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A review and analysis of "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville

Updated on March 14, 2017

“The conclusion of this whole business was, that it soon became a fixed fact of my chambers, that a pale young scrivener, by the name of Bartleby, had a desk there; that he copied for me at the usual rate of four cents a folio (one hundred words); but he was thoroughly exempt from examining the work done by him, that duty being transferred to Turkey and Nippers, out of compliment doubtless to their superior acuteness; moreover, said Bartleby was never on any account to be dispatched on the most trivial errand of any sort: and that even if entreated to take upon him such a matter, it was generally understood that he would prefer not to - in other words, that he would refuse point blank.”

The above is a passage contained in Herman Melville’s tale of Bartleby the Scrivener. It is, as can be seen by the narrators complaint, what would be, at first glance the story of an unwilling worker, one that has adopted a method of thinking that is foreign to laborers of the time in which Melville wrote these words and, indeed, foreign to laborers in this or any other time. As one reads deeper, however, the notion that this story is simply one man’s gripe with an unpleasant employee begins to be eclipsed by the notion that Melville may, in fact, be touching on something deeper. I would like to make the argument that he is not touching simply on one mans individual complex but is actually showcasing his belief in the relative absurdity of structures, in this case those of religious base, that have been created by and as a benefit of our society.

Melville's story seems to be, at its core, a look at what it is exactly that makes certain people act and think in the ways that they do. There is no denying what is seen as the human life cycle. People are born and, although it is not a given whether or not they can survive, what is a given is that their lives inherently revolve around whatever they might deem necessary for their survival and whatever they might deem necessary for their well-being. It is human nature, it is inherent, it is a little thing called intuition to make one’s self as happy as one deems possible, as comfortable as one deems possible, in short to gratify whatever it is that they see is lacking in their life and therefore make a life for themselves.

But here is the proverbial rub. As people grow up, when an infant becomes coherent enough to recognize the wants and needs in their life, what they learn about making that life can be different in all examples. This occurs as a direct result of the surroundings that one finds themselves in. The gratification can only be seen in terms of what happens to be their relative place in the world. They know what they want and need but all humans know about the world is what they see, what they hear, and what they can discern from that knowledge. Humans, as do many species, learn from imitation. They learn that what is pleasing to some could potentially cause them pleasure and what is painful to some could potentially cause them pain. Therefore, what can be seen and heard, what is readily available to be imitated, plays a great role in deciding what is needed for the fulfillment of one‘s needs. A Vietnamese, for example, or any number of civilizations that have built their existence in what are referred to as impoverished nations, living in slums, dealing with disease and death and tsunamis, and earning a fraction of what is considered reasonable in the United States, find happiness in having a clean place to sleep or a roof over their head or maybe a small lump of bread. Some would leap at the chance of coming to work in America where they might earn that reasonable sum but one that, by their standards, could be considered princely. The life of Paris Hilton acts as a counterbalance to this. For hers is a life that has been filled with what is understood as the finer things, never having to worry about money or working for yourself. She would not understand what it means to be poor and would positively die if sent to carry out the jobs that the Vietnamese have gladly taken.

Now we bring this line of thinking to the idea of religion and directly address the concept of Christianity which has been adopted and maintained and taught and which has consequentially been adopted by further generations. These popular beliefs say that there is a divine being that exists somewhere, an almighty deity that has created the human race as the conductors of his or her will, and has endowed in that race certain tools that are necessary to carry out that will, among these the aforementioned intuition. Therefore people can assume that no matter where it is that circumstances find them, the thought is that we are, in following our intuition, just doing what we were put on this earth to do. Why would god create such a feeling if it was not to his own purposes? And it would seem right, if this is a God that has created us to do its bidding, that a reward, the life of virtue that Christianity speaks of, would be in order.

What Melville appears to want to touch upon in his tale is that this intuition, whether it culminate in the idea of Paris Hilton to be disgusted by any sort of menial labor, in the idea of a man from Vietnam to relish that same menial labor or in Bartleby's case, to “prefer not” to do anything at all, can not and should not be thought of to be Gods will. He says this for two reasons. First of all do any of the examples that I just gave sound like reasonable enactments of Gods will? From the moment that any of them were born, did it seem it would be such a great idea for any of them to live the life that they supposedly were destined to live? No, it seems like that idea of the various degrees of nurturing environments play more of a part in their respective pursuits. The second point that Melville is trying to make, and which I will illustrate by using again as a way of comparison the examples of the Vietnamese man and Paris Hilton, is that their pursuit of Gods will has not led to direct conflict with the norms of our society. But in Bartleby’s case, his intuition inspired in him an urge to cast off the shackles of what is considered normal. If people are endowed with a divine nature, it would seem that the norms of our society would be irrelevant. People are supposedly inherently enacting a far better notion of what the divine world is anyway. But the question is how divine can it really be if notions become problematic to the individual and to those around him or her.

Let us look at what a man Melville has made Bartleby here. I said before that he can be seen as a very stubborn, unwilling worker. His inclination when asked to fulfill any suggested task other than endlessly copying is to flat out refuse. His intuition tells him that to refuse his boss is the best thing that he can do. Then it tells him to take up residence in his sole, bare room of employment. It tells him never to leave. It tells him to remain in that room after he has been fired, and then told to leave, and tells him to remain even after the owner leaves as a result of his refusal. His intuition told him that the best idea would be to put a man to such inconvenience. His intuition tells him never to move when he is finally escorted to a mental institution and tells him not to eat and so to starve to death.

Melville seems to beg the question how a man relying on his intuition, a veritable tool of God’s creation, can come to such ends? Was this meaningless, miserable existence Gods ultimate plan, his will in action? And if it was, doesn’t this lead to the question of how much praise such a being actually deserves, if it can let its willing subjects come to such ends?

In the ways that have led him to his demise, Bartleby’s intuition has been acted upon by outside forces. He had never been to the narrators offices before that day but it stands to reason that Bartleby would not have found his way to the front door if he had not ignored his intuition before. Wouldn’t he be in another such room in which he found a similar attachment if he had not done so? Could it not be possible that his upbringing is responsible for such behavior? He prefers not to talk of his past. It only seems obvious that he does not wish to bring up such painful memories again.

Another key argument by Melville is that understanding of what it actually means to live a life based on intuition. The fulfillment of Bartleby's intuition has been shown to be at the mercy of who feels so inclined to suffer it and a problem to those who do not. The narrator, for example, finds it in his heart to suffer this man, to accept his refusals without reprimand. He finds a way to show as much kindness and sympathy towards a man who does not share himself and who finally refuses to do the work given him. He allows Bartleby, who refuses to move, to continue to live in that one room despite there being no reason for him to do so. And finally he is escorted off the premises by the local authorities. Does this seem right? Bartleby is using God’s tools to conduct God’s will but for him to carry out that will is entirely dependent on the mood of who it is in the immediate vicinity. Does this mean society, for example police officers who intervene and save someone from a psycho whose intuition has lead him to want to cut people up with a rusty razor, can disrupt God’s will? Can they put a damper on the intentions of the creator of their very beings? Surely you jest.

The narrator suffers this man to such an extent that it does not come as much of a shock to learn that the narrator is himself a strong devotee of the Christian faith. I see Melville’s use of a devout Christian as a way of describing his utter disgust with that faith as a whole. The narrator plays the part of one that is, as is true Christian fashion, bending over backwards to “help”.

“Now, the utterly unsurmised appearance of Bartleby, tenanting my law-chambers of a Sunday Morning, with his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door and did as he desired.“

I think that what Melville is saying, and what I do not want to come across the wrong way in saying for it is a touchy subject, is that a Christian and only a devout Christian would follow their own faith so indefinitely as to be put through the trouble of having to deal with someone like Bartleby. Their belief affects everyone. It does not simply single people out. If there is one example of intuition gone awry, Christians will have to practice what they preach. They will have to take responsibility for what they see as a benefit to the society and that could result in more than simple inconvenience as was the case in Bartleby the Scrivener.

So it is that with the content of Melville’s tale and the conclusions that I have come upon in the course of writing this essay, the last paragraph especially, I have come to conclude about the character of Melville himself except that he was as atheistic as they come. The Christian beliefs, which I have attempted to alliterate, have been scrutinized by Melville in such a way that it may be one of the best arguments on the subject that I have ever heard. I can only conclude that to come up with such stories to figuratively knock those ideas down requires much energy and much passion. Cheers to Melville!

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