Barlteby the Scrivner: Essay Q&A

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1.   What was Transcendentalism and what was its influence on Melville?

Transcendentalism at its height, 1836-1856, was a loose movement of philosophers, artists, educators, and theologians, who infused a philosophical optimism into American life. They felt America was a land free to experiment with social and moral justice, based on a transcendental truth, rather than a traditional set of beliefs. The transcendental truth was an absolute and self-evident truth, written in every conscience, a spark of the divine. Henry David Thoreau, for instance, created a whole new idea of what was possible by withdrawing from society and living alone at Walden Pond. Many of the idealistic thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and Walt Whitman, became part of a typical new American attitude that life can be improved because of the infinite capacity of human nature. Emerson became a spokesperson for this group with his essays. In one of them, “The Transcendentalist” he describes to a puzzled public the profile of these new radical young people who seem so rebellious. It would be equivalent to someone trying to explain the behavior of the hippies in the 1960s, except that the Transcendentalists, though considered outrageous, were usually quite serious and intellectual. The lawyer in Melville’s story, for instance, completely trusts the rebel Bartleby as a virtuous man; he just can’t stand to be around him. It would be like trying to work with Socrates or Cicero, constantly reminded of how far short one fell of the ideal. Emerson says of these idealists:

It is a sign of our times . . . that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves . . . and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living.  . . . They complain that everything around them must be denied; and if feeble, it takes all their strength to deny, before they can begin to lead their own life.

Melville was influenced by this movement, but not part of it. He both admired Emerson and criticized him fiercely for being overly optimistic. In many ways, Bartleby fits the rebellious profile in Emerson’s essay, “The Transcendentalist.” In any case, he lives a life based on his own moral ideas and is not influenced by anyone else. He is an absolutist. Melville is attracted to idealists and puts them in his stories. Bulkington in Moby-Dick, is an idealist who dies young, like Bartleby, of whom it is said: “all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea . . . in landlessness alone lies the highest truth . . . better is it to perish in that howling indefinite” (The Lee Shore). Melville likes these idealists who think deeply and stand up for what is right. He said of Emerson in a letter to Evert Duyckinck in 1849, “let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool than a wise man. -- I love all men who dive.”

However, Melville was also deeply skeptical. In his opinion, idealists were a bit naive, like Bartleby, to think they could battle society, or, that they could battle metaphysical forces beyond their control. Melville, as he grew older, became more conservative, and in temperament, he was not unlike the narrator of the story, not so much wanting to be “safe,” but seeing the need to compromise in order to preserve society. He believed humans were limited, either through fate, or through some flaw in human nature. Much of his fiction is about human greed, fate, and the lack of brotherly love. The issues, as Melville sees it, are complex, and so he creates in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” a philosophical dialogue between two forces in society: the idealism needed for reform, and the practicality to carry on.

2.   What effect did Hawthorne have on Melville’s art?

Nathaniel Hawthorne  (1804-1864) was breaking important artistic ground just before he met Melville. He was older, but both men were established authors when they met in the literary community of Lenox, Massachusetts. Both had houses (Arrowhead and the Little Red House) near the Berkshires and met while Hawthorne was writing House of the Seven Gables and Melville was writing Moby-Dick. Hawthorne had just published The Scarlet Letter (1850) and persuaded Melville, who was already keen to break away from writing straight adventure tales, to write in a more literary, symbolic style. Hawthorne’s ambiguous style and dark subject matter appealed to Melville. He called Hawthorne an American Shakespeare in his essay “Hawthorne and his Mosses” (1850) who, like Shakespeare, could present the depth of human nature through his “mystical blackness,” the portrayal of human sin. Melville was inspired to change Moby-Dick from a mere whaling story to a masterpiece of philosophical and symbolic depth that, however, did not capture the American public the way Hawthorne had. Melville continued to follow his mentor in his remaining short stories and novels, but lost popularity, while Hawthorne gained fame.

In many ways, Hawthorne had already touched on the issues that Melville would take up—the problem of evil, for instance, looked at from various points of view. Hawthorne’s neighbors were Emerson and Thoreau, and he had spent time in a Transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm. He, like Melville, found Transcendentalism did not adequately confront the darker elements in human nature.

Both Hawthorne and Melville use idealistic characters but weave them into pessimistic plots. Both authors are modern in their use of seeing truth as relative to the observer, making drama out of conflicting points of view. Is Hester in the Scarlet Letter sinful or a heroine? Is Ahab mad or a hero? Is Bartleby a victim, hero, or bum? There are multiple ways to interpret their stories, and a fundamental ambiguity that disallows easy answers. Melville had been looking for a way to express adequately the complexities he saw in life, and Hawthorne opened a door for him.

3.   What are the historical issues behind this story?

In their own way, the radical Transcendentalists were trying to head off a crisis in American life, pointing out that society needed to be creatively and fairly evolved and that every person was democratically part of the Oversoul, the unity of life. Melville agreed there was a crisis in American life, but he didn’t want to whitewash it with optimism, for there was too much self-justification and lack of critical thinking in American society as it was. His role as a writer was to examine  human nature, both its good and bad points. He ended up siding with the ideology of law and restraint in order to control the evil impulses in human beings . Unlike the Transcendentalists, he did not believe humans could be trusted to evolve in the right direction. He had more in common with the lawyer in “Bartleby” than the scrivener, though the lawyer cannot be taken as his mouth piece.

Pre-Civil War America was a bit chaotic with its rapid economic and territorial expansion. Jefferson had pictured a country of farmers, but with the industrial revolution, there was a shift from agricultural production to a market and industrial economy, particularly in the northern cities. Immigrants and workers could make money through wages, giving rise to the beginning of a middle class. The scriveners in “Bartleby” are part of this new class of people, living and working in the cities. There was still quite a spread, however, between rich and poor, and Wall Street at this time represented the privileged. John Jacob Astor, mentioned in the story, was one of the “robber barons,” rich industrialists who created monopolies in these days of unregulated business. Astor, Andrew Carnegie, and others became astronomically rich under protectionist laws and cheap labor, but in their defense, it can also be said they shaped America’s financial potential and were great philanthropists. The lawyer in the story only deals with the property of these rich people, and his white collar workers are obviously not well paid. Nippers owes money, and Turkey cannot afford a decent coat. Ginger Nut is trying to climb out of family poverty. There are no unions or workers’ “rights.” They depend upon the good will of the employer.

The story does not bring up the southern economy, which was still agricultural, but based on large plantations using slave labor. Melville’s mature fiction takes place just before the country exploded into civil war over these two divided ways of life. A writer like Thoreau had made a comparison in Walden between the slaves of the south and the wage slaves of the north; in his mind, they had the same lack of freedom. The copyists do not endure anything like the hardship of the African slaves, but they do endure a sort of slavery in a landscape devoid of any hope or human warmth. In both “Bartleby” (1853) and Moby-Dick (1851) there are images of wrecks and ruins, and the American Ship of State was headed in that direction in the next decade with the Civil War (1861-1864). It was a trauma that sent many an optimist away from the Transcendentalists into Melville’s pessimistic camp.

4.   How does Melville create sympathy for Bartleby?

In many ways, the reader is set up to be frustrated with Bartleby’s stubborn and irrational refusals of help, because we hear the story from the lawyer’s point of view. He shows in detail how he has bent over backwards to accommodate the unlucky scrivener, as when he tries to give him money or even take him home. Melville creates a “restless curiosity” in the reader, as the lawyer experiences, to understand Bartleby better (p. 1961).

In trying to solve the mystery, the narrator establishes Bartleby’s good points as well as his bad points. Above all, Bartleby represents integrity. The man is “self-possessed” “decorous,” with a “wonderful mildness” (p. 1961). “It was not to be thought of for a moment that Bartleby was an immoral person,” he says (p. 1961). Bartleby gains sympathy because he is self-controlled and never intimidated, not even when the narrator loses his temper, or Bartleby is hauled off to jail. The narrator cannot understand how he could exist on ginger-nuts, for ginger would make Nippers, for instance, very hot and irritable. “Ginger, then, had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably, he preferred it should have none” (p. 1959).

The reader enjoys the mystery of Bartleby, curious at the nature of a clerk who can order the boss from his own office door, and make the lawyer slink away. One wants to cheer at his supernatural power over the rich lawyer, for Bartleby is the underdog in this story: “there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but, in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me” (p. 1957). He never says what the strange power of Bartleby is, but it cannot be his threatening appearance, for Bartleby is pitiful, like a ghost or skeleton: “thin and pale” with “austere reserve” (p. 1963).

Finally, the narrator discovers a common humanity with his clerk, a “fraternal melancholy” at his loneliness (p. 1962). The lawyer at the age of sixty is confronting the question of human loneliness and alienation for the first time, in the example of Bartleby. The reader, however, comprehends more, reads over the narrator’s head, seeing him a bit slow (“the unreliable narrator”). The ideas of repetitive and boring work, low wages, an impersonal work environment that consumes one’s whole life, and the inability to communicate with other people, are fairly common features of modern life that will resonate with readers.

Certainly, everyone has wanted to say no to conditions that are unpalatable and will applaud Bartleby for carrying out what most can only afford to think about. Is it any wonder that a successful film formula or comic book plot today often includes an unattractive underdog like Bartleby rising up with some kind of supernormal powers to say no to the establishment? No matter how quirky Bartleby is, the burden is left on the narrator’s shoulders to justify his unhappy end and his own guilty conscience.

5.   How can this story be seen as an absurdist or existential story?

Many have seen Melville as a “protoexistentialist” with characters like Bartleby or Ishmael trying to find meaning in an overwhelmingly hostile universe. Melville’s characters see reality from different angles but do not agree. The author gives no coherent philosophy to iron out the discrepancies.

Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) has themes and motifs reminiscent of Melville’s story of Wall Street. Josef K. is a bank employee who wakes up one morning, finding himself arrested for some unknown crime. The surreal plot is meant to reproduce the anxiety of modern life with its meaningless repetition and dead ends. K. keeps saying he is innocent, and is asked, “innocent of what?” for the crime is never named. Guilt hovers over him for some unknown failure, even as he pleads not guilty. The book illustrates the arbitrary and absurd nature of modern life, which most people do not question. They accept the authority of others who decide their lives, playing out assigned roles. In the story, K. accepts his own execution as his only bid for freedom rather than waiting his whole life for the constantly deferred “trial” to begin. Kafka means the story as a parable for the human condition.

Similarly, Melville’s story of Wall Street is more than the story of a place in New York. Like all his fiction, it questions the meaning of life, without providing answers. The characters in Melville’s story are more types than individuals. Like “K.” everyone has a nickname or no name, except Bartleby. And he, though named, has no known background. He just appears, like a ghost, and at first he goes through the motions of playing the role of a copyist, but after a while, he can’t pretend anymore. He is always described as though already dead. He is powerless on Wall Street, except to protest: “I would prefer not to.” He looks out his window or waits on the stairs for the end, and like K., accepts his own execution rather than the lawyer’s terms. His only freedom is his refusal to accept the definition of life offered to him.

French existentialist Albert Camus acknowledged Melville’s fiction as an influence on his stories portraying an absurd and indifferent universe where humans must create their own meaning. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus equates human life to the punishment of the Greek hero, Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock up the hill, watching it roll down, and then rolling it up again, over and over. Bartleby refuses to do such meaningless tasks and would rather look out the window, living in his own thoughts, denying the narrator’s world. When he tells the lawyer “I would prefer not to” and “I am not particular” but never says what he does want, he suggests his wants are too abstract to be named or satisfied. He is more than a materialist. He could be seen as an existential hero, who cannot beat the situation of human longing, but who can be calmly aware, with the freedom to deny lesser things.

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