularly. Moreover, his grumpy attitude in the morning is not followed by him being inactive in the evening. Nippers simply become more agreeable and less aggressive. However, both men share many personality traits. They are rather polite and orderly during one part of the day while being rude and hostile during the other. They work together soundly and follow orders from their boss without any complaints. In the end, they are both quite capable as scriveners, despite their unusual behaviors.
Ginger Nut is a twelve-year-old boy, who runs errands for the men in the office. His personality is not discussed in detail by the narrator as there is nothing out of the ordinary to say about him. Ginger Nut is a young man that behaves according to his age and occupation. Moreover, even his nickname does not represent anything about his characteristics because it describes his primary duty at the office – bringing ginger nuts to other workers. This detail can give readers some information about the boy and the men as it shows both his commonness and their limited vision of him.
Bartleby, a new scrivener at the narrator’s office, is very different from other characters. First of all, while other characters are rather transparent in their behaviors, Bartleby is very mysterious. His actions are not followed by any explanation, which makes his appearance only more puzzling. Bartleby does not talk much. In fact, at some point, the narrator notes that Bartleby only speaks when asked a question. Moreover, he is emotionless and almost inert at most times. Thus, it is nearly impossible for other characters to assess his thoughts. In the beginning, Bartleby presents himself as a quiet but efficient worker. The narrator sees him as the first and the last one to be in the office and assumes that Bartleby is devoted to his job. However, later he learns that Bartleby has been living in the room all this time. The scrivener’s rare dialogue is unusual as well. His most repeated phrase “I would prefer not to” becomes the main description of his character (Melville 7). Later, other workers find that they start using this phrase as well. It signifies the influence that Bartleby has on other people.
Bartleby is not serviceable or supple as he often dismisses the commands from his boss. However, his polite and passive manner of doing that is so unusual to the narrator that the lawyer does not know how to react. Bartleby is different from others because he does not want to please other people or conform to standard working behavior.
Masculinity and Being a Man
While being different, most characters in the story follow the same working routine. Two scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, and Ginger Nut behave according to the usual standards for workers. They listen to their boss and colleagues, follow orders, and communicate with each other during the working day. The narrator and the workers are all men. They represent the male clerk demographic of the 19th century in that they have a full-time office job, where they mostly deal with papers and other office workers. The maleness that Melville describes comes from their working conditions as well as from their personalities. The narrator and the two scriveners feel the sense of fraternity as they often ask for each other’s opinions on different matters. Moreover, they need verbal support from each other to establish their rightness in situations that are unusual to them.
In one scene, the narrator seeks support from Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut to confirm his thoughts about Bartleby, when the latter does not respond to the lawyer in a matter that is expected from all workers. Moreover, this scene portrays that characters in the position of power expect to be agreed with on every occasion. The narrator, baffled by Bartleby’s rejection, tries to establish dominance by arguing with him. Other men become aggressive after hearing that Bartleby does not want to comply with the system. Thus, Melville notes that maleness in this story is shown by people having some expectations of other people that everyone has to follow to be a part of society. Other attitudes are deemed weird and wrong. Thus, men should try to eliminate such behaviors.
For example, Bartleby’s passive refusal to listen to the boss is one of these attitudes. The narrator himself notes that “one … is a sort of unmanned when he tranquility permits his hired clerk to dictate to him,” stating that maleness is defined by dominance and control (Melville 13). Moreover, men feel uncomfortable because of Bartleby’s unsocial behavior. They try to invoke a sense of camaraderie by inviting him out to dinner and communicating with him. However, Bartleby does not follow these social norms as well. By contrasting themselves with the silent scrivener, the characters evaluate their masculinity. In their eyes, being a man means following the traditional structure of dominance and compliance and engaging with other men as friends and sources of support. However, one should note that this support is not emotional, but vocal. Male characters seek approval from other men in order to confirm that their beliefs are predominant and, thus, normal.
Ideals of Masculinity
The representation of men in this short story outlines several characteristics that correlate to maleness. The notion that men are expected to take control and establish their dominance in most situations is still expected to this day. Groups of employees and employers are seen as different levels in the social structure. Thus, orders from people of higher positions are still regarded as unquestionable. Thus, it is reasonable to follow the established order, and reasonableness is masculine. The narrator’s decision to remove Bartleby from the office by force would be viewed as masculine today as it would be seen in the 19th century because he would be doing what is expected of him.
Moreover, fraternity and vocal support are still staples of masculinity. As the narrator refers to himself and Bartleby as “the sons of Adam,” he invokes the sense of commonness that he feels should bind all men together (Melville 13). According to Jamil, the narrator displays common sense to an average reader (34). However, the logic of the narrator does not include any emotional evaluation of Bartleby’s behavior. The lawyer rejects any emotional bonding that could let him understand the scrivener’s intentions. Moreover, the characters do not share their worries or emotions outside of feeling irritated or surprised by unusual attitudes. Such self-absorbed behavior is also a characteristic that can be connected to the concept of being a man. Thus, these ideals of masculinity are still relevant to this day.
Jamil, S. Selina. “Contemplating the ‘Bond of a Common Humanity’ with Imagination and Emotions in ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’” CEAMAGAZINE, vol. 25, 2016, pp. 30-45.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
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