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"Bartleby the Scrivener" -- A Brief Guided Reading

Page numbers refer to the Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, 5/e; I haven't updated to the 6/e yet.

These notes merely skim the surface.

As the story begins (p. 110 - 114), we realize it's going to be told in the first person, by one of the story's participants. The first sentence is a piece of self-description. "I am a rather elderly man." Before you even consider how the narrator goes on to describe himself, you might ask a few key questions about self-descriptions in general. How accurate are self-portraits? Doesn't it depend on how honest a person, and how self-aware? Is the way a person views himself the same as the way others view him? How would you describe yourself? How would your description match the way others might describe you? When you really think about it, a certain amount of ambiguity enters in. A formalist critic would point out that the story's point of view is a first person narrator, but the next questions readers need to ask is - how reliable is he?

Do you trust everything you read in a personal ad (if you read personal ads!)?

But doubts aside for the moment….as the narrator introduces himself and Bartleby (in the first paragraph of the story), he tries to pique our interest by assuring us that he's been around the block, he's a man of some experience, a man who's had a long career - he's "an elderly man" who's dealt with a lot of copyists (scriveners) in his day, and he assures us that Bartleby is the strangest of them all, but that he knows next to nothing about him, except what he's witnessed with his own eyes. Bartleby's past is lost, and it's an "irreparable loss to literature."

Aside from the facts the narrator gives us, you're probably already forming some kind of opinion about him, just by hearing him. The opinion you form of him will have much to do with how you interpret the story.

So, before he can tell us more about Bartleby, the narrator thinks it fitting that we get acquainted with who he is, the nature of his business, and with his other employees. All of this background information is known to the formalist critic as exposition. We will get lots of background detail that hopefully will help explain, or help us understand what happens later.

The narrator tells us about himself first.

  • He's a professional. He uses Latin, which establishes his credentials, and makes him sound like the lawyer he is.
  • He believes the "easiest way is best."
  • He's not "ambitious" but likes to stay out of the turbulent limelight; he enjoys the "cool tranquillity of a snug retreat" (his offices), doing a "snug business among rich men's bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds." He's a paper pusher and he likes it.
  • He likes to think of himself as a "safe" man (his italics) and he dwells on his pride in the fact that the wealthy John Jacob Astor employed him and endorsed him, calling his best quality "prudence," and his next best quality "method." He drops Astor's name three times in three sentences.
  • He's been doing easy work for excellent pay, riding the gravy train as a Master in Chancery. But lost his seat to a "new Constitution" and it made him uncharacteristically angry. (It's akin to Bartleby getting fired from the Dead Letter Office when the administration changed.)
  • His offices are on Wall Street in Manhattan. They are on the second floor of a highrise, right up against other highrises. One side looks out upon a blank white wall and the other upon a blackened brick wall, not 10 feet away. He admits that a landscape painter might find the atmosphere devoid of life. But we already know he doesn't value artistic sentiment when it comes to work. (John Jacob Astor, his hero, was a man "little given to poetic enthusiasm.") The effect was that of being inside a "huge square cistern" - or inside of a well.

Next follows a description of the other two copyists, Turkey and Nippers, and the office gopher, Ginger Nut.

  • The fact that his clerks all go by nicknames expresses their personality, and helps establish the boss's tolerance - even embrace - of informalities.
  • Turkey is near sixty; he's normal and productive in the morning but after lunch becomes red-faced and given to error. His energies were "strange, inflamed flurried, flighty recklessness…" Given to noisy outbursts of frustration all afternoon - most disgraceful! His work in the morning was stellar enough that the boss puts up with eccentricities in the afternoon. The boss points out that he doesn't like dealing with that afternoon insolence but rather than fire him, tries to give him the afternoons off. That's pretty untypical behavior for a boss, don't you think? It definitely paves the way for his response to Bartleby. Turkey arouses his "fellow-feeling." He identifies with him; they are the same age.
  • Nippers, is "whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking." He's younger - 25 years old. He's unsatisfied being a copyist - he has other ambitions - "diseased ambitions," the boss calls them. He's a tense, impatient, irritable person who struggles to get comfortable at his desk every morning. All the fuss with desk is really just symptomatic of not wanting to be a scrivener at all, the boss tells us, playing amateur psychologist. Nippers does some shady work on the side, which the boss tolerates reasonable well. He does good copy work and is a neat dresser, which makes the office look good. The boss appreciates a man who looks good. Nippers does excellent work when he settles down in the afternoons.
  • Ginger Nut is the young boy who's like a servant, running errands, doing no serious work.

Enter Bartleby (p. 114 - 120).
Work increases so the boss puts out an ad for another copyist.

  • When the boss introduces Bartleby, look at his emotion rise to the surface: "In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now - pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby." At the time, though, the boss merely sees him as "sedate" and thinks he'll be good for the office chemistry, which is already fine.
  • He sets up Bartleby apart from the other copyists, at a window looking straight into a wall, because it gives a little light. Then he puts up a screen to "isolate him from my sight" though keep him in earshot. What effect do you think this isolation has on Bartleby? At first, he does an amazing quantity of work - "silently, palely, mechanically."
  • The boss expects instant servitude from Bartleby - see the passage on p. 115, where he describes how he called Bartleby in to proof copy - but is startled when Bartleby replies, for the first time, "I would prefer not to." The boss reacts immediately, and uncharacteristically, his voice "rising in high excitement." But he leaves, perplexed, without doing anything. Bartleby is a high-volume worker, remember, and he postpones thinking what he should do and calls Nippers in instead.
  • Several times the boss insists that it's Bartleby's manner of speaking rather than what he says which prevents him from dismissing him "violently." He insists there's nothing "ordinarily human" in Bartleby's manner or tone of voice, and this prevents him from flying off the handle into a "dreadful passion." He confides that Bartleby "strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me." And he tries hard to reason with Bartleby, which goes nowhere, until he loses certainty that his is being reasonable. He asks his other clerks for confirmation. The majority opinion goes against Bartleby but that fails, too. Once again, the boss postpones any definitive confrontation, or unpleasant scene.

After Bartleby's strange behavior, the boss begins to observe him even more closely. He discovers Bartleby never leaves the office, never eats, except the ginger-nut cakes delivered by the boy. The boss's reflections about Bartleby's eating habits demonstrate a couple of things. First, that he's now paying very close attention to Bartleby, and second, that the tone of his observations are light. He's amused by Bartleby, who is like an entertaining diversion. He's not taking anything too seriously, even thought the observation that Bartleby doesn't eat is pretty serious.

Bartleby's rebellion is a form of "passive resistance," and it has the effect of bringing out the boss's humane temperament. He keeps trying to imagine a kind solution to Bartleby's problem. He believes firmly that Bartleby is not being merely insolent or disrespectful, but that his behavior is "involuntary." That makes a big difference. He also worries that if he should fire Bartleby, some other less charitable employer will make mince meat out of him - and perhaps he'd starve to death. The boss sees himself as more charitable than that, and his interaction with Bartleby is affording him a "delicious self-approval." His statements are even a little self-incriminating (remember he's telling this story from the vantage point of knowing how it has all turned out - Bartleby has starved to death, and he seems to feel partly responsible). "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 driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange wilfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience."

Nevertheless, he's irritated by Bartleby, and he even provokes what he calls a little "scene," which is way out of character for him, and which disturbs and distresses him much. Bartleby is beginning to have some effect.

After the "scene" in which the boss confronts Bartleby on the semantics of his utterance, it is clear that Bartleby will continue to refuse to comply with his duties. His preference not to is in fact a refusal. But rather than fire, him, the boss accepts this, reconciles himself to it, because he's eminently averse to conflict of any kind, and the more Bartleby rebelled, the less the boss was likely to challenge it.

At this point, things are at full tilt, way out of whack.

To make matters worse, over the next few pages of the story, the boss learns that Bartleby has been living at the office. Notice the passage on p. 120 when the boss refers to his own "impotent rebellion" as he slinks away from his own office doors at Bartleby's bidding. There's a kind of doubling, or paralleling, that some critics have noticed between the boss and Bartleby, and here's an interesting instance of it.

Nevertheless, the boss, upon finding the evidence that Bartleby was making his office his home, is moved enough to exclaim sympathetically, "what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his 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. This building, too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous - a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage?" (p. 121) You can see by this passage that Bartleby - the reality of him - has shattered the lawyer's calm complacency. His heart grows three sizes that day, though he was no grinch to begin with. Up until now he's been completely protected, shielded by his wealth and power, by his status, but his own human kindness - his empathy - breaks that shield and exposes him to the reality of this human being he's been playing around with. Now, he tells us, "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 irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none." What a profound and necessary insight for this man to have…doesn't it show growth?

The complexity (frustrating to some readers) of the boss's position in relation to Bartleby is exemplified in the brief moment when he decides to look into Bartleby's desk. The boss has just had a significant moment when he related to Bartleby as a fellow human being. The superficial power structure that has defined their relationship has dropped away like a flimsy veil. But in the next moment, we find the boss rifling through Bartleby's drawers and examining his personal belongings. This obviously represents an invasion of privacy, but he justifies it because he is the boss and no law can stop him. In that contradictory moment we realize how hard it is for the boss to reconcile his relationship with Bartleby. On the one hand, he seems genuinely concerned, but on the other he's asserting his power, his authority. The whole power structure of the work environment has created an impossibility of real communication between these two. Later the boss has plans to act in what he considers a magnanimous way -- offering Bartleby a generous severance pay and a lifeline if he needs one. But because of Bartleby's frustrating manner, and his own need to be the "boss," he never gets to communicate this clearly.

The boss takes note of Bartleby's "dead wall reveries." What do you think the wall symbolizes for Bartleby as he's staring at it? It might be a symbol of imprisonment -- self-imposed perhaps, or imposed from without. It may be the insurmountable barrier, despair, that Bartleby has come up against. It may be an object correlative for Bartleby himself, his stubborn refusal "not to." The ultimate negation. His thick, impotent protest. One thing we know, these reveries, these staring at the brick wall sessions, render Bartleby motionless, immobilized, paralyzed.

The boss concludes as result of these observations that Bartleby is a lost soul, the "victim of an innate and incurable disorder. 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." Are you reminded of the Emily Dickenson poem here, the one we discussed in class, "A Certain Slant of Light"? Bartleby's soul is in Despair, that imperial affliction born of air.

It seems pretty ironic that, after these revelations, the boss cannot continue on to Church (he'd been on his way to Trinity Church, it being a Sunday). He has just observed that Bartleby seems a lost soul. You'd think his Christian impulse might be to continue on to church and pray for him! But Melville seems to imply that his religion doesn't go that deep. "Somehow, the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church." But why? Instead he goes for a walk and works out a plan in his head for getting rid of Bartleby which he is satisfied is eminently reasonable. But when he presents it to Bartleby, he can't ignore perceiving Bartleby's nearly imperceptible struggle -- "just the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth." Bartleby's despair has robbed him of his last shred of dignity -- he's being fired again, and other than his feeble protest, he can do nothing to change it. While Bartleby withdraws, all the way this time, all the boss can think is that Bartleby is being ungrateful. There's that disconnect again. Self-righteous anger invades, and no real communication has taken place. Neither one is reaching over to understand the other. This seems to be the point at which Bartleby completely gives up and stops working all together. He's been fired, and he has nowhere to go. All of his subsequent lines throughout the rest of the story -- his conversations with the lawyer -- change in character from this point on. He no longer says simply, "I would prefer not to." Now he says, more directly, "I have given up copying." It's a point-blank volley (p. 124).

Some comical moments follow as we observe the rest of the office unconsciously picking up on Bartleby's peculiar use of the word "prefer," even as Bartleby himself is leaving it behind. Everyone has been infected by it. Only the boss realizes this with a kind of momentary shudder, though. It's not funny to him, and he tries, unsuccessfully, over the next section of the story to get Bartleby out of his office. Finally, he realizes he's been a fool to consider that he could assume control over Bartleby -- "The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer to do so. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions." (p. 125). The lawyer is now fully confronted with his lack of control over Bartleby, with his basic freedom, which is extremely problematic.

He becomes perplexed, and he loses a lot of his normal composure, as his behavior on the way to work and the thoughts that go through his mind about ways of getting rid of Bartleby now demonstrate. He keeps trying to find the peaceful easy way to resolve matters, but nothing is working. He even considers just ignoring Bartleby -- acting out a vindictive "doctrine of assumption" to get back at him. But he decides against it because he knows it won't ultimately work. He's forced into confronting Bartleby head on once again. This confrontation raises gets him excited, makes his temper flare, but he immediately recalls a story running rampant in all the tabloids -- a juicy murder which was all the buzz, which happened in an office building. Two men argued and one shot the other to death, right there on Wall St. it was "the circumstance of being 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 -- this it must have been, which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation of the hapless Colt [the murderer]" (p. 127). He feels himself similarly drawn to that kind of wild excitement by Bartleby, and he checks himself. Then suddenly, in an almost comic turnaround, he remembers charity. "Love one another." Readers might be thinking, there's so much hope for this guy! He's a good man! But then, look how quickly he qualifies that directive, giving Christian charity a peculiar American slant: "Mere self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered men, prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy. At any rate, upon the occasion in question, I strove to drown my exasperated feelings towards the scrivener by benevolently construing his conduct. Poor fellow, poor fellow! Thought I, he don't mean anything; and besides, he has seen hard times, and ought to be indulged." (p. 127)

The lawyer, still searching for an answer to the riddle that is Bartleby's wierd behavior, reads Jonathon Edwards and Joseph Priestly, two older elite American writers who asserted, in high Puritan fervor, that humans have no free will. How ironic! Isn't that exactly what Bartleby is exercising, to the extreme? He's willful to an extraordinary degree, but the boss tries to accommodate that confusing freedom by trying to believe it has all been predestined for a reason, that Bartleby had been sent to him for some unknown purpose which he, mere mortal, would never in a million years be able to fathom. There's a comical speech in which he resigns himself to Bartleby's presence (p. 128): "Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of those old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestined purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain."

And the boss would have remained accommodating, he insists (and I believe him, because that would be the easiest way, his favorite way). However, social pressure doesn't allow for this kind of enlightened, good-natured charity, it seems. We learn that it was the "unsolicited and uncharitable remarks obtruded upon me by my professional friends who visited the rooms" that began to worry him because it was becoming damaging to his reputation. Society is not as accepting of Bartleby as this individual has been. He resolves to be rid of "this intolerable incubus" (p. 128) -- a reference which reflects the Puritan influence of the writers previously mentioned. The lawyer is brought back inside the fold of polite society, to which he must demonstrate his allegiance. Time to burn the witch in our midst.

The boss's solution is radical, and reflects his personality to the end. It's the path of least resistance! Bartleby won't leave, so he will. He decides to change his offices. It's a master stroke. He thinks. No messy confrontations with police, no feelings of guilt or responsibility for Bartleby's fate. But it doesn't turn out neatly, as he'd planned. He isn't finished with Bartleby because although he's left, Bartleby stubborn presence in the old building draws him back, and he's forced to confront this nemesis once again. The comical questioning that ensues between Bartleby and the lawyer is a kind of high sparring; they are both extrememly sarcastic with one another until the lawyer, realizing he's been out-flanked, explodes. But before leaving he makes a final gesture, which seems to prove the depth of his sense of responsibility, which he's been trying hard to evade. He opens his home to Bartleby, who rejects it. At Bartleby's rejection, the lawyer seems to experience some relief of conscience, but though he want to wash his hands, they won't come completely clean for some reason. Why does he still feel responsible, even after he's done everything he possibly could?

When he learns Bartleby has been taken to jail (p. 132) he makes his appearance at the Tombs, because a statement from him has been requested. While he's there, he takes it upon himself to visit Bartleby and put in a good word for him. This once again demonstrates his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty, and his kindness seems touching. Bartleby's dismissiveness, his unspoken accusation, stings the well intentioned lawyer to the core, and the whole thing picks up where it left off, with the boss finding himself trying in vain to reason with Bartleby in a rational way. But Bartleby seems to blame the boss for his imprisonment.

Despite feeling rejected, the lawyer tries to see that Bartleby gets food.

The grub-man's impression of Bartleby makes it known that he resembled other businessmen, white collar criminals -- specifically "forgers." He hadn't taken him for "deranged," but an ordinary "gentleman forger." A pretty ironic little phrase, reflecting the hypocrisy of our attitudes toward white collar crime.

When the boss finds Bartleby dead, he seems to acknowledge that the environment of Wall Street -- a desolate place which modern day kings (corporate kings, anyway) and lawyers have built for themselves -- seems to have played its role in this death. "Is he sleeping?" the guard asks. "With kings and counselors," the lawyer replies, evoking Job, chapter 3. Have some fun following that allusion wherever it takes you...









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