24 February 2011

Reflections on Melville’s “Bartleby”

Numerous literary critics have now contemplated the meaning of Melville’s story. Why is the location “Wall-Street”? Why is the protagonist of the story so charitable to the eccentric, seemingly-mad Bartleby? What is the story about?

The short story opens with the narrator, a lawyer and an owner of a scrivener’s trade, confessing that he has always looked for the paths of least resistance. It is for this reason that he keeps “Turkey,” an old, overweight and “energetic” man prone to outbursts of rage. It is also for this reason that he keeps “Nippers,” a man at once ambitious and at the same time indigestive. Then there is the boy: "Ginger Nut". Ginger Nut is largely useless, but costing little, there seems not the slightest point in getting rid of this young apprentice. And lastly enters the character of Bartleby, the best scrivener of them all, but a man who works only as a copyist and expresses an on-going preference to nothing else. Bartleby is always there. He never leaves. He hides. And eventually he prefers to do nothing at all.

The narrator astonished at Bartleby’s evolution, finds that he is unable to conjure up the will to remove the man from his office, which, it soon becomes apparent, Bartleby actually inhabits. Circumstances become so unsettled in the narrator’s mind that he eventually moves his offices to another place, leaving Bartleby behind, to unsettle the next tenants, who shortly return the passive but non-compliant Bartleby to the narrator. Dejected by Bartleby’s return and uncertain of his next course of action, the narrator leaves Bartleby on the stairs of his office. By the next morning, Bartleby has been sent to the “tome,” a prison complex in old New York City. It is there that he dies to be with “kings and councilors”.

It is an uncertain story and a treasure of American literature. But as I was reading it, I found myself wondering: “Is there not a “Bartleby” in all of us?” I doubt that Melville intended his depiction of madness to offer that meaning. But if there is a “Bartleby” in all of us, then it is not merely a rejection of social or economic yokes. Nor is it our own version of “madness”. The “Bartleby” in us rejects, objects, and ends up “abject” because to do otherwise is to surrender to something that is abject, objectionable, and worthy of rejection.

Tempting as it is to conjure here allusions to original sin, Calvanist predestination, Diderot’s fatalism, Marx’s alienation, or Camus’s absurdity, it strikes me that the important quality of Melville’s story is the ambiguity. It is strange that so many narratives – religious, literary, metaphysical, or scientific – attempt to unmask the essence of that ambiguity. How wonderful it must be to tame our own inner “Bartleby” with religious injunction, cultural certainty, and social conformity. How wonderful to exercise power over the “Bartleby” in others.

Perhaps Melville is onto something. Strip away modern values or pre-modern atavisms. Ignore the will-to-power too. Then what is left of the man? Stripped bare of everything, I think Melville is saying the mystery of resistance remains. “I’d prefer not to,” a quote for the ages; an heir apparent to the voice of noncompliance.

It is a cliché of science fiction to say “resistance is futile”. It seems to me that Melville suggests via Bartleby that resistance is everything. To be human is to resist. We are all Bartleby now.

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