Friday, July 18, 2008

Melville's "Bartleby"--another unhappy writer

One of Melville's more puzzling short tales is "Bartleby." It's the story of a copyist who goes to work for a lawyer in the early 19th century. Initially he is a superb worker, but as time passes, he begins to refuse to do certain tasks given him by the lawyer. Well, he doesn't say NO, but politely responds to a request to perform a particular job with "I would prefer not to." The situation deteriorates until he reaches the point that "he prefers not to do anything."

Many have puzzled over Bartleby's behavior and the lawyer's initial acceptance of his polite refusals. The problem is that no clues are provided as to why Bartleby begins to reject legitimate assignments, nor why the lawyer is so accommodating.

Some have postulated that Bartleby is really Melville. I have found this to be more convincing than any other theory I have read about the story. This is how I think the correspondence between Melville and Bartleby works.

Stage 1:
Bartleby is hired and is an immediate success. He does his work and does it well. His employer is especially pleased for Bartleby not only does good work but does a full day's work, whereas his alcoholic coworkers at best turn in a half day's work.

Melville in 1846 and 1847 publishes his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, to wide acceptance by both readers and critics.

Stage 2:
Bartleby begins to reject some of his assignments on the grounds that he "would prefer not" to do them.

The editor in the intro to The Portable Melville says this about Melville: , "In a little more than two years, however, [Melville] had taken his first deliberate steps away from the guarantees of continued approval and sales" with the publication of Mardi in 1849. This work, while set in the South Seas, is much different from the romances that he earlier had written. He has begun to reject the demands of the readers and critics that he write more of the South Sea romances like Omoo and Typee that were so successful.

Stage 3:
Bartleby now begins to reject more and more assignments given to him, and his boss and co-workers become extremely dissatisfied with him.

Melville, shortly before writing Moby Dick in 1851, in a letter to his father-in-law, wrote "it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to 'fail.'" Moby Dick was a failure for both the readers and most of the critics. Again, in another letter, this time to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville writes, "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned.--it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot."

Stage 4:
Bartleby now does nothing that his employer asks him to do. Consequently he is fired, but he refuses to leave the office. In desperation, his former employer moves to anther building, leaving Bartleby to haunt the empty premises. Finally Bartleby is arrested, ends up in the Tombs, turns his face to the wall, and dies.

Melville, in spite of being rejected by readers and critics, continues to write. He just won't go away. Pierre comes out in 1852 and "Bartleby" in 1853. Pierre is a writer who has moved to NYC and struggles to get published in order to support himself and others. It is, by far, Melville's bleakest novel. I tried reading it a second time and stopped part way. It was too bleak. Pierre's end is similar to Bartleby's.

Melville continues to write short stories and in 1857 manages to get The Confidence Man published. After that, he publishes no more novels during his lifetime. To support his family, he finds a job as a customs inspector in NYC. I wonder if Melville thought of his job as being something like being in jail.

I find the ending to be very sad--Melville has the narrator make the point that Bartleby had once possibly worked in a Dead Letter Office. This seems to be very noteworthy, especially coming from a writer who has lost his audience. His writings also have no readers.

Some have expressed the theory that both the lawyer/narrator and Bartleby are Melville. Bartleby represents Melville's creative side who wants to write only what he chooses to write and will refuse to write what others insist he write. The lawyer represents Melville's mundane self, the cautious self, the one who knows he has a family to support and must take that into consideration also. This, I think, would account for the lawyer's extreme toleration for Bartleby's strange behavior and to some extent why the lawyer moves his entire office into a new building to get away from Bartleby. Like too many people, he believes he can get away from himself if he moves somewhere else.


  1. The only thing that I could think about while reading your blog post was the movie "Fight Club."

    Hmmmm, maybe it would be a good one for Tuesday.

  2. Scott,

    That's a strange observation. I haven't seen the movie (at least I assume you are referring to a film title. I'll wait for Tuesday to see what you mean.