October 25, 2021
Some Thoughts on “Bartleby, the Scrivener”
Bartleby makes sense to me. While I have been aware of Melville’s 1853 short story for a long time, I have never had the occasion to read it. I remedied that this semester by assigning it to my 1102 class. They had trouble with Poe, so I think they’re going to hate this one, but we’ll see. In their defense, I’m not sure that “Bartleby” would have resonated with me when I was their age—I might have been equally confused about this weird dude. Yet, now I’m a bit more cognizant of the existential crises that chasing the American Dream has on individuals and our collective psyche as a country. The pandemic has made more of us aware that life is more than punching a time clock.
Yes, in many respects, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is more about the narrator than it is about Bartleby. In many respects, he’s the real tragic figure of this story because he never really gets it. He very much feels for Bartleby and truly wants to help him. In a way, Bartleby is sacrificed so that the narrator can become a better human being, and while he laments Bartleby’s death and how that implicates the humanity (or lack thereof) that caused it, I’m not sure he is able to able to really put it together for his own benefit. He is a sympathetic character who honestly does his best to help Bartleby, but ironically, his solutions offer little succor to the ailing man. He is a good boss, but even his generosity does not mitigate the effects of a larger issue: the fact that the modern world has dehumanized its workers, making them little more than ghostly husks that repeat the same tasks daily for years on end in the name of what? Progress? Modernity? Business? The narrator is never named, suggesting he is more a functionary than he is a person, but he does have a title: the Master of Chancery in the State of New York—whatever the hell that is. It sounds impressive, but is likely a bullshit job that the narrator admits “was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative.” That is: not hard, but pays well—you know like most bullshit jobs.
Even the scriveners at least have a tangible function: they are human photocopiers. Can you imagine? Melville must have looked around Ian the middle of the nineteenth century and asked himself what could be the most soul-destroying job. Damn, the scriveners work everyday copying long legal documents full of jargon and esoterica. Imagine having to copy by hand one of those license agreements you need to agree to before using any software. This gives you some indication of their jobs: perhaps essential—at least more than the narrator’s?—but frankly dehumanizing. No wonder Bartleby becomes more ghost-like as the story progresses. The narrator first describes him as “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” and he “wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.” In fact, the narrator makes a contrast with “the mettlesome poet, Byron” who he could never picture “examin[ing] a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crispy hand.” This job is anything but romantic; if anything it might be anti-romantic. By the time Bartleby comes to work fo the narrator, he is broken, but he evanesces and becomes more ghost-like as he moves further from humanity, first like a monk in his ramshackle part of the office which the narrator calls his “hermitage,” or a hermit’s dwelling. He grows increasingly isolated and “for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall.” Even his voice becomes “cadaverous.” These “dead-wall reveries” begin to define Bartleby’s lack of movement: he first gives up copying and ultimately prefers “to be stationary” and “not to make any change.” He is even described by the office’s new tenant as a “ghost” who “persists in haunting the building generally, sitting upon the banisters of the stairs by day, and sleeping in the entry by night.” His wraith-like presence begins to bother people—particularly because of his lack of motion and his refusal to work irritates the narrator and his colleagues, filling them with what turns out to be impotent incredulity. They just don’t know what to do with a guy who would “prefer not to” participate in a system that robs men of their souls.
Yet, I’m not sure Bartleby understands the dis-ease—he’s just sure that he does not want to participate in a system that has caused it anymore. The narrator calls him “a man of preferences,” as if his actions are based on mysterious predilections or action/reaction. He contrasts his own social outlook: he makes reasonable assumptions based on his observations and his experience with the world—a world that has been generally good for him, so he assumes that if someone like Bartleby applies himself, he too could find success. The narrator, then, is a man of assumptions based upon the status quo. And why wouldn’t he be? The system as it stands made him successful, wealthy, esteemed.
. . .
notes and references
- He is a man of assumptions that are derived from his experiences of the world and the system in which he has found success. More on this below.
- Melville, Herman (2002). "Bartleby, the Scrivener". In Sipiora, Phillip. Reading and Writing about Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 211.
- Melville 2002, p. 215.
- Melville 2002, p. 221.
- Melville 2002, p. 223.
- Melville 2002, p. 230.
- Melville 2002, pp. 228, 229.
- Melville 2002, p. 225.