“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.
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?