Written in the mid-nineteenth century, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” by Herman Melville remains enduring short story. Its importance lies not only in its commentary on labor within the emerging industrial capitalism at that time, but also in how it resonates with readers through messages of individuality (or stubbornness) and passive disobedience. In the story, a nameless narrator, who is an elderly lawyer and head of a Wall Street office, hires a man by the name of Bartleby to be a scrivener—someone who copies legal documents. However, it is Bartleby’s stunning and repeated refusals to perform his duties as defined by his position that is the most memorable and core of Melville’s story. The “I prefer not to” response challenges a lot of notions about the role of the individual the corporate setting, even society itself. Witnessing this refusal of the status quo unnerves the narrator, his employees, and eventually the larger community. While the context is distinctly American, situated on Wall Street, readers can pull from Melville’s short story the overarching commentaries on the self in relation to others, fierce individualism, and the American labor force—all of which remain applicable in the present.
I find myself agreeing with what I covered about “Bartleby” last semester. There is a clear argument about the roles we fulfill in society, where tensions between the individual and society are inevitable. “Bartleby” is an engaging-yet-unsettling short story implores empathy for the human condition in challenging/rejecting societal constraints. A reader is ultimately presented with two jarring concepts: assuming the role of a worker that performs “silently, palely, mechanically,” or rather defying the system altogether by passive noncompliance to the detriment of one’s freedom (Melville 6). Neither seems satisfactory, and maybe that is what makes “Bartleby” such a provocative story. By working within the genre fiction short story—or novella as some argue—readers get a succinct-yet-nuanced narrative that intends to reflect its time period, offering up a critical perspective on worker individualism in an age of emerging industrial capitalism (which saw rigid division of labor). Melville’s incorporation of what was then contemporary social concerns into his short story is one way we see new developments in the genre. Maybe such realism begins to blur the convention of fiction within short stories. At minimum, the brevity and realism in the genre makes for clear and concise commentaries with (hopefully) broad-reaching appeal and points for further inquiry.
For those that really like Freudian theory, Melville’s short story definitely offers ample material apply a Freudian analysis. A possible essay question to approach is the interpersonal relationship between the narrator and Bartleby, with specific attention to effect Bartleby’s insubordination has on the narrator’s sympathy. One of Freud’s many well-known points was the phenomenon of transference occurring between patient-physician in psychoanalytic treatments—what he called “transference-love.” While transference in “Bartleby” is less so in the realm of love but more so in connection to empathy for the human condition as it challeges societal constraints. The narrator, unlike other employees in the office and in society, connects with the deeper emotional and existential crises seen in Bartleby’s actions. For instance, upon discovering Bartleby is inhabiting the office, the narrator realizes the “miserable friendlessness and loneliness” of Bartleby’s poverty; yet, he simultaneously realizes the “emptiness” of Wall Street (Melville 13). It is just one of many occasions where the narrator makes concessions for Bartleby’s behavior, maybe because of his own discomfort with the expectations that society imposes upon workers/individuals.
Alternatively, one could also draw connections between “Bartleby” and Ann Boyer’s poem, “Not Writing.” Boyer’s poem is quite satirical in how acutely self-aware of writers and their motives behind their work. Her poem delivers a thought-provoking survey of the literary fields as she herself positions herself as resisting each of the categories mentioned—“I am not writing….” In this sense, it is possible to compare Boyer’s resistance to categorization to Bartleby resistance to work, both underscoring the tension between the self and expected roles. Maybe it all boils down to the narrator’s exclamation at the end of Melville’s story: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (29). Comparative examinations of “Bartleby” with other texts, be it theory like Freud or the poetry of Ann Boyer, allow us readers to dig deeper into these pressing questions—humanity, the self, individualism, capitalism, and so forth.
Bartleby The Scrivener By Herman Melville
Bartleby is the tale of the power of the simple phrase “I prefer not to.” Vague, authoritative, and surprising in an otherwise grueling capitalistic society. The story is told from the point of view of an older lawyer that had employed Bartleby as a scrivener (see: copy editor. Corporate slave. ) Bartleby is hired along with a lovely trio of other workers named, wait for it, Turkey, Nippers and … Ginger Nut. Bartleby is hired because he’s somber and serious and the lawyer narrating this story believes he will balance out the rest of the crowd. Ah, isn’t that always the case? But being somber and being compliant are hardly ever mutually exclusive. At first, Bartleby is a fantastic worker producing a large amount of work at a great volume. And then … Bartleby does not. Asked to proofread a document Bartleby simply replies “I prefer not to.” Bartleby begins handing in less and less tasks the lawyer gives him. Each time, the response is the same. Our narrator is truly struggling; what the hell is wrong with Bartleby? Oh, but Bartleby is not what’s wrong with the picture. Still, the lawyer tries to find out what’s going on (perhaps, Bartleby is going through some personal issues?) But no … the lawyer can find out nothing about Bartleby or his past that would merit such behavior. He bargains with Bartleby but there’s still no concrete answers.
And then, our poor, confused, lawyer discovers Bartleby is sleeping in the office. Why is Bartleby always there? The lawyer cannot be damned to evict Bartleby (and feels sorry for him.) Eventually, the new tenants want Bartleby gone. But Bartleby is far from gone. He sits around idly all day on the stairs of the building, sleeping in the doorway. The narrator, who has now moved his business out, comes back for Bartleby. He tries to bargain with him, going so far as to ask him to move in with him. Bartleby, however, still declines the offer. From there we fast forward a bit, Bartleby has been forcibly removed and imprisoned in “the Tombs” (yeah, I don’t like the sound of that either, folks.) Bartleby is even more depressed. Our poor narrator essentially makes a deal with a guard to make sure Bartleby is, at the very least, eating, if doing nothing else. A few days later the narrator comes back hoping to see he’s doing better.
However, he’s informed that Bartleby has died of starvation, refusing to eat.
Afterwards it’s relayed that Bartleby had worked in a dead-letter office (the place where undeliverable mail, no way to get it back to sender and/or said destination is sent and sorted,) and would undeniably add to his already doom and gloom disposition. The narrator leaves, his finals thoughts on the matter “Ah Bartleby, Ah Humanity!”
So, Bartleby, passive protester of the rampantly unfair working system, the woes of the clinically depressed, or just a lazy slouch? You decide.
Bartleby was written in 1856. It’s genre is considered a short story. Published anonymously the story resonates with Kafka’s The Hunger Artist (another short story about starving yourself to death at the expense of society–though this time more in the creative field.) The significance of this story to the genre is its vagueness. Bartleby doesn’t stand for any one thing. His elusiveness asks the reader to question who’s right in the story and what is Bartleby’s refusal a symbol of? Also, the use of the narrator telling us about Bartleby rather than Bartleby explaining his situation adds to this enigmaticness and embraces the fact we’re not necessarily supposed to know. That being said, a strong suggestion for this would be how Bartleby is a symbol of passive rebellion. The effects of his passivity also reveal the negative aspects of the society he lives in; Bartleby is sleeping in doorways and only given food at the push of his old boss intervening. If Bartleby was to stop doing the drudgery work he was given and simply exist would society let him live or would he just perish?
This truly could go with anything on the reading list from Beatty’s The Sellout to Hamlet to Antigone, Auden’s poems, Citizen, and Mrs. Dalloway. I’d say the key phrase you want to remember is “I prefer not to” and where the “preferring not to” is done in the story (Ophelia’s death, Septimus, etc.,) shaping the phrase and Bartleby’s opposition to where resistance is taking place within each story or in conjunction to several stories is where we can make use of Melville’s short story.
“I remembered that Bartleby never left the office. “Bartleby,” said I, “Ginger Nut is away; just step round to the Post Office, won’t you? (it was but a three minute walk,) and see if there is any thing for me.” “I would prefer not to.” “You will not?” “I prefer not.” I staggered to my desk, and sat there in a deep study. My blind inveteracy returned. Was there any other thing in which I could procure myself to be ignominiously repulsed by this lean, penniless wight?—my hired clerk? What added thing is there, perfectly reasonable, that he will be sure to refuse to do? “Bartleby!” No answer. “Bartleby,” in a louder tone. No answer. “Bartleby,” I roared. Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage. “Go to the next room, and tell Nippers to come to me.” “I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared. “Very good, Bartleby,” said I, in a quiet sort of serenely severe self-possessed tone, intimating the unalterable purpose of some terrible retribution very close at hand. At the moment I half intended something of the kind. But upon the whole, as it was drawing towards my dinner-hour, I thought it best to put on my hat and walk home for the day, suffering much from perplexity and distress of mind.”
–Is the lawyer (narrator) right to be angry at Bartleby? Is Bartleby acting within their rights? Despite the lawyers persistence (and his tone) Bartleby continues to very quietly persist and fight back in his own way–what does this say about Bartleby’s tactics–in the larger context of the story do you feel they’re successful or not? Why?
“The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
–Bartleby is seen as baffling by his boss. What does this new information about the Dead Letter Office reveal about Bartleby’s character? What is it representative of in a larger societal context? Given this information what do you think the lawyers last words mean, despite being so different, is he on Bartleby’s side or not?
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville was written in 1856.
Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street focuses on the narrator and his relationship with the characters who work in his office, more specifically Bartleby. Bartleby is a worker who constantly uses the phrase “I prefer not to” throughout the story to avoid doing his work. At every task he is asked to do, he simply relies “I prefer not to.” The other characters like Ginger Nut and Nippers, are all tasked with the same work and become frustrated as Bartleby constantly gets away with not having to do work by simply stating “I prefer not to” and eventually they become frustrated. However, the narrator, which is the boss of the story is found of him and decides to keep Bartleby around. One day when the boss tries to get into his office he finds Bartleby there and Bartleby asks him to come back a little later, and when he does return Bartleby and no trace of Bartleby is there. Bartleby does end up staying in that area for awhile later on in the book until the other tenants begin to complain about him, but as always Bartleby prefers not to do what he is asked. Bartleby constantly uses this phrase throughout to the text so much so that he eventually ends up in jail. His boss does visit him and even goes as far as to pay for Bartleby to have the best food available there, but he continues to decline everything that is being offered to him. And due to this, Bartleby eventually dies due to starvation. You could even say that he “preferred not to” live, which leads to his eventual death. You eventually learn that before Bartleby worked with the narrator, he worked at a post office where the mail which was never delivered, returns to.
Clearly you can relate this to the idea of protest, similar to what is presented in Antigone and Citizen. Bartleby, similarly to Antigone, would be protesting the system which he is a part of. By him simply “preferring not to” he is attempting to take himself out of the system or fight back against the system itself.
Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener may also relate to Freud’s ideas of melancholia and mourning. In Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the text states, “With any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence. But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.” It would help identify the type of relationship that takes place between Bartleby and the narrator in which we see that loss is present. The “object-loss” that exists there may be able to be identified, however, the part that often leaves someone with a disturbed feeling is what is usually left as unidentified. This feeling that is described through Freud’s idea, of having this feeling may potentially connect the text to Dante’s Inferno.
Capitalism is another idea that is clearly present in this text. You could see the boss himself as a capitalist. You may also see how the capitalist system begins to have an impact on its workers, which leads us to how Bartleby reacts in the text, which is why he is constantly declining to do his work. You could argue that the system is so influential that the workers no longer react naturally, instead they are more mechanic like machines, which we get a sense of as Bartleby’s response could be seen as robotic or automated. One of the main moments from the the text is when Bartleby states, “I would prefer not to” (Melville).
You can also discuss the idea of death which we see in multiple texts that we’ve read throughout the semester. Clearly the ideas of protest and isolation which are common themes throughout works like Antigone and Bartleby the Scrivener lead to these characters deaths. So you may discuss how these ideas are presented leading up to the deaths of these characters.
Federici’s “The Great Caliban” would be a great theoretical text to relate to this literary text. Federici’s text does focus on the idea of bodies which we can relate to the idea of capitalism. There’s actually a point in Federici’s article where she mentions how one disciplines their body and it seems like that would relate directly to Bartleby himself. He is so disciplined with the way that he constantly declines food when in jail, in a way you could argue that he does just that, disciplining his body itself.
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