Making Sense of Bartleby

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

In his novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story Of Wall Street, Herman Melville creates a fascinating character who poses as a riddle to the story’s narrator, and one that is not easily solved, even by the reader. It is the story of a lawyer, and one who has never seen the inside of the court room, but rather focuses on issue of real estate. He has an apprentice and two scrivener (or clerks; essentially, because they didn’t have photocopy machines back in the day clerks would hand write copies of documents), but upon inheriting some work, he finds he is in need of a third scrivener; enter Bartleby.  Bartleby’s work is good, but an issue arises in that when it comes time to verify the work via proofreading, he opts not to participate claiming simply that he would “prefer not to”, his now infamous refrain. This soon becomes the chorus of the narrative and the list of things that Bartleby would prefer not to do soon includes copying as well, his sole function at the law office.

 

The advent of the photocopier has rescued lawyers from having to tolerate the eccentricities of people like Bartleby.

The advent of the photocopier has rescued lawyers from having to tolerate the eccentricities of people like Bartleby.

The narrator, for his part, tries to be understanding and assumes that perhaps Bartleby’s eyes are bothering him. This is the crux of the story though. The narrator makes assumptions. Bartleby indicates that he would “prefer not to” do a great many things, and the narrator always offers a solution, but never inquires as to what it is that Bartleby would prefer to do, but rather makes assumptions as to what the solution might be without consulting Bartleby. Bartleby displays a passive resistance that is equaled only by the narrator. Bartleby refuses to do work, and, as it turns out, actually lives in the law office and refuses to move out when he ceases to work. The narrator, rather than forcibly removing Bartleby, removes himself instead. This, the narrator assumes, is a solution, but the folks that move into the narrator’s old office contact him and inform him that Bartleby refuses to leave and will not do any work.

 

Though perhaps not as efficient as a photocopier, the quill and bottle oof ink are far more photogenic.

Though perhaps not as efficient as a photocopier, the quill and bottle oof ink are far more photogenic.

Feeling obliged to solve the problem, the narrator visits the building where he formerly rented office space, and discovers that Bartleby is living in the hall way, as he was removed from the office. When the narrator offers to allow Bartleby to live with him for a time, Bartleby simple states that he would… “prefer not to”. Still, the narrator does not ask Bartleby what it is that he would prefer to do. Failing to leave the building, Bartleby is arrested and in prison, though the narrator pays to ensure Bartleby is provided with the finest foods available in prison, Bartley refuses to eat at all, stating that he would “prefer not to”, and does not. He dies of starvation, but not before saying to the narrator: “I know you… and I want nothing to say to you.” When, some days later, the narrator finds Bartleby dead in the yard of the prison, he says that Bartleby is asleep with “kings and counsellors”. As the novella closes, the narrator shares a rumour that suggest Bartleby worked for the Dead Letter Office at the United States Postal Service and was laid off from the position.

 

 

The "Charging Bull", by sculptor Arturo Di Modico is meant to embody Wall Street.  So to, perhaps does Melville's narrative.

The “Charging Bull”, by sculptor Arturo Di Modico is meant to embody Wall Street. So to, perhaps does Melville’s narrative.

The novella is interesting on so many levels, though it seems outwardly absurd. The narrator seems to distance himself from Bartleby, but at the same time Bartleby seems as if he is a manifestation of the narrator. The two mirror each other in many ways, both use passive resistance. But the narrator, who no doubt believes he has made every effort to help Bartleby, has in the process of attending to Bartleby, failed to acknowledge Bartleby’s own autonomy. He does not solicit Bartleby’s opinion on matters concerning Bartleby and instead prescribes solutions. Such behaviour reflects the condescending nature of some of the charitable societies of the time, and even the attitude of some charitable societies today. One is reminded perhaps of Christian organizations that help to feed and clothe Africans, while also providing health care and shelter. Yes, these are good deeds, but whilst providing this aid the Christian organizations often preach their own agenda and teach the children English and Christianize them, stripping them of their culture and heritage in the process and imposing their own in its place. In the 19th century charitable societies did much the same, often prescribing a solution without taking into consideration the needs and wants of the people in need of charity. Equally problematic was that these charities did not seek to end the causes of poverty, but merely put a Band-Aid on them. What was needed was an examination of the system that allowed poverty to occur. Changing that system would mean eliminating the privileged, and those are the people who made up the charitable societies, and so, there was a conflict of interest because while the privileged were happy to willing to give to the poor, so long as their lifestyle did not change, they were not willing to give up their lifestyle to create equality. This is what the narrator of Melville’s novella is doing. He is not willing to sacrifice his own personal lifestyle for Bartleby, but is willing to help him. Such a mentality was an extension of Wall Street, and this is no doubt the reason that Melville included the subtitle: “A Story Of Wall Street”.

 

 

So many letters do not arrive... it's like The Notebook, only way less cheesy.

So many letters do not arrive… it’s like The Notebook, only way less cheesy.

Interesting to me is Bartleby’s line: “I know you… and I want nothing to say to you”. This seems to say so much, it seems to challenge the narrator. It suggests that there is vice beneath the outward charity, a vice that not even the narrator is willing to recognize, but one that Bartleby sees clearly. Equally interesting is the allusion to the fact that Bartleby worked for the Dead Letter Department of the postal service. His life was built around communication that failed. There is something in that as both Bartleby and the narrator have things to communicate, but neither manages to be able to connect with the other. The voices are dead letters to each other. Can we ever really communicate with another person? Can anybody truly understand us?

 

Cicero: He said some deep shit.

Cicero: He said some deep shit.

There are other readings. There are references to some philosophies in the narrative, notably Jonathan Edwards’s “Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will” as well as a bust of Cicero, a famous Roman philosopher. I do not assume such placement to be accidental, but my knowledge of these philosophers is nil, so it is hard for me to explore how the work speaks to these works of philosophy.  It is a great work and one that will set your mind at work if you allow it, though a casual reading will allow the lazy reader to simply shrug it off as absurd.

 

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Jonathan Edwards, author of “Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will”, and not nearly as handsome as Cicero.

Jonathan Edwards, author of “Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will”, and not nearly as handsome as Cicero.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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