Rebels and Non-comformists in the Short Stories of Herman Melville

May 14, 2019 by Essay Writer

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seen as a representative of non-conformity, the alienated modern man who “stands up against an ignorant universe of outdated values” (Peterson, 24).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.

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