Thursday, April 1, 2010


Gentle Readers,

Today I offer information about Bartleby, a character in a short story of the same name by Herman Melville. Since I posted a poem based on Bartleby yesterday, I want to introduce you to this interesting fellow. I believe he's going to show up in another poem before long.

In "Bartleby," Herman Melville uses symbolism to develop the theme of the devastating consequences of man's total withdrawal from a society that is already isolating and unaccepting.

When the story first appeared in Putnam's Monthly Magazine for November and December, 1853, it was

A Story of Wall Street

Perhaps the original title is the more appropriate of the two, for walls play a significant role in "Bartleby." The lawyer/narrator describes the setting: "My chambers were up stairs, at No. --- Wall Street. At one end, they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom." Furthermore, "the view from the other end of my chambers . . . commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade" that "was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes." The lawyer realizes that the view is "deficient in what landscape painters call 'life'." In like manner, the office "building" is the sort that is "entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations."

Appropriately, the walls also have an important function inside the office. The lawyer describes the interior of his chambers: " . . . 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." Although these interior walls are somewhat different from those outside the office, they do allow the lawyer to separate himself from his employees--and to isolate them--when he chooses to do so.

The lawyer himself is also a symbol. He does "a snug business among rich men's bonds, and mortgages, and title deeds." He is a name-dropper: "I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat; for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor's good opinion." Furthermore, the lawyer embodies man's detachment from his fellow man. The walls of Wall Street are more than acceptable to him--they are desirable. He enjoys the "cool tranquillity of a snug retreat," and although he belongs to a profession prone "to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort [has he] ever suffered to invade [his] peace." He does, however, allow his peace to be invaded by his problematical scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Turkey works well during the morning, but following "his dinner hour," the drunken Turkey's "business capacities" become "seriously disturbed." Nippers, on the other hand, works poorly in the morning because of "indigestion . . . , while in the afternoon he [is[ comparatively mild." Nonetheless, Turkey is "in many ways a most valuable person," so the lawyer is "willing to overlook his eccentricities." Nippers, too, can be tolerated because he is "useful" at least part of the time. But no character in the story seems to have a home or family. The lawyer is on his own, and, apparently, he expects that others should not need any human attachments either. He is interested in his employees only in regard to the work they perform.

And their work is wretched, for "copying law papers [is] proverbially a dry, husky sort of business." The lawyer admits: "It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable." He even states that if Nippers "wanted anything, it was to be rid of a scrivener's table altogether." Yet the lawyer never attributes his employees' less than ideal performance to the fact that their jobs are tedious and low-paying "at the usual rate of four cents a folio (one hundred words)."

The lawyer, Turkey, and Nippers function moderately well--until Bartleby arrives. "The good office . . . of a Master in Chancery [is] conferred upon" the lawyer, and he needs "additional help." "After a few words touching his qualifications," the lawyer hires Bartleby, who seems to be quite "sedate." Bartleby works in a "corner by the folding doors" where there is "a small side window" which "commanded at present no view at all." The lawyer states: "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 to 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." The purpose of the screen, then, although it can be moved, is to segregate Bartleby.

And we soon see that Bartleby exemplifies the ignored, overlooked worker. He toils alone, performing "an extraordinary quantity of writing." Day and night, Bartleby writes "on silently, palely, mechanically," performing the work that must be "closely written in a crimpy hand." His corner is his "hermitage." But then, the lawyer calls Bartleby in "to examine a small paper with [him]." Bartleby responds: "'I would prefer not to'." In the course of the story, Bartleby uses the phrase "prefer not to" in some form twenty-three times. He prefers not to answer question; he "prefer[s] not to be a little reasonable"; he "prefer[s] to be left alone"; but most of the time, he simply "prefers not to. Through Melville's use of this "prefer not to" motif, Bartleby develops into a symbol of "passive resistance."

In a wonderfully comedic segment, everyone in the office starts "preferring." First, the lawyer discovers that he "had got into the way of involuntarily using the word 'prefer' upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions." Then Turkey suggests that Bartleby might "prefer to take a quart of good ale every day," and the lawyer cries, "So you have got the word, too'." Turkey replies: "'Oh, prefer? oh yes--queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer--'." The lawyer "tremble[s] to think that [his] contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected [him] in a mental way." Soon, Bartleby's preferences--or non-preferences--take over the entire office, and he trains the lawyer not to bother him: " . . . every added repulse . . . only tended to lessen the probability of [the lawyer] repeating the inadvertence." But Bartleby is "useful" to the lawyer, so he "can get along with" Bartleby. Besides, humoring Bartleby allows the lawyer to "lay up in [his] soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for [his] conscience."

Unfortunately, though, Bartleby goes too far. He begins by "throw[ing] himself into a standing reverie behind his screen." Next, "for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall" He "decide[s] upon doing no more writing." He is no longer "useful," so the lawyer tells Bartleby "he must unconditionally leave the office." He prefers not to go. The lawyer is "exasperated," but "self-interest" drives him to "charity and philanthropy." He allows Bartleby to stay, but "all through the circle of [his] professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature [he] kept at his office." In fear of the disdain of his peers, the lawyer decides: "Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. I will change my offices . . . . " The green screen is the last item to be removed, leaving Bartleby "the motionless occupant of a naked room." But even in his "new quarters," the lawyer is not so easily rid of Bartleby. The "landlord of No. --- Wall Street" pays him a visit, for Bartleby "now persists in haunting the building generally . . . . clients are leaving the offices; some fears are entertained of a mob; something you must do, and that without delay." The lawyer visits Bartleby and attempts to offer him new employment; Bartleby "prefer[s] not to make any change." The lawyer even offers to take Bartleby to his "dwelling," but it is too late. Bartleby prefers not to go; he has withdrawn completely from society. The lawyer escapes the city.

Bartleby's preferences now initiate a shift in the story's setting. He is "removed to the Tombs as a vagrant." When the lawyer returns, he visits Bartleby who is "in the inclosed grass-platted yards" of the prison, "his face towards a high wall." A few days later, inside "the surrounding walls, of amazing thickness," the lawyer finds "the wasted Bartleby," who now sleeps "with kings and counselors" where "prisoners rest together, . . . and the servant is free from his master" (Job 3:18, 19).

Later, the lawyer hears "that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington . . . . Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?"

While it is true that the lawyer is partly responsible for Bartleby's fate, he does undergo some change, which we see most clearly when he actually invites Bartleby into his home. This alteration is articulated in his concluding words: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

Although society may be isolating and unaccepting, ultimately, Bartleby must be held responsible for his own destiny. We should not set apart those who are different, but obviously, it is not very healthy for Bartleby to refuse to participate when he IS invited into a group. The folding doors and the green screen could be moved.

And, thus, Gentle Readers, I introduce to you one of my favorite themes in literature and in life: the interconnectedness of humankind.

Oh, but poor Herman Melville. The guy just couldn't catch a break. For awhile he wrote best-selling romances, but he couldn't make himself continue. He was no Nora Roberts (thank you God). He started writing short stories and novels with philosophical themes and his sales plummeted.

However, I attended an antiquarian book fair sponsored by the American Booksellers Association in Washington, D.C. during 1997. A work inscribed by this man who could not earn a living as a writer during his lifetime was offered for sale at the price of $30,000.00.


Dumped First Wife

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