Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Herman Melville’s "Bartleby The Scrivener”: Who Cares?

Bartleby in the Australian film version

Herman Melville’s "Bartleby The Scrivener”: Who Cares?

Herman Melville’s classic short story "Bartleby the Scrivener,” is like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol rewritten by Franz Kafka. As Martha Foley once noted in a collection of the best American short stories, “If there is any story in American literature that can be said to have a fourth dimension, it is ‘Bartleby the Scrivener.’”

Bartleby’s philosophy of passive resistance has often been compared to that of Henry David Thoreau. Yet there are other possible sources for the character of Bartleby. As I remark in one of my end notes, “Evidently Melville did exhibit the same pattern of behavior as Bartleby; he refused to correct proofs of his books, confined himself indoors, and in that period (1851-3) had suicidal impulses.”

Bartleby may also represent the wronged American writer (the “scrivener”), who is ignored, abused, and starved to death by American society. Critic H. Bruce Franklin makes a convincing case that Bartleby is a Christ figure derived from the figure of the Biblical Suffering Servant of Matthew 25 and Isaiah 51, arguing that every helpless stranger we encounter is an embodiment of Jesus Christ, the Lamb.

If so, then we must count every homeless person we encounter sleeping on the sidewalk, or on a park bench, or in a subway, as a personification of Christ, and what do we do? We feel sorry for them, but we ignore them, and let them die on their own.

In 1981, through his brutal and vicious budget cuts, Ronald Reagan inaugurated mass homelessness in this country on a scale never before seen since the Great Depression. While an undergraduate at Princeton, I began visiting New York City in 1973, and take it from me, folks, you never saw people sleeping on the streets on a significant scale until 1981, when Grandpa came to power.

Now we accept homelessness as a given social fact in America, and nobody gives a damn. That—and starvation—are definitely the two most urgent social needs in this country, but I don’t hear any Presidential candidates making the elimination of these two evils the basis of their political platform. And the fact that we have been stepping over these poor bastards for 26 years now has had a terrible and corrosive effect on the American psyche. They’re used as an object lesson for kids; you’d better join the Corporation and pay your bills on time, or you’ll end up an abandoned derelict in the street. No one will care about you. That’s the way our society works. Parents point them out the way Spartan parents derided drunken helots. It’s a dreadful moral example for the kids to see: the institutionalization of heartlessness.

Reagan, the bastard, used to refer to them as “urban campers.” They were like fucking lazy hippies; they were dropouts who wanted to be free of all responsibilities, like reporting for work in the morning, and they were sleeping on the sidewalk every night out of choice. Which is utter bullshit. The majority of the homeless are mental patients who got kicked out of the hospital because of budget cuts, and they should be housed in an institution and given medication. The rest are members of the middle and working classes who slipped through the cracks. By the way, did you make your last credit card payment? Living paycheck to paycheck like most of the country?

Melville may have based the character of the attorney somewhat on his brother, Allan Melville (1823-1872), who had a law office near Wall Street. His father-in-law Lemuel Shaw (1781-1861), was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.

Allan Melville, attorney

Originally I wrote this essay as one of my first semester Junior Papers in October 1975 while an English major at Princeton. My advisor was Emory Elliott, about whom I’ve written at length in my posting below on “The American Apocalypse.”

The lonely, beseeching figure of Bartleby has haunted the world’s imagination since Melville introduced us to him in 1853. There are been at least four film versions; in 1970, the great Paul Scofield played the lawyer, in 2001 Crispin Glover played the pale clerk in Bartleby, which I hated, because it was played like a fun-loving, rollicking Hollywood comedy—the Via Dolorosa as interpreted by Lucille Ball!; and there have been both French and Australian film versions.

The French avant-garde dancer Didier Théron created a dance based on “Bartleby,” and the painter Katherine Jackson executed an abstract painting entitled “Bartleby.” On the Internet, Bartleby.com is a fantastic online depository for the world’s literature.

At least two major American novels have featured characters who are clearly updated versions of Bartleby. Homer Simpson, the repressed Midwestern accountant in Nathaniel West’s 1939 Hollywood classic The Day of the Locust, is a Depression-era Bartleby.

Donald Sutherland’s performance in the 1976 film version, directed by John Schlesinger, is a revelation. Like Bartleby, Homer is a gentle Christ figure and one of the few moral innocents in the story. All the other vicious characters in the story constantly ridicule his exceptional kindness and thoughtfulness.

Unlike Bartleby, at the end of the novel his frustration explodes into rage when he stomps to death Adore, the devilish child actor who’s been tormenting him endlessly, in the parking lot at the film premiere, triggering off the nightmarish apocalyptic riot that closes the book.

Here Bartleby cracks up and expresses the furious anguish of the Depression masses in that we saw in Nazi Germany and in America through Father Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, and the KKK.

In A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone plainly models his character of Morgan Rainey on Bartleby. Anthony Perkins delivered a brilliant, wholly unrecognized performance as Rainey in the film version, WUSA (1970), starring Paul Newman as Rheinhardt and Joanne Woodward.

Rainey is a tormented, sensitive Harvard-educated Southern social worker who suffered a nervous breakdown after witnessing a lynching while a civil rights worker in the South in the Sixties, and Rheinhardt, the cynical protagonist, calls him “a twitch"—which is how Bartleby would be perceived today.

Rainey’s assassination attempt on a Southern fascist demagogue at a mass rally triggers the terrifying riot (very reminiscent of The Day of the Locust) that concludes Stone’s 1967 first novel.

Like Nathaniel West, Stone refuses to believe that Bartleby today would fold up like an accordion and passively take punishment like a Lamb. Where West saw Homer turning into a raging Nazi, unleashing his blinding rage on the nearest available object after reaching his breaking point, Stone sees Rainey changing into an unhinged disciple of violence and triggering further unstoppable social chaos.

Bartleby has manifestly inspired many artists and captivated generations of appreciative readers. What do many of us see in Bartleby? Ourselves. We see the way the individual is ignored, derided, marginalized.

In The Waste Land (1925), in the section entitled, “What the Thunder Said,” T.S. Eliot wrote:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

Who is that “third man”? It’s Christ, who’s the expression of human divinity. That haunting feeling that we have souls, but the world has made sure that we almost never think about it. That’s also what Bartleby represents. Other people should care about us, but they don’t.

A Reading Of Herman Melville’s "Bartleby The Scrivener”: Who Cares?

In the over 150 years since its original publication in 1853, Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street," has aroused an amazing dispute among literary critics. Lewis Mumford sees it as an autobiographical effort, describing Melville's own difficulties as a writer in a commercial society. (1) Egbert Oliver interprets it as Melville's attack on Thoreau's philosophy of passive resistance. (2) Jay Leyda suggests that Melville was writing of the madness of a close friend. (3) Although some evidence exists to substantiate the theory that Melville was recording his own despair, other evidence points out that such a narrow approach can be dangerous. (5)

Below, I present the interpretation that Melville informed us of the point of his story explicitly in the body of the text. In "Bartleby," Melville is asserting that in modern industrial civilization, there is no place for compassion, much less love. Towards this end Melville leads the reader step by step.

The 1970 film version with the brilliant Paul Scofield

To tell the story, Melville chooses a narrator whose viewpoint represents the majority opinion of his society, Jacksonian America, and whose life comes directly in contact with Bartleby. Thus Melville is able to record the reaction that most members of his age would have to an individual like Bartleby. To enable us to understand both Bartleby's "eccentricities" and the narrator's reaction to them, Melville, at the outset of the story, uses the narrator to describe both himself and the milieu that Bartleby will enter and that he will react to in such an extreme.

Of himself, the narrator says;

I am a man who, from his youth upward, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.... I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never address a jury, or in any way draw down public applause; but, in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snag business with rich man's bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. (6)

Judge Lemuel Shaw, Melville's father-in-law

He is not the man at whose mercy you’d want to throw oneself in the midst of a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Bartleby does.

The physical environment of his office is bleak. At one end there is "the white wall of the interior of a spacious daylight shaft" (p. 467); at the other, "my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade" (p. 467), ten feet away. Later, the narrator will conclude that Colt murdered his partner Adams because they were "alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations—an uncarpeted office, doubtless, of a dusty, haggard sort of appearance" (p. 498). Of course, he never recognizes this as a description of his own office.

In this drab setting, Turkey and Nippers, his two employees, perform meaningless labor, copying law books and documents in poor light. When he describes their drudgery, the narrator obviously does not understand its implications; he is setting a pattern for obtuse observations he will make in reference to his dealings with Bartleby:

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener's business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable. (p. 475)

Bartleby in the French film version

His comments on the suffering of his employees are similarly obtuse. Both react to their frustrating environment by developing strong neuroses. Turkey, an old man living out his last days in this trap, becomes a violent alcoholic. Nippers, at twenty-five still "a mere copyist," develops ulcers.

The narrator describes their anguish in droll Dickensian terms, which Melville uses to underscore the reality of their torment. The attorney knows very well what is troubling them, only he puts it out of his mind. "In short, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted anything, it was to be rid of a scrivener's table altogether" (p. 470).

Lower Manhattan with story area indicated

Melville describes the attorney’s coping mechanisms with heavy irony. Because Turkey's drunkenness ruins his afternoon work, the narrator offers to employ him only in the morning. When this fails, the lawyer decides to let him work only on his less important papers (pp. 469-70). So that Turkey will not appear shabby in the office and give clients an unfavorable impression, the narrator gives him a warm coat. But Turkey's reaction does not meet with his employer's pleasure: "In fact, precisely as a rash, restive horse is said to feel his oats, so Turkey felt his coat. It made him insolent. He was a man whom prosperity harmed” (p. 472).

The zany dysfunctional office workers in the 2001 Hollywood film version

The extent of the narrator's sympathy for his employees is best summed up here:

So that, Turkey's paroxysms only coming on about twelve o'clock, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time. Their fits relieved each other, like guards. When Nipper's was on, Turkey's was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement, under the circumstances. (p. 473)

In light of these passages, it is not surprising that the narrator fails Bartleby.

A third employee, Ginger-Nut, is a twelve-year-old boy. Melville uses this character to let us know that the dysfunctional pattern described in the story will be carried over into the next generation. With an economy of words, he shows us how Ginger Nut is being schooled in the Wall Street tradition: "His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as a student at law, errand-boy, cleaner, and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week" (p. 473).

Into this sterile word walks Bartleby, "a motionless young man" (p. 474), in answer to an advertisement. H. Bruce Franklin is correct in asserting that the object of "the advent of Bartleby" (p. 468) is the testing of the soul of the narrator—Bartley’s advent (appearance) being similar to the Advent (birth) of Christ. (7) "For as Christ explains in Matthew 25, the least of men (particularly when he appears as a stranger) is the physical representative and representation of Christ." (8) But where Christ is crucified in his Passion, Bartleby is smothered, and his anguish is purely secular. His fate is tragic because it is representative of how others alienated from the American society are abused.

Crispin Glover as Bartleby

Later, the narrator will wonder at the cause of Bartleby's "eccentricities." If he had any sensitivity—which he does not—he would discern that it’s he himself and his society that are the causes. As soon as Bartleby appears, the narrator is out to exploit him as much as his other employees. He describes the situation into which he thrusts Bartleby in explicit terms.

I should have stated before that ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my scriveners, the other by myself. According to my humor, I threw open these doors, or closed them. I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy backyards and bricks, but which owing to subsequent erections commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further in a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined. (pp. 474-5)

Like so many lines in the story, this last is bitterly ironic. There is no privacy, no society in this bleak office; Bartleby is isolated in the grimmest setting imaginable, comfortably out of sight and at the beck and call of his employer. Considering how his humanity is denied so totally in this desolate, claustrophobic environment, it is no surprise that Bartleby withdraws, and rebels the most he can in his situation with an exercise of his will, by stating calmly to the narrator, "I would prefer not to." Rather than externalizing his frustration with shouting and violence, which he knows cannot change his situation (which the lawyer and American society have created), Bartleby internalizes it.

At first he refuses to verify copy because he has been hired only to copy, not to check. When his employer refuses to recognize his humanity or in any way alleviate his working conditions (in which he spends most of the day), he withdraws further, refusing to leave his desk; he will stay behind the screen because that is where his employer put him and wants him. He engages in "dead- wall reveries" because he realizes he is trapped, and owing to his employer's insensitivity, there is no way out. His staring is similar to his efforts to communicate with the lawyer—both meet with the same solid wall.

The great Britsh actor Paul Scofield as the lawyer in the 1970 film version

Since this is the first occasion in which his authority has ever been challenged, the narrator is initially shocked. Then begins the long process by which he evades having to deal with Bartleby directly. As before, he holds that "the easiest way of life is best." He does not know how to cope with human suffering.

His first reaction is puzzlement.

This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. (p. 477)

A second time, when Bartleby prefers not to obey, he grows more perplexed.

I pondered a moment in sore perplexity. But once more business hurried me. I determined again to postpone the consideration of this dilemma to my future leisure. (p. 479)

Next, he rationalizes the situation by covering himself with the warm, comforting blanket of illusion.

He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps be driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfullness, will cost me little or nothing. While I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. (p. 481)

Even when moved to anger, the lawyer still puts off any decision. He considers violence:

At the moment I half intended something of the kind [violence toward Bartleby]. But upon the whole, as it was drawing toward 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. (p. 483)

These remarks are strongly reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's admonition, "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” (9) What the narrator is unaware of, however, is that he himself is that "less indulgent employer," and that after rudely treating Bartleby through eviction, he will drive him to starvation.

From the first, the lawyer treats Bartleby's despondency as congenital. When first he meets Bartleby, he describes him as "incurably forlorn" (p. 474). Yet it is obvious that Bartleby is exhibiting this behavior because of the intolerable conditions the narrator has imposed upon him. Bartleby's frustration at the narrator's obtuseness emerges when the latter says he only wants to speak with Bartleby. Bartleby knows that he only wants to exchange words—not communicate anything having to do with the human spirit. Bartleby has been trying his hardest to communicate for weeks, and still he has not broken through.

At this point Bartleby displays his most significant animation: "his countenance remained immovable, only there was the slightest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth" (p. 490). His mouth is attenuated because his patience is running out. The lawyer will not accept responsibility for Bartleby, because he does not believe he is his brother's keeper; he believes "the easiest way of life is the best." By this time Bartleby has regressed to the point where he refuses to leave the office. If American society and human nature are fashioned in this manner, he concludes, what is the use of leaving the microcosm? Outside it is just the same.

On a Sunday morning Bartleby refuses to let his employer into the office. The employer, amazed, returns to find Bartleby gone.

Immediately then the thought came sweeping across to me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but is solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness….


For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistably to gloom. A fraternal melancholy. For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.... Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. These sad fancyings--chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain—led on to other and more special thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of Bartleby. (pp. 406-7)

John McEnery as Bartleby in the 1970 film version

The narrator begins with a long sentimental outburst. The "fraternal melancholy" he feels may well be the fact he identifies with Bartleby; the lawyer is an old man who has no family we know of, and as far as we know, his law practice defines his life. Then, at the conclusion of the passage, he dismisses his sympathy for Bartleby as too extreme (perhaps he is striking too close to home, to his own isolation) and describes Bartleby's suffering as "eccentricities." What his emotions affirm, his intellect must deny. This process is carried even farther in his subsequent musings on Bartleby:

My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into revulsion. So true it is, and so terrible, too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to eventual succor, common sense bid the soul be rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. [Note that Melville writes it of as “innate and incurable disorder,” not “an innate and incurable disorder.” The “innate and incurable disorder” belongs to the universe, not Bartleby’s psyche.] I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach. (pp. 488-9)

As a total materialist, the narrator is unable to deal with moral questions, even basic human suffering such as Bartleby's. To ease his conscience, he assures himself that Bartleby was born, not made, that way. Having thus washed his hands of him, like Pontius Pilate, he makes the following resolution: "I did not accomplish the purpose of going to Trinity Church that morning. Somehow, the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going" (p. 489). As one critic noted, “He does not connect Christianity with any kind of awareness of human misery or moral despair, for conventional worship has degenerated into an innocuous social ritual."

Trinity Church by Wall Street

Instead, to salve his conscience, he determines

to give him a twenty dollar bill over and above whatever I might owe him, and tell him his services were no longer required; but that if in any other way I could assist him, I would be happy to do so, especially if he desired to return to his native place, whatever that might be, I would willingly help to defray the expenses. Moreover, if, after reaching home, he found himself at any time in want of aid, a letter from him would be sure of a reply. (p. 489)

The narrator wants to be rid of Bartleby because the scrivener's mild rebellion greatly upsets him. He does not know how to deal with it, and owing to his secret guilt feelings of somehow failing him, he wishes to remove Bartleby from his sight; then he will be happy to help him.

"Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small," says the narrator (p. 466). Like all men, Bartleby’s original source is God; and by driving him to starvation, the lawyer does indeed help him return to his native place, death, helping defray the expenses by paying the prison grub-man. His promise of a letter is ironic, considering his inability to communicate with Bartleby, and it also has implications for the end of the story, when it is revealed that Bartleby was formerly an employee of the Dead Letter Office.

In despair of any kind of communication, Bartleby withdraws another step by refusing to copy. When his employer asks why, Bartleby replies, "Do you not see the reason for yourself?" (p. 492). With his typical lack of insight, the narrator believes that Bartleby's vision has been impaired; he does not realize that Bartleby can see much better than he can. Days later, when Bartleby again refuses to copy, the lawyer makes his decision:

If he would have but named a single relative or friend, I would instantly have written, and urged their taking this poor fellow away to some convenient retreat. But he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic. [Like Ishmael at the end of Moby-Dick, as Emory Elliott noted.] At length, necessities connected with my business tyrannized over all other considerations. Decently as I could, I told Bartleby that in six days' time he must unconditionally leave the office. (p. 493)

The French film version

More than ever, the lawyer abdicates any responsibility for Bartleby. He wishes someone would take him off his hands, but since Bartleby is an isolato—which is too bad—he must go. But Bartleby prefers not to leave. "He was more a man of preferences than assumptions" (p. 495). In the hopeless universe in which Bartleby finds himself, he knows better than to assume; the best he can do is to exercise what will he has, and even so, he can see that that has no effect.

Again rationalizing, the narrator resolves to love Bartleby. Remembering the Colt-Adams murder, he adopts the position that love is the safest—and most practical—solution: "but no man that I ever heard of ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity's sake" (p. 499). The fact he is thinking of murder suggests his hatred of Bartleby and the moral responsibility Bartleby is foisting upon him. Even so, the lawyer is mistaken. A murder will be committed in his office, if not on the behalf of charity, then on the behalf of an illusion of it on the narrator's part.

Further rationalizing, he consults Edwards on the Will and Priestly on Necessity, and thus gains the view that Bartleby is his predestinated cross to bear. However, his contempt for Bartleby still shows through clearly:

Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. (p. 500)

But once more business considerations supersede, and when clients begin asking about that young man standing in the corner staring at the wall, the lawyer decides that Bartleby must go. Yet since Bartleby refuses to leave him, he avoids direct confrontation by leaving Bartleby, going to the extreme of moving his office. As he deserts Bartleby, guilt overwhelms the lawyer; Bartleby is left

the motionless occupant of a naked room. I stood in the entry watching him a moment, while something from within me upbraided me.

I re-entered, with my hand in my pocket—and—and my heart in my mouth.

"Good-by, Bartleby; I am going—good-by, and God some way bless you; and take that," slipping something in his hand. But it dropped upon the floor, and then—strange to sayI tore myself from him I had so longed to be rid of. (p. 505)

However, a few days later, a stranger comes to tell him that "you are responsible for the man you left there" (p. 503). The lawyer disclaims any knowledge of him, and yet feels guilt for having abandoned this castaway to his fate; "and, though l often felt a charitable prompting to call at the place and see poor Bartleby, yet a certain squeamishness, of I know not what, withheld me" (p. 504).

At the threat of a mob, the lawyer is summoned to reason with Bartleby. When the narrator offers Bartleby dead-end jobs of equal tedium—clerking, bartending, bill-collecting, serving as a traveling companionship—he cannot understand why Bartleby refuses with the remark, "but I am not particular" (p. 505).

As a last-ditch effort, he invites Bartleby to come home with him. But it is too late; Bartleby has withdrawn completely. The damage has been done and cannot be repaired. In near terror, perhaps for his soul, the narrator flees the scene and escapes to his rockaway in, fittingly enough, Astoria. The die is cast; events have taken their course, and now Bartleby is interred in the Tombs for vagrancy. H. Bruce Franklin rightly compares Bartleby's meek walk to the Tombs with Christ's passive ascent of Golgotha; in prison, Bartleby, like Jesus, is placed among murderers and thieves. (11)

The aptly-named Tombs

When the lawyer learns that Bartleby is imprisoned, "I went to the Tombs, or, to speak more properly, the Halls of Justice" (p. 508). He chose the correct appellation the first time. The Tombs are the sepulcher of society's unwanted; and Melville performs a brilliant stroke of irony in making the man who must deal with Bartleby, and who fails him, a lawyer, who is supposed to enforce the morality of the society. The disconcerting possibility is that the lawyer may be doing just that.

In the Tombs, the narrator cannot understand why Bartleby is depressed. After all, he is only in prison, and surrounded by walls on all sides, as before. As the narrator tells him,

"And to you, this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful attaches you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.”

"I know where I am," he replied, but would say nothing more, and so I left him. (p. 509)

A grub-man appears who asks the narrator concerning Bartleby, "Does he want to starve? If he does, let him live on the prison fare. That's all" (p. 509). In this case, the outside world is the prison, and its fare is emotional sterility. It is on this diet that Bartleby starves to death. After the narrator hires the grub-man to feed Bartleby, Bartleby declares, "I prefer not to dine to-day. It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners" (p. 510). So he is. The narrator never cared before that Bartleby subsisted entirely on ginger-nuts (which sounds funny, but isn't, another example of Melville's inversion of Dickensian humor); he is only feeding Bartleby now because it is easier to do than it might have been to care about him before, when it mattered.

It comes as no surprise when the narrator later discovers Bartleby, who has starved to death. Bartleby had no further reason live; no one cared whether he lived or died. All alone in the universe, and aware that he was trapped in a life of meaningless tedium and misery, he found himself in but a greater prison, but with thicker walls. He tried to reach the lawyer, but the lawyer did not care to listen, and so Bartleby resigned himself to silence.

John Freeman praises the narrator for the fine elegy he gives for Bartleby. "With kings and counselors" (he sleeps), (12) which, incidentally, is a quotation from Job. (13). But noble as it sounds, it comes a little late.

As a footnote, the narrator reports a rumor.

The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, hardly can I 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? (p. 512)

He goes on to indulge in a lurid fantasy of Bartleby opening the letters, reading them, and removing rings and checks, actions Bartleby never would have performed, much less contemplated. The lawyer delivers this sentimental outburst simply because "this vague report has not been without a certain suggestive interest to me" (p. 511). The lawyer is a sentimental man, as we have seen, and the rumor's melodramatic overtones appeal to him. In effect, he is saying, Bartleby acted the way he did because he was a dead letter who was returned to the sender (God), which absolves the lawyer of any responsibility nicely.

More significant is his description of the dead letters themselves; he mentions

a bank-note sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve nor eats nor hungers no 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. (p. 512)

What the lawyer fails, or refuses, to realize is that the story itself, which he is telling to us, is a dead letter. The lawyer's outbursts contain fine sentiments, but he is unable to communicate them. The above passage perfectly describes Bartleby's suffering, but the lawyer is unaware of that. The lawyer's good intentions never reached Bartleby because the attorney never bothered to send them. They too are dead letters. Ironically, the story is the letter the attorney promised to send him once he reached home, if he ever needed help. (It is interesting that he describes a bank-note—a check—as the carrier of Christian charity, rather than love.)

But the lawyer never would have been able to help Bartleby anyway. Richard Abcarian and Harold B. Simonson see the last paragraph of the story, "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!", as a sign that the narrator, having learned from his encounter with Bartleby, now feels a bond of love with the dead scrivener. (14) But the internal evidence says quite the opposite: the remark is one final outburst of sentimentality. At the outset of the story, the narrator openly declares that he is telling the story because it is about the most interesting employee he ever had, and goes as far to warn us that the tale is one that induces sentimentality:

I have known very many of them [scriveners], professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners, for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw, or heard of. (p. 466)

At the end of the story, there is no indication that he has arrived at any understanding of Bartleby whatsoever. He is still searching for the cause of Bartleby's "eccentricities" in his background; he never recognizes that he was the cause of Bartleby's catatonic schizophrenia and eventual death. As he says,

But, ere parting with the reader, let me say that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was; and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator's making his acquaintance, I can only reply that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly able to gratify it. (p. 511)

But most important of all, there is no evidence that the narrator ever feels that he was responsible for Bartleby's death. When the narrator tells the story, we can see that the moral victory was Bartleby’s; but Bartleby paid for that victory with his life.

Through the story of Bartleby, Melville shows that in a materialistic, utilitarian society exemplified by Wall Street, individuals will feel no responsibility to their fellow man as long as self-interest is involved; as a consequence, those sensitive to the deadening influences of such a life, such as Bartleby, will be sacrificed.

Melville does not offer much hope of change. The narrator never learns. For one thing, he never looks inside himself; he refers to Edwards or Priestly or asks the advice of Turkey or Nippers or bends to the pressure of his clients. (He might have consulted the preacher of the Trinity Church, but he felt that the anguish of Bartleby was not a suitable reason for which to seek spiritual guidance.) Whenever he does examine himself and approaches the truth, he flees from it.

After Turkey dies from alcoholism, we can expect Nippers to continue copying, and soon Ginger Nut will be admitted to the fold. There will be none saved, only victims. The pattern has been passed down to the present day, which is permeated with Bartlebys, who, especially in this land of self-reliance, follow his fate in turn.

"Bartleby's death damns society, not himself," writes Ronald Charles Mason. "The paradox of Bartleby is that although his principles destroy him, it is the preservation of those principles alone which can save the world which rejects him." (15)


  1. Quoted in Donald M. Fiene, "A Bibliography of Criticism of Bartleby the Scrivener," Bartleby the Scrivener: The Melville Annual (Kent, Ohio. 1966), pp. 153-4.
  2. Ibid., p. 155.
  3. Ibid., pp. 160-1.
  4. Evidently Melville did exhibit the same pattern of behavior as Bartleby; he refused to correct proofs of his books, confined himself indoors, and in that period (1851-3) had suicidal impulses. Henry A. Murray, "Bartleby and I." Bartleby the Scrivener, pp. 13-4.
  5. T.S. Eliot, quoted in Fiene, p. 156, says, "Of course the 'dead letters' are Melville's manuscripts and the 'flames' are the same that gutted the quarters of his publishers, Harpers, the year the story was written, destroying the plates of all his novels, and almost all the printed copies of his books," but Jay Leyda, quoted in Piene, p. 161, "notes that Putnam's sent Allan Melville a check for $30.00 for the second installment (6 pp.) of 'Bartleby," on December 6, 1853; and that on December 10 the fire burned Harper's establishment."
  6. Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener," The Portable Melville (New York, 1952), pp. 466-7. All page references to the text in this paper are from this edition.
  7. H. Bruce Franklin, The Wake of the Gods (Stanford, California, 1963). p. 127.
  8. Ibid., p. 126.
  9. Benjamin Franklin, "The Autobiography," The Autobiography and Selections from His Other Writings (New York, 1952) p. 36.
  10. William Bysshe Stein. "Bartleby: The Christian Conscience," Bartleby the Scrivener, p. 108.
  11. H. Bruce Franklin, pp. 132-3.
  12. Quoted in Fiene, p. 153.
  13. Maurice Friedman, "Bartleby and the Modern Exile," Bartleby the Scrivener, p. 75.
  14. Quoted in Fiene, p. 189.
  15. Ibid., p. 161.


Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography and Selections from His Other Wrltings, ed. by Herbert W. Schneider. New York, 1952.

Franklin, H. Bruce. The Wake of the Gods. Stanford. California, 1963.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby the Scrivener." The Portable Melville, ed. by Jay Leyda. New York, 1952.

Vincent, Howard, ed. Bartleby the Scrivener: The Melville Annual. Kent, Ohio, 1966.

"Bartleby," the abstract painting by Katharine Jackson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The french version (1976 Maurice Ronet) is highly valuable. It has some poetry thanks to the wonderful interpretation of Michael Lonsdale who plays the bailiff. This movie is a meditation about modern world but also about friendship and humanity. Strange enough, Michael Lonsdale adds something feminine, almost ambiguous, in his relationship with Bartleby. So the french movie is more open than the other versions, leaving the spectator with some feelings about friendship and attraction a man can have for antoher man. Paris is here with some exterior scenes, which gives some fresh air compared to the others versions (Paris was in the 70' a kind of paradise on earth).