Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the world of work

November 18, 2008

Herman Melville knew not only how to tell a straightforward story, but also how to slyly include enough different elements, literary references, and symbols to add several layers of meaning to his tales; this ability to fuse narrative and symbolism is on full display in “Bartleby The Scrivener,” a longish short story first published in 1853.

Melville understood the value of ambiguity. By making the character of Bartleby, a legal scrivener (or copyist), so strange, so opaque, and so memorable, Melville insured the story’s lasting appeal. We never learn why Bartleby “prefers not” to tackle his office duties, and the underlying reasons for his stubborn resistance remain unexplained. As “Bartleby the Scrivener” begins, its narrator, the Wall Street lawyer who employs Bartleby, emphasizes the man’s mysteriousness:

Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him…

Brown University’s Arnold Weinstein has noted that this “blank Bartleby” has encouraged multiple readings of the character. Who is Bartleby? Who is he meant to represent? Some critics have viewed Bartleby as a stand-in for many of Melville’s sometimes difficult contemporaries (Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne) or for Melville himself. Was Bartleby a response to the negative reviews and flagging sales of Melville’s novels Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852), a suggestion that Melville “preferred not” to produce more accessible and less metaphorical fiction, even if readers preferred it? A different interpretation casts Bartleby as a Christ-like figure, misunderstood and persecuted by the world; those of a Marxist bent see him as the archetype of the office worker resisting the mind-numbing demands of exploitative capitalism.

Not every reader of Melville appreciates his fondness for the baroque and not all critics have delighted in his literary tricks. The English novelist D.H. Lawrence, in a critique of Moby-Dick, disapproved of what he called Melville’s attempt to “square himself with the intellectual world by dragging in deliberate transcendentalism, deliberate symbols and ‘deeper meanings.’ All this is insufferably clumsy and in clownish bad taste: self-conscious and amateurish to a degree, the worst side of American behavior.” In contrast, Lawrence writes, when Melville “renders us his sheer apprehension of the world…” then “he is wonderful” and his writing commands “a stillness in the soul, an awe.”

“Bartleby the Scrivener” does give us more “sheer apprehension of the world” and it can be read in simpler terms, as a story highlighting the tensions and contradictions in relationships at work. Melville caught some of the absurdity and alienation of office work at a time when most Americans made their living on farms. Bartleby’s eccentric office-mates—Nipper, Turkey, Ginger Boy—would fit right into the hijinks at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company of the television sit-com “The Office.”

A prudent narrator

One entry point for the story is the narrator, Bartleby’s boss, whose dealings with his strange employee provide Melville’s narrative arc. The narrator/lawyer decribes himself as “rather elderly man,” one who is “eminently safe,” and he is sure to note that he has been praised by the famous financier John Jacob Aster as prudent and methodical. Yet the narrator has been living an “unexamined life” (to borrow a phrase from the transcendentalists). Proud of his commercial success and prudence, with a “natural expectancy of instant compliance” from his employees, he is totally unprepared for Bartleby’s resistance (“I would prefer not to”) and rejection of convention. Bartleby’s response puts the narrator strangely on the defensive. The lawyer regards himself as a decent, Christian man and we sense that he is not completely comfortable with wielding authority over his “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” employee. He cannot bring himself to confront Bartleby directly, and becomes profoundly linked to this strange employee:

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.

The lawyer tries to cope with the situation rationally: he attempts to reason with Bartleby, to negotiate with him, and, finally, to pay him to go away. He finds that he cannot alter Bartleby’s insistence on withdrawing from work and from life. It is only the fear that “the strange creature I kept at my office” will damage his reputation, and hurt his law practice, that leads him to end their relationship, but even then he cannot do it directly, instead moving his office to escape Bartleby, this “intolerable incubus.”

Yet the narrator remains haunted by Bartleby. What does he owe him? Where does his responsibility end? All of his attempts to help Bartleby are rebuffed, but the lawyer still feels guilty when Bartleby’s stubborn rejection of the conventional costs him his life.

Some of the lasting appeal of the story is that it reflects, in exaggerated form, the natural workplace tension between boss and employee. How does the manager exercise his or her authority? By command and control or through gentle persuasion? And who ends up with the real power in the relationship? After all, the worker is not without leverage—sabotage or deliberately shoddy work is always an option, or (as with Bartleby) passive-aggressive resistance.

The puzzle of Bartleby

The close to “Bartleby the Scrivener” (what the narrator calls a sequel), fails to solve the puzzle of Bartleby. We learn that Bartleby served as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and had lost his job with a change in administration. (Some critics have argued that the Dead Letters represent Melville’s failed novels, and that Bartleby’s despair reflects Melville’s despondency over what he thought was a dead-end for his writing.) The narrator draws a connection between Bartleby’s prior occupation and his eventual breakdown: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned.”

But somehow Bartleby’s tacked-on past doesn’t seem enough to explain his bizarre behavior, his deadened affect, his anhedonia. His alienation and separation must have deeper and hidden psychic roots, but Melville deliberately leaves the mystery of this strange, ghostly scrivener unsolved.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

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