Sight but No Vision
Never has there been a character quite so open to interpretation than that of Bartleby in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, the Scrivener. In the position of the reader, it is simple to blame Bartleby for an initial lack of understanding after reading the story, though the reader should not be encouraged to take the easy way out. While it appears that Bartleby is blind as to his surroundings and colleagues, in reality his colleagues are the ones blind towards Bartleby’s actions, as well as towards the capitalist system that they are working for.
The lawyer’s positioning of Bartleby’s desk in his office is an example of his blindness towards his capitalist desire for control, and later offers him a convenient explanation that he uses to excuse Bartleby’s actions. In the lawyer’s description of the layout, the text reads “I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus … privacy and society were conjoined” (Norton, 1108). Professor and literary critic Sanford Pinsker takes on the short story in his article “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: Language as Wall, and describes the lawyer’s thinking here: “Removed from sight – the purpose, after all, of walls – Bartleby is, nonetheless, within easy range of verbal commands” (Pinsker, 20). In this, we get a peek into the lawyer’s appreciation and involuntary following of the capitalist system’s status quo. In such a system, he plays the role of the boss, who, of course, is the one in charge, the one of utmost importance, and the one who should benefit most from the layout of an office. He is controlling the office space so as to make his work easier, with little regard for his new employee, Bartleby. It is not that the lawyer is underestimating Bartleby, he is simply unaware of the challenge that is in store for him now that the scrivener is operating under his employment. Later in the story, we see the positioning of Bartleby’s desk return as an excuse for the employee’s actions. One day the lawyer notices that the scrivener has done no writing at all, in fact he “did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery” (1117). Bartleby calmly explains that he will not do any more writing, and provides a peculiar response when the lawyer asks for a reason: “Do you not see the reason for yourself,” (1117). The lawyer is taken off guard, and in his coming answer to the question we once again see his appreciation for capitalism’s status quo of order, and sense – he wants to understand and make sense of the events that happen in his life, and especially the ones in his workplace. “Instantly it occurred to me, that his … copying by his dim window for the first few weeks … temporarily impaired his vision” (1117). The lawyer uses something that he is responsible for as an excuse for his employee’s actions. He is naturally blind to the idea that there could be something more going on here than Bartleby’s apparent “impaired vision”, because it has the potential to disrupt the norms that he is so used to living by. He needs something that makes sense to him.
This narrating character and his lack of true vision is of much importance when attempting to understand the story, as Pinsker illuminates in his article. He writes, “I am convinced that looking an enigmatic figure like Bartleby in the eye is something akin to staring into a blank wall” (17). And so, with the scrivener providing no clear meaning, the attention must shift to “that ‘eminently safe man,’ the lawyer-narrator, whose sensibilities are crucial to an understanding of Melville’s story” (17). These “sensibilities” that he speaks of are the very rules that the lawyer is now pre-disposed to living his life by. He sees whatever it is that he wants to see, because this is the only way that he can understand Bartleby’s actions. Thus, the reader’s interpretation of the story is hindered; we never truly see things through a clear ideology, or through someone who is prepared to take on the scrivener. All that we get is a symbolically blind narrator.
Turkey and Nippers, both colleagues of Bartleby, believe that they see through him, when in reality he is influencing the very way that they think. After overhearing Bartleby explain to the lawyer that he “would prefer not to be a little reasonable”, the two co-workers offer words that discuss what they think will get through to Bartleby and hopefully change his behaviour. Nippers, in his violent morning state, exclaims “‘I’d prefer him; I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule!’”, inferring that he wishes to physically assault Bartleby in hopes of making him act as Nippers thinks a normal person would (1116). Turkey, in his calm morning state, offers his own advice to his boss, “‘I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers’” (1116). Here, the two employees are imposing their personal ideologies onto Bartleby due to their belief that they have the ability to see through him and his behaviour. Both think that they wield enough power to change the scrivener, while actually it is the other way around; the scrivener has been changing them. The lawyer catches on to this phenomenon that Bartleby has brought about in his office. He expresses that he feels “slightly excited” that he is not the only one whose language has been influenced by Bartleby (1116). The large difference between the lawyer and his other employees, though, is that they are blind as to what is happening. The lawyer-narrator explains, “Nippers … asked whether I would prefer to have a certain paper copied on blue paper or white … It was plain that it involuntarily rolled from his tongue” (1117). Nippers, as well as Turkey, are subconsciously repeating Bartleby’s famed expression, and neither have any idea that they are doing it. This further cements the idea that the scrivener’s effect on his fellow employees is something both impactful and hidden from sight.
Finally, in Bartleby’s death, we see that the lawyer is as blind as ever in his concluding attempt at explaining the man’s behavior. Bartleby has been living in the Tombs, (a prison), and the lawyer’s self-imposed responsibility for the scrivener’s well-being drives him to frequently visit the man, and attempt to better his time spent in incarceration by paying off inmates to take care of Bartleby. Upon Bartleby’s death by starvation, and thus, the lawyer’s personal failure, we see the narrating character clinging for reason and explanation for the tragedy, drawing back to his capitalist desire for order and control over a situation. His relief, then, comes in the form of the Dead Letter Office, “When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the motions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?” (1127). The lawyer-narrator continues to attempt to explain the life of Bartleby, though something is different this time around, allowing him to be more confident in his tone. Sanford Pinsker further explains this in his paper’s closing paragraph, “rumors about the Dead Letter Office provide the lawyer with a convenient platform … But this time, of course, Bartleby cannot interfere … Death may well be the final barrier which human understanding cannot cross” (26). The main idea to take from this is that Bartleby is no longer present to interfere with the lawyer-narrator’s thinking. There is little difference between this explanation and his earlier ones that deal with Bartleby’s behavior, but now, at last, he is the boss once again, free from the challenging scrivener whose rhetoric works against his thinking. The lawyer is blind to this, and it is easy to tell that he believes this idea to be something special, or something different, that explains Bartleby and his unusual life and death. He wants this to explain it all, but, in short, it is a leap.
Interpreting a text like Bartleby, the Scrivener and its title character is fun because of the surprising amount of possibilities that they come with. With that being said, it becomes easy to limit thinking into a narrow, tunnel-like vision when attempting to make sense of the story and its events. If the reader wants to get the full experience, as Melville intended, let them be reminded to keep their eyes, as well as their mind, open.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 1102-1128. Print.
Pinsker, Sanford. “‘Bartleby the Scrivener’: Language as Wall.” College Literature 2 (1975):17-27. JSTOR. Web. 21 November 2016.
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