NovelGuide: Barlteby the Scrivner: Section 3
Summary of Attempts to Get Rid of Bartleby
A turning point comes when the narrator drops by the office on a Sunday before church. He finds he cannot get into the office because it is locked from the inside. When he calls out, Bartleby opens the door in a rumpled state of dress and tells the lawyer he prefers not to let him in now but he can walk around the block two or three times and then come back.
The narrator slinks away, feeling “impotent rebellion” against the clerk’s “mild effrontery” (p. 1961). He cannot imagine what Bartleby is doing in the office on a Sunday morning, for Wall Street is like a deserted ruin. He knows he cannot be doing anything immoral, for the man seems utterly trustworthy. Full of curiosity, he returns to the office to find Bartleby gone, so he snoops in his desk to find a few coins in a handkerchief. He assumes Bartleby has nowhere to go and is living in the office in poverty. He cannot imagine his loneliness. He realizes he does not know who Bartleby is or where he came from. He does nothing to amuse himself but look out his window at the wall.
His initial compassion turns into fear and revulsion. He feels Bartleby is suffering from some malady of the soul. He will give him a twenty-dollar bill and fire him, but at the same time see if he can help him in some way.
The next day at the office, he tries to get Bartleby to tell where he was born or any details of his life, but Bartleby “prefers not to.” The narrator interprets his refusal as “calm disdain” (p. 1964), and is mortified, but tries once more to get Bartleby to co-operate. When he refuses, Nippers begins to taunt Bartleby, and the lawyer says he “prefers” Nippers to stay out of it. Soon everyone is using the word “prefer.”
Finally, Bartleby stops working altogether and just stares at the wall out the window. The lawyer tries to make excuses, such as Bartleby’s eyes must need a rest. Bartleby has become a millstone around his neck, but “he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe” (p. 1965).
The narrator gives Bartleby notice that he has to leave in six days. When the time is up he gives Bartleby some money, and tells him to leave. Bartleby says he would prefer not to leave. He tells him he must leave, and puts the money down for him. The narrator feels proud of himself for his decisive action: he assumed that Bartleby had to depart and so, he will have to!
But the next day, when Bartleby doesn’t leave, he sees Bartleby is “a man more of preferences than assumptions” (p. 1966). He thinks of calling in the police. He is in such a state of fury that he remembers a bizarre murder that took place in an empty office, but suddenly recalls Christ’s injunction to “love one another.” Once again, he tries to construe Bartleby’s actions as pathetic. He consults ideas from theology and philosophy (free will vs. fate) but cannot find a solution.
He is forced into taking action, however, because Bartleby is creating a professional problem for him by remaining. He cannot bear to have him removed as a vagrant, so he moves his offices instead and leaves Bartleby behind in the old office.
Commentary on Attempts to Get Rid of Bartleby
The story criticizes the values of Wall Street, but at the same time, Bartleby’s rebellion is carried to absurd lengths, as well as the lawyer’s attempts to get rid of him. The exaggerated situation reminds one of other absurdist fiction, such as Kafka’s The Trial or The Metamorphosis that presents the feeling of alienation in modern life through nightmarish or surrealistic scenes. Are we meant to choose sides? Melville tells Bartleby’s story through the mouth of a lawyer of Wall Street. It forces us to piece it out for ourselves, to read between the lawyer’s words. He is in many ways, an unreliable narrator.
The bizarre behavior of Bartleby makes the narrator radically confront his own “assumptions” of what constitutes normality. As a judge, acquainted with both legal and equity principles, he is used to reasoning, bargaining, making solutions. Bartleby, however, doesn’t operate on the same assumptions as the narrator, making the narrator powerless to influence him or understand him. Bartleby is never intimidated, nor does he take anything from the narrator. His actions are unmotivated by anything the narrator is familiar with. The lawyer pities Bartleby and wants to use charity to get rid of him. Charity and pity can be ways to control and deny others.
The narrator hints at what gives the man “wondrous ascendancy” over him (p. 1967). Two or three times he mentions the “common humanity” between him and Bartleby: “Both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (p.1262). This frightens him so much that he seems willing to do anything to get rid of this reminder. He finally decides Bartleby has a soul ailment: “it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach” (p. 1963). It could be argued that the lawyer also has a soul ailment that Bartleby somehow symbolizes. Always, he tries to distance himself from Bartleby.
We only get the narrator’s point of view, and so we have to infer what we can from the bits he tells us about what drives Bartleby. Emerson’s essay, “The Transcendentalist” is helpful in explaining the other side of the argument and a helpful commentary on Bartleby’s character. Why does Bartleby prefer not to work? Emerson explains the thinking of an idealist who critiques modern concepts of work: “Unless the action is necessary, unless it is adequate, I do not wish to perform it. I do not wish to do one thing but once. I do not love routine.”
Humans are by nature creative. To shut them up in an office-prison doing repetitive work is demeaning. The lawyer admits copyist work itself is boring. The lawyer’s copyists are obviously poor and need the money. They do not enjoy their work but go through the most excruciating maneuvers to get through the day. The employer feels virtuous that he puts up with them, but does, as long as they are “useful.”
The lawyer cannot communicate with Bartleby in any way, and Bartleby is left looking at the wall. “Melancholy” seizes the lawyer when he thinks of the absolute loneliness of the scrivener. He thinks of the contrast of the crowds on Wall Street in the daytime, and the loneliness of Wall Street at night, where Bartleby is by himself. This hints of a schizoid community where work and home are completely cut off. Wall Street represents the landscape of industrial society where people may be together but are not connected. Emerson too speaks of the loneliness of idealists because so little of them is engaged in their surroundings: “They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them.”
Bartleby does not take his employer’s offered money and continues in his “dead-wall reveries” as the narrator puts it. The fact that the lawyer is willing to go to such extremes to avoid a violent confrontation with Bartleby demonstrates that the scrivener has a strange power over him, like the Ancient Mariner over the wedding guest in Coleridge’s poem. He makes him confront something in himself. He makes him feel guilt, and conscience—about what, he is not sure. He is forced to go deep within, to consider from every angle.
When Bartleby says he prefers not to quit the office, the narrator brings up the matter of rights: “What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent?” (p. 1968) Bartleby has no “legal” rights to his sustenance, since he has nothing to bargain with. By his very dumb presence, he points out the truth in our society that a person may not exist in his own right.
At this moment, the lawyer thinks of murdering Bartleby but remembers that religion has forbidden it: “love ye one another.” He doesn’t really seem to get the point of this injunction, for though he tries to “help” Bartleby, he never accepts him. Then he reads up on free will and predestination, feeling that somehow “Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an allwise Providence” (p. 1969). Their fates are intertwined. This proves to be true to the end, for everyone believes Bartleby is the narrator’s responsibility. We are meant to ask in what way the narrator is responsible for Bartleby.
Finally, the narrator’s main strategy is to interpret Bartleby. That means, as in the law, finding a precedent, a parallel, a pigeon hole, a judgment. He “benevolently construes his conduct” (p. 1968). This interpretation soothes him for the moment. However, the truth is that Bartleby is beyond interpretation. He is an irreducible being, like everyone is.