Passivity Versus Rebellion: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Fight Club
On the surface, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” published in 1853, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, published in 1996, may seem completely at odds with one another, yet there are some similarities between the themes and characters of the works that are worthy of exploration. Both works begin with depictions of men who are disillusioned with the modern workplace and, in a broader sense, critical of the legitimacy of capitalism. The ways in which the two main characters react to this disillusionment, however, seem to exemplify two different philosophical ideals. Bartleby, the focus of Melville’s short story, is the epitome of passivity. Opposite to this, the unnamed narrator of Palahniuk’s novel is the face of organized rebellion. By comparing “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Fight Club, readers may more thoroughly interpret the works as criticisms of the modern workplace and explore how these different ideological approaches exist as two sides of the same argument against capitalist societies.
In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” readers witness the life and death of Bartleby, a scrivener, through the eyes of his boss, an unnamed Wall Street lawyer. It is notable that the story is told from the perspective of Bartleby’s boss. Because of this point of view, readers see the mindset of the upper class and their attitudes about the working class. Based on Melville’s presentation of the workplace and his characterization of Bartleby, this short story may be considered a criticism of American capitalism and its tendency to reduce individuality by determining a person’s worth based on his or her productivity. Melville depicts the workplace as an isolating, depersonalizing environment. The narrator describes the office in which Bartleby works, telling that Bartleby is separated from his coworkers or any other sort of outside distraction. Even the window that he might look out of for some type of stimulus is blocked by the view of another building. Bartleby’s isolation is described by the narrator as though it is done purposefully. He tells, “Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined” (611). It is apparent that Melville’s depiction of the workplace is meant to emphasize its isolation and its dehumanizing nature. Bartleby is expected to sit in a small space and provide labor without any distraction other than the demands of his superior. Immediately upon entering the workplace, Bartleby is reduced to a position as a working tool. He is not a person that needs human interaction; he is a means of productivity.
In a similar manner as Melville, Palahniuk describes the modern workplace and its dehumanizing nature in Fight Club. The unnamed narrator and protagonist of the novel works as a product recall specialist for a car company and begins to suffer from insomnia and delusional behavior because of the stress and jetlag that result from his job. Like Bartleby, the protagonist is confined to a small space in an office and is expected to provide labor for his corporate job. In contrast to Bartleby, readers can witness the mindset of a person in the working class through a first-person point of view. Reflecting on the banal quality of his job, the protagonist tells, “You do the little job you’re trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die” (12). Palahniuk’s presentation of the workplace seems to emphasize the triviality of existing as a tool in a capitalist society. The protagonist is brutally aware that his societal value is based on his ability to perform a task, and he becomes disillusioned with the modern workplace because of this. It could be contended that Bartleby feels the same way about the meaninglessness of his job, but readers are not aware of his thoughts because of the point of view employed by Melville. In any case, it is clear that both authors intend to depict the workplace in a negative manner and showcase how capitalist societies that focus on productivity devalue individualism.
Like the banality of the workplace that Palahniuk presents, Melville seems to draw attention to the futility of existing under American capitalism. Bartleby’s job as a scrivener requires him to tediously make copies of legal documents by hand. The narrator describes the nature of Bartleby’s job: “It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some, to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, Byron, would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand” (611). The triviality of Bartleby’s work is undeniable. It is also interesting that Melville references Byron, a renowned poet. In alluding to this poet and stating that someone of his caliber would not complete Bartleby’s assigned tasks, Melville suggests that Bartleby’s work is one that diminishes creativity and genius. Further pinpointing the pointlessness of Bartleby’s labor, at the end of the story it is revealed that Bartleby had worked in the Dead Letters Office at Washington, which is an office that manages undeliverable mail. It may be concluded that Bartleby’s life was as futile as the undeliverable mail in the dead letters office.
Palahniuk’s criticism of capitalism, specifically his focus on the futility of the American dream and the consumerist mindset, is more overt than in Melville’s work. The protagonist, along with his alter ego Tyler Durden, demand that consumerism is lowering the quality of life for modern Americans and determining the worth of an individual by his or her monetary value. Palahniuk writes, “You’re not how much money you’ve got in the bank. You’re not your job. You’re not your family, and you’re not who you tell yourself” (143). Unlike Bartleby, the protagonist of Fight Club is angered by the societal framework in which he is forced to exist. He outright denies the legitimacy of his society and opposes the idea of the American dream. Palahniuk is much more radical in his criticism of American capitalism that Melville, but there is a definitive similarity between the way the two authors depict the triviality of American life.
In Melville’s work, Bartleby, after a short period of productivity, stops performing his assigned tasks. He does not aggressively refuse his tasks or explain the reason behind his lack of productivity; he simply stops doing his job. When asked to perform one of these tasks, he replies, “I would prefer not to” (611). Soon, this becomes a type of compulsory catch phrase for Bartleby. Anything that he is asked, he replies that he would prefer not to. There is never a violent protest against the conditions of the workplace or the menial nature of his work, but there is a strong sense of resistance in Bartleby’s unwillingness to cooperate with his superiors. The narrator tells, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance” (614). Based on the understanding that Melville is criticizing the modern workplace and questioning the ethical ramifications of capitalism, readers may view Bartleby’s attitude as an example of passive resistance against a capitalist society. Though he is not actively standing up against capitalism, he is passively resisting its legitimacy by his quiet refusal to perform his duties.
The protagonist of Fight Club has an incredibly different reaction to disillusionment with his workplace and society than Bartleby. While Bartleby is as passive as humanly possible, the protagonist of Fight Club is incredibly assertive. In fact, he is so assertive that he creates a psychopathic, anarchist alter ego to escape the confines of his tedious middle class American life and creates an organized rebellion against modern society. The fight club that the narrator creates is an outlet for the suppressed human emotions that result from existing in a capitalist society. Eventually, this fight club evolves into a cult-like organization referred to as “Project Mayhem.” Project Mayhem is divided into several task forces that have been designed to infiltrate and deconstruct the framework of modern civilization. Tyler Durden, describing the power of Project Mayhem, tells,
The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve you dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life. We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we’ll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re just learning this fact. (166)
Palahniuk describes the unharnessed power of the working class, and he seems to be criticizing the average citizen’s passivity. Palahniuk’s work argues that the people of the working class are the true powerholders in a capitalist society, yet they have been conditioned to accept their inferiority and are thus rendered powerless. According to Fight Club, it is only through unity and rebellion that people may free themselves from the grasp of capitalism.
In conclusion, both Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Palahniuk’s Fight Club criticize the effects of capitalism. While Melville’s short story is more symbolic in its denunciation of capitalism than Palahniuk’s aggressive condemnation of modern society, it is apparent that both works share the common theme of questing the legitimacy of American capitalism. Both works evaluate the commodification of humans in a capitalist society and the resulting diminished individualism. The protagonists of the two works become disillusioned with their workplaces and the societal frameworks in which they live. Bartleby and the protagonist of Fight Club each demonstrate a form of resistance against the stronghold of capitalism. While Bartleby utilizes passive resistance, Palahniuk’s protagonist is the face of an organized rebellion. Though passive resistance and organized rebellion may seem discordant, it may be concluded that the two are similar in their desires to discredit capitalism.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Story and Its Writer, edited by Ann Charters, 9th ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015, pp. 606-632.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. W.W. Norton, 1996.
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