Herman Melville

It is interesting to note the timeline of this story in accordance with Melville’s most known work, Moby Dick.  Moby Dick, which was published late in 1851 and was an obviously ambitious and adventurous undertaking, did not do so well in the box-office.  Deeply upset by its initial reviews, Melville began working on a novel which (as described in his little Norton bio) was a “satirical account of the U.S. literary scene in which the timid and the genteel succeed and the boldly adventurous fail (1091).”  Bartleby the Scrivener first appeared in 1853, and in it one can see Melville is still critical of literary circles.  Bartleby, for whatever reason, refuses to write what is expected of him, and because of this is outcasted from society.  As a scrivener, Bartleby’s job is to hand-copy law reports, a task which he can (and does) do diligently, yet he refuses to verify his own copies with his co-workers.  In explaining this first peculiar incident, the narrator states this to be a boring and tiresome task, admitting that he “cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document (1098).”  The mention of Byron here is interesting, it can be assumed that the narrator would use him as an example for a few different reasons, one being his ‘mettlesome’ and outlandish reputation; however, the insert of a poet here hints this is no job for a creative mind.  A successful scrivener, could be seen as the ‘timid and genteel’ authors Melville wished to critique in Pierre, while those who possessed real ambition, thought and creativity (so much even to refuse to ‘water down’ their own work) would be cast out and labeled insane.

If one is to assume that this story is a satire on literary communities, the role of the narrator becomes increasingly interesting.  At first, I thought his behavior and opinion towards Bartleby was reflective of the way Melville wished others would view his own work.  The narrator initially possess a strange admirance for Bartleby, seeing how he (in response to the narrator’s requests) “comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did (1099).”  Here, the narrator acknowledges Bartleby’s intelligence, but assumes that some greater philosophical inquiry is the cause of his seemingly insane behavior.  Could Melville be wishing for others to see these ‘paramount considerations’ in his own work, rather than simply labeling it as HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.   As the story progresses, the narrator’s slight adimrance fades and he holds feelings of pity and responsibility for Bartleby.  His pity stems from Bartleby being seemingly “absolutely alone in the universe (1107),” and later (in reference to his dead letter job) stating that he was man “by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid and hopelessness (117).”  If a job a Dead Letter office would inevitably heighten his misfortunes, and a job as a scrivener didn’t seem to be his winning ticket, is there any place for someone like Bartleby (whether he be constantly pondering ‘paramount considerations’ or simply clinically depressed) to flourish?  Is this some sort of statement on the industrial capitalism of the time, literary circles and critics, or anything?

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3 Responses to Herman Melville

  1. carnold13 says:

    I believe that towards the end of Bartelby’s life, he realized that he didnt really fit in anywhere. His life was decent enough, atleast better than a fully-homeless person’s life might have been, but then the narrator discovered his secret and it all went down hill from there. He realized that the few things that he had in life were being taken away from him, and he probably didn’t feel any hope of finding something better. He clung to these things that he still had, until he was forced to leave them behind and put in to jail where nothing was in his control. The one thing he had left that he controlled was his life, and because he didn’t see that it was going anywhere, he ended it slowly and deliberately. There wasn’t a place in the world for a person like him, so he found a new place for himself in death, where he couldn’t be turned away, disturbed, or removed.

  2. Brooke says:

    The story of Bartleby moved me because it was such an intense story about an aspect of life that seems incredibly mundane. Some of Melville’s descriptions are really quite halarious,
    “Nippers would sometimes impatiently rise from his seat, and stooping over his table, spread his arms wide apart, seize the whole desk, and move it, jerk it, with a grim, grinding motion on the floor, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent, intent on thwarting and vexing him; I plainly perceive that for Nippers, brandy and water were altogether superfluous” (1096).
    I felt like he took me through laughter, frustration, confusion and grief all within the same story, he caused me to somehow care about these characters’ lives–to illustrate that even on Wall Street, human beings still exist. The state that they exist in however, does ask the reader to consider what becomes of us if we are not connected? The narrator tells us that Bartleby “seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic” (1107). It reminded me of Robin’s reaction to the ray of moonlight on the Bible in the church, that “made Robin’s heart shiver with a sensation of lonliness, stronger than he had ever felt in the remotest depths of his native woods” (600). Bartleby used to work in a world where letters meant to connect people never reached their goal, Robin sees an empty church, a symbol of community when it is filled, but which as it is makes him feel more alone. We discussed the idea of confusion of what “America” was to these authors or to their time periods, and I cannot help but contrast that concept with the Puritan goals of community and charity. Winthrop preached brotherly love, mercy, and the hope that these things would serve his people in coming together as a community to help one another. However, as time has moved on, those seemingly simple ideals have been replaced with the question of whether we can really be and stay connected, or if we can, how do we accomplish that? Are we all lost bits of wreckage? Is America only a naive youth, trying to make its way in the world based upon dead principles?

  3. gluck987 says:

    I think there are several really profound allegories woven into “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and I’m glad you brought up the sort of meta-fictional connection it has with Melville’s publishing experiences. If we understand Bartleby as a kind of “creative, free-spirit” archetype, bogged down by the institutions that try to exploit and normalize him, one can sense a little bit of self-pity and bitterness in Melville’s tone. There are really two tragedies Bartleby faces in the story, one of which is obvious- his subjugation, death and subtle self-martyrdom at the end. The other is less metaphorical and more barbed- the fact that he was working as a scrivener in the first place. We first meet Bartleby after years of rejection from society. He clearly has an impressive skill set and a certain creative streak, but the world he occupies has found no easily-defined “use” for him. He resides in a system of walls and barriers, alienating people from one another and delineating them into overly simplified specializations. Bartleby is “not particular,” neither willing to nor capable of being reduced to a pithy definition. Working for the law firm, even for a short time, was a surrender to the society that ostracized him. And as the story progresses, Bartleby learns to value his own preferences, despite the fact that the people around him prioritize them far below his functions.

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