Few stories have ever generated as much debate and disagreement as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Since the middle of the 20th century, Melville’s short story has become one of the most debated topics in literary criticism. Ayo asserts that almost three dozens of articles have been produced in attempt to re-interpret the hidden meanings of Melville’s fiction (27). Nevertheless, the story itself and its characters remain one of the greatest enigmas in the history of modern literature. The story of Bartleby, the Scrivener, is focused on the description of the narrator’s relationships with his employee, a copyist named Bartleby. Despite the growing body of literature, critics have consistently failed to produce a single, comprehensive interpretation of Bartleby’s personality and behaviors. It would be fair to assume that, in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Bartleby is an enigmatic victim of contemporary American reason, utilitarianism, and practicality, who fails to come in terms with the over-rational reality of life and chooses death as the only way to preserve his individuality and uniqueness.
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Bartleby is, probably, one of the most enigmatic characters in contemporary literature. His behaviors and reactions generate controversial feelings in readers. According to Herman Melville, Bartleby is “one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources.” Hoag further describes Bartleby as a person who belongs to a subclass of mysterious humans, who, throughout their history, have never ascertained anything with certainty about their origin, goals, or desires (120). The mystery of Bartleby is in his persistent silence and almost motionless existence. Moreover, the fact that the story is told by the lawyer and not Bartleby himself adds mystery to his character and life. Bartleby’s silence is almost symbolic and requires persistence and attention in the analysis of his character. As Blake notes, Bartleby’s silence turns speech into question (155). It is silence that does not fit into the reasonable conventions of life and being among ordinary Americans. Melville writes: “I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” However, few readers can guess what hides behind the man’s motionlessness and almost ideally respectable existence. Hoag’s comparison of Bartleby to a corpse is not accidental: most of the time, the character acts, as if his soul is dead, and he is bound to carry the burden of his physiological existence on his shoulders (119).
In reality, Bartleby is carrying a hidden message, which few, if any, readers and characters of Melville’s story can understand. Actually, the whole story is about Bartleby’s fight for his message and the lawyer’s failure to grasp its meaning. Bartleby exists beyond the financial world of the lawyer. He is the carrier of the message, the medium of the message, and the message itself (Hamilton 13). He simply asks for understanding. He wants everyone to accept his personality and identity without trying to change or adjust it to the realities of reasonable life: “He ran day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious” (Melville). This phrase describes Bartleby’s strongest sides, his professionalism and commitment to work, and even when he says he would not prefer to edit other copies, his professionalism and humanism remain undeniable. Bartleby’s entire essence asks to accept him without changes. He generates sympathy and confusion, while asking to take his character and desires without questioning them. Bartleby simply needs emotional support, love, and belief in his own strength (Hamilton 13). Unfortunately, neither his employer nor his colleagues in the firm can hear him.
Bartleby cannot come to terms with the American world of reason, and this is also why the narrator fails to understand his message. The moment Bartleby refuses to edit his own works, his employer tries to explain his decision reasonably and logically. The lawyer is confused and lost: “When a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith” (Melville). Bartleby is a person who shakes the lawyer’s established beliefs in reason and objectivity. He creates a mystery around himself, turning his relations with the employer into a real torture for both. This unreasonableness remains one of Bartleby’s most distinguishing features, but it scares the lawyer to the extent that he starts perceiving it as his own malady (Hoag 23). This unreasonableness also prevents Bartleby from establishing friendly relations with the lawyer, which further generates a lot of sympathy with his character and position. Almost everything Bartleby does, from his career position to his behaviors and decisions outside the firm, confirm that his character cannot be reasoned with or reasoned about (Hoag 124).
Bartleby is a victim of American practicality and utilitarianism. From the very beginning of his work in the firm, Bartleby faces entirely utilitarian attitudes of his employer. All employees in the law firm must be commercially useful to the owner. The lawyer considers turning Turkey into a part-time worker, simply because of his old age: “I took upon me, one Saturday noon (he was always worse on Saturdays), to hint to him, very kindly, that perhaps now that he was growing old, it might be well to abridge his labors” (Melville). In the same token, the lawyer develops a sophisticated strategy of his relations with Bartleby. The love and emotional response Bartleby gets from his employer are the elements of a well-designed strategy to (a) understand the scrivener and (b) get rid of him (Hamilton 13). While the lawyer exploits his employees for the sake of greater productivity and profitability, Bartleby is the first to reject the employer’s requests without any reasonable cause. With time, getting rid of Bartleby becomes extremely problematic. He refuses to leave the office. He refuses to leave the territory surrounding the office building. Bartleby constantly reminds about himself to his, now former, employer. The love and even material assistance he receives from his former employer are just a matter of practicality and long-term considerations. As a practical person, the lawyer is several steps ahead of his own decisions. He would never do anything without reason or tangible benefit, and this practicality kills Bartleby’s unreasonable identity. Instead of accepting him for who he is, the lawyer attempts to break the violence of his passivity and silence (Ayo 31). The lawyer himself recognizes that only self-interest can become the most reliable driver of high-tempered men towards philanthropy and charity (Melville).
In this atmosphere of reason, practicality, and utilitarianism, Bartleby resembles a lonely warrior, a human in an inhuman world. In this atmosphere of reason and practicality, Bartleby cannot realize his inner self to the fullest. He is limited in his endeavors. He is a prisoner of the American mentality. He is not willing to change: “No: at present I would prefer not to make any changes at all”, - says Bartleby in response to the lawyer’s proposition to go to his dwelling (Melville). Making no changes is the motto Bartleby follows throughout his life. In America, where Wall Street indices change every minute, the no-changes motto is initially doomed to a failure. To a large extent, Bartleby symbolizes a person, who, with all his unreasonableness, is capable of getting unlimited freedoms and obtaining unlimited knowledge, but the walls of reason surrounding him become almost maddening (Ayo 33). He is the most humane of all characters of Melville’s story. However, no one seems to accept his humanness, which is often regarded as a mental health disorder. The narrator’s attempts to help Bartleby adjust to the normal conditions of a social life fail (Ayo 33). Bartleby does not need to make any adjustments; he is pretty happy with what he has – his own self. His identity is his most precious possession, and his silence further reinforces the sense of inner power and commitment to his beliefs. Blake suggests that Bartleby comes to the lawyer’s office like a new word enters a language that seemed to be complete before it appeared (161). This novelty and unusual humanness, silence, and seeming irrationality do not leave Bartleby a single chance to conquer the world around him. He has to subject himself to the forces of reason. He becomes a tragic victim of the societal universe without images and mirrors (Blake 163). The only way to survive is to become inhuman, but Bartleby chooses a different path: he dies.
Bartleby fails to come to terms with this overtly rational world, and his loneliness and the lack of understanding eventually lead him to death. The lawyer finds Bartleby in the prison yard, lying like a fetus, with his dim eyes open and his hands surprisingly cold (Melville). This is the moment of revelation for both the lawyer and the reader: the former realizes the loss he has just carried, while the latter grows more confident about Bartleby’s commitment to humanness from the very first until the very last day of his life. Bartleby’s life and his death both signify the ultimate failure of reason and common sense in the face of humanness. Ayo is, probably, correct when he calls Bartleby a metaphysical question mark, which escapes the reason of law and common sense (37). Added to this is the overwhelming feeling of loneliness, coupled with fear and understanding, brought by the fact of Bartleby’s death. It is not before Bartleby dies that the reader realizes the inescapable loneliness of every single person in this rational world. It is also not before Bartleby’s death that the reader understands how cruel the practical world can be toward difference, uniqueness, and humanness. After his death, Bartleby becomes a generic reflection of the world’s most painful sins and maladies. This practical world does not accept humanness, which is beautiful in its unreasonableness and rationality. Bartleby signifies men’s core vulnerabilities, their fears of irrationality and death, turning into an object of huge sympathy that comes too late.
Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” remains one of the most enigmatic stories in modern literature. Bartleby, the protagonist of Melville’s story, is an enigmatic victim of contemporary American reason, utilitarianism, and practicality, who fails to come in terms with the over-rational reality of life and chooses death as the only way to preserve his individuality and uniqueness. Bartleby sends the message of humanness, which his contemporaries fail to understand. He cannot come to terms with the overwhelming reason, practicality, and utilitarianism of life in America. Bartleby chooses death as the only way to preserve his irrational individuality. He signifies men’s core vulnerabilities and generates a lot of sympathy, which comes too late.