Bartleby

“What my own eyes saw of Bartleby that is all I know of him.” In Bartleby, the Scrivener, the narrator employs habitual characteristics and personal appearances to distinguish the men under his employment.  These characteristics are often superficial and function to show that each man is predictable yet limited in imagination rather like separate cogs on the same wheel.  Turkey is boisterous in the afternoon exhibiting reddish hue in his skin while leaving blots on his transcriptions like an ancient malfunctioning machine.  Nippers is ill-tempered in the mornings and prone to rearranging his working space, a machine who never quite works the way it is supposed to function.  Ginger Nut is still young enough to be running smoothly but in need of some oil or ginger nuts now and again.  These characteristics allow the three workers to disappear effectively into the general working populous.

In contrast, Bartleby offers no easy label forcing the narrator to impose a personality upon Bartleby.  The only certainty of Bartleby’s character is that he would “prefer not to.”   In the law office, Bartleby effectively stands out by saying little.  Bartley’s ironic silence undermines the necessity of the legal world to communicate.  

Bartleby’s actions are so outside the social norms that the narrator must reaffirm his own identity within society by seeking the opinions of Turkey and Nippers thereby clarifying the reality of society.  The narrator displays this sense of disconnect between his personal feelings toward Bartleby and those of society.  It is only when outside lawyers disapproved of Bartleby’s unproductive presence that the narrator moves his law office.

Bartleby is successful in resisting the narrator’s construction of social reality within the law office but when those boundaries are replaced Bartleby must bend his will.  Bartleby is taken to Prison, an institution of society, by the general will.  Despite Bartleby’s internment his refusal to eat demonstrates that his will remains unbroken and he effectively retains his individuality. 

Questions: 

It can be said that Bartleby is representative of the individual will who is opposed by society’s general will but why place the setting on Wall Street?  Is capitalism or materialism the downfall of the individual’s creativity? What would Emerson think of this? If Bartleby retains his individuality throughout the story what does that say about the effectiveness of the general will?  What is the power of passivity in literature?

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3 Responses to Bartleby

  1. vlevasseur11 says:

    Placing Bartleby’s passive resistance to monotonous labor on Wall Street is highly effective. To me Wall Street represents all that both Thoreau and Emerson argued against, since it is somewhat of a concrete jungle devoid of nature and independent thought. The job of scrivener, which is to blindly copy, word-for-word another’s work, seems like Emerson’s so-called parroting. Due to the ultimate demise of Bartleby, I’m not sure what kind of message Melville is sending about the effectiveness of the general will. If Bartelby’s story eventually fades and does not affect others or change their monotonous behavior, then how can man improve himself and become the man that Thoreau and Emerson idealize?

  2. amandalynn9 says:

    I don’t think the story says that capitalism or materialism is downfall of the individual’s creativity so much as it states that economic control in general leads to the downfall of individual creativity, and, by that extension, moral control as well. It is for this reason that I feel Thoreau, who abhorred the government’s ability charge us taxes for those things we may not morally agree with, may have appreciated Bartleby’s passive resistance. On the other hand, Bartleby may be the only one in the story who rebels, but I feel that Emerson would note that, throughout the story, he really doesn’t do much of anything. Instead of actively “thinking,” Bartleby allows himself to become so absorbed in the montony of his own task that at times he simply stares at the wall. Thus, he concerns himself more with what he won’t do than what he will do.

  3. jnikol12 says:

    Bartleby’s seemingly inconsequential existence makes me wonder if he even has an individuality to retain in the first place. Like Amanda mentioned, we as readers don’t construct an opinion of Bartleby’s personality on what he actually does, but rather on what he chooses not to do…which is almost anything. The narrator and his employees may be empty in terms of their creativity and individual will, but Bartleby should not be seen as their moral opposite. He, too, is empty, having no true purpose in his life and wasting his time doing absolutely nothing. His decision not to integrate himself into society or do anything apart from sitting and thinking, Bartleby is in disagreement with transcendentalist thought. He does wreak some mild havoc on the law office with his incredible passivity, but had he utilized conversation and some sort of action into his existence among his co workers and boss, he would’ve been able to have a greater effect on the “greater will”.

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