Saturday, July 9, 2016

Herman Melville: "Bartleby" aka "Bartleby the Scrivener"

Herman Melville

Since there already is so much written on "Bartleby,"  this will be a brief comment. 

Bartleby, like Melville, starts out very successfully in the beginning. They give their respective bosses just what those bosses want.   But then, they start to refuse to do what is wanted from them, which is more of the same. Note that Bartleby's first refusal is checking other people's words while Melville begins to move away from his highly successful South Sea island novels.  Interestingly, neither absolutely or directly refuses.  Melville simply goes ahead and writes what he wants, regardless of the reactions of the readers and critics.  Bartleby tells the lawyer, "I would prefer not to," which not a direct refusal but a statement of his preferences.

Both continue to not do what is expected of them--Bartleby to do his copying of other people's words and Melville of giving the readers and critics the stories they want--more South Sea island adventures with cannibals and so on. Finally, the audience leaves both of them alone,  Bartleby in the deserted office and Melville with Moby Dick and his later works which few buy and critics attack.  At the end, Bartleby turns his face to the wall and dies, while Melville "dies" as a novelist and turns to writing poetry, the kiss of death for most writers hoping to gain an audience in America.

As for Bartleby's motivation--depression?  Could be, but we never get inside his head, so there's really no way of knowing.  The rumor that Bartleby lost his job in the Post Office "dead letter office" is curious.  I'm not sure what to do with it.

Since "Bartleby,"  I've read, is one of the most commented on short stories by an American writer, I guess many others are not sure what to do with this tale either.

What's your take on the tale?


  1. interesting angle; i hadn't thought of it that way... a sort of parallelism instead of an allegorical statement. that explains a lot... i've been often bemused by the unexpected productions and/or behavior of even those persons i've known very well; how much more difficult to interpret the work of writers even when alive, much less deceased... that's what keeps critics in business, i guess... i kind of liked Di's approach, too: by the numbers...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, parallelism, that's a good term. I suspect Bartleby is open enough to entertain a wide variety of interpretations.

  2. The Bartleby-as-Melville reading is 1 of the common interpretations in criticisms (the disagreement would be about what Melville thinks about Bartleby, how Bartleby's death should be interpreted and how it reflects the author's views on the artist's role). I think it's valid.
    In my post I tried to write about something else, and ended up making quite a mess of disconnected thoughts that didn't really go anywhere, I think.

    1. Di,

      That's interesting as when I first brought out my view when I was in grad school in the 80s, it was rejected as simplistic and an example of over-reading.

      Aside from my point of the Melville/Bartleby parallelism (to borrow Mudpuddle's term), my other thoughts about the story are also scattered and disorganized. My short commentary focuses solely on the parallelism and nothing else. My feeling is that there's another underlying point in there somewhere, and I'm missing it.

      I guess I'll put it aside for awhile and then pick it up again in a year or so.

    2. Really?
      According to what I've seen in criticisms, the "popular" interpretations are:
      - Bartleby as Melville, or the struggling and misunderstood artist
      - Bartleby as the alienated worker (compared with Gogol's "The Overcoat", for example)
      - Bartleby as Christ
      - Bartleby as an example of passive resistance
      - Bartleby as an example of depression
      There might be more, but I don't remember.
      You might also see some parallels between Bartleby and Kafka's hunger artist.

    3. Di,

      Much has changed concerning Bartleby criticism since I last looked at it.

      Here's a wild one: Bartleby and the lawyer are two contending forces within Melville--an internal conflict. In other words, Bartleby and the lawyer together are Melville. That leads to some interesting speculations regarding the lawyer's reluctance to "do something" about Bartleby and Bartleby's death.

    4. Humph. Interesting. *thinking*
      Another popular interpretation I forgot to mention is the narrator's (un)reliability.

    5. in what way? meaning he gives up on B and lets the law handle it, or that he misleads the reader about what is actually going on? just curious...

    6. That he misleads. He talks a lot about how nice he is and how well he handles everything, but it isn't the case. Etc, etc.
      Then there's an opposite reading: defence of the narrator.

  3. Fred, I haven't thought this through but will share it anyway in its raw form: I wonder if Bartleby's profession (scrivener) is a key to understanding the character and the story, especially as a scrivener simply repeats words of others and cannot be original within that task. (Note: I spent ten years as a court reporter, so I have some appreciation for a scrivener's life.)

    1. Well, yeah, that's the key in the Bartleby-as-Melville-or-the-struggling-artist reading. The refusal to copy.

    2. R.T.,

      Yes, that's the point I was trying to make in my post: both Bartleby and Melville object to doing what others are doing--copying contracts and writing adventure tales just like other writers.

  4. Postscript: See also my more general posting this afternoon; literary criticism can be a daunting challenge but a bit more manageable with the right "corrective lenses." Sometimes I think literary critics are more interested in advancing themselves than they are interested in clarifying the texts. What must always be in clear focus is the text. The critics' arguments must be objective.

    1. R.T.,

      No doubt many are doing just that. But, isn't publishing necessary for advancement and perhaps even survival in academia?

    2. Fred, yes, and isn't it interesting that scholars and their books and journal articles are noticed and read mostly (only) by other scholars? The point of all that self-centered, self-important, within-the-academy navel-gazing amuses me.