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Mar 13 2010

He’d prefer not to: Melville as Bartleby

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One of the most interesting features of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is its complex nature. Within the story lie many themes, interpretations, and symbolic meanings, and, like Moby Dick, one could spend years trying to uncover them all. Bartleby, the scrivener in the Lawyer’s office, seems to slowly disappear in the story until he finally perishes. He begins to say no to his employer with a simple, passive, “I’d prefer not to.” The Lawyer is baffled but, perhaps surprisingly to the reader, puts up with Bartleby’s behavior. Bartleby refusal to do anything at his work eventually leads to him being thrown into jail, where he refuses to eat. Bartleby dies quietly, just as he passed his days in a quiet, passive manner.

A way of interpreting this story is through a “biographical” lens, with Melville as Bartleby. When Melville wrote “Bartleby” in 1853, his epic Moby Dick was considered a literary flop. Like Bartleby, Melville finds himself disillusioned with his work; he knows that his earlier novels such as Typee were extremely successful, but perhaps not as complex as the works he truly wished to write. The narrator of the story (the Lawyer) is the reader, hungry for more travel narratives, asking Melville to write more, but Melville would “prefer not to” write these types of stories.  By the end Bartleby refuses to do any more work, perhaps symbolic of Melville preferring to write nothing instead of popular novels that lacked depth (of course, Melville did go on to write more after “Bartleby,” so this is purely hypothetical analysis here). A bit of information that is quite telling in the short story is the revelation that Bartleby worked in a dead letters office, a lonely environment that no doubt contributed to his depression. The dead letters could represent his earlier works that depressed him in the sense that they were not “artistically” fulfilling.

Again, this is only one way to look at “Bartleby the Scrivener,” but I did find it quite striking that it could be an intentional (or unintentional) revelation of Melville’s view of himself and his work.

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Mar 05 2010

The Bartelby Abides

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Don’t tell Bartelby what you think about him, Bartelby doesn’t care. Bartelby is lookin’ out for Bartelby. His outstandingly well-honed capacity of objection baffles all participants in the modern political system. He doesn’t just refuse, he abstains. Those three little words that become so dear (I’d-prefer-not) communicate agency of preference, declining to be pushed around in the shifty wall street world. He does what he wants, this is compelling and dangerous, and the lawyer is fascinated by the power of his objection. In the exegesis the lawyer lays himself out for us as essentially Bartelby’s polar opposite, which we can see once we get over the mystifying foreignness of Bartelby’s autonomic default response. The lawyer tells us,

Imprimis: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor’s good opinion”

Read: I’m not going to fight, I’m going to take the easy way out. Dislikes: hard work, social subversion, liberals. Dislikes: Gold and compliments from rich men.

Okay so Melville is having a go with us, sarcastically (and possibly homoerotically? I kid… (do I?)) having the narrator drop a fat cat’s name as a point of huge personal pride. At the same time it is saying no small thing that he stakes so much of his self worth on the opinions of others. The narrator is a lazy old man who likes to be admired. His fascination with Bartelby is so encompassing because Bartelby seems sort of lazy too. He might be challenging the structural basis of our society, but he does so by staying mostly quiet, doing what he wants, and eating cake. This probably doesn’t sound so bad to the lawyer, he could coast by without having to go in to work to balance his two drunken employees. This does however require his giving up something that he can’t even conceive of giving up, his self-consciousness. He really cares about what other people think and it is unthinkable for him that Bartelby doesn’t. He is both attracted to the loose lifestyle, and flummoxed by the means. It’s the group mentality barrier to actualizing our independence that plagues the best of us, Melville illustrates with neat hilarity.

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Mar 05 2010


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And I only am escaped alone to tell thee”

The epilogue of Moby Dick is one of the most famous in all literature. And for good reason. It packs over the moral of 500 pages of dense, winding, veiled prose into nigh over a half a page. This bit of writing at the back of the novel is, I feel, the best the book has to offer.

So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex.  When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool.

This is Ishmael’s role in life, not only this scene.  An educated man, on the Peaquod Ishmael is perpetually “on the margin of the ensuing scene.”  A introverted philosopher, it takes a lot more for Ishmael to be “drawn towards the closing vortex” of Ahab’s infectious madness.  It is only as the story finds winds it’s way to a close that Ishmael actually even begins to reach his shipmates.  By then, the story has “subsided into a creamy pool” and Ishmael is left swirling, alone again, in the sea.

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Mar 05 2010

Ishmael in Moby Dick and the elderly lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener:” A comparison of initial self-presentation of the narrators

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        Both Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, and his short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” open with the narrators presenting themselves to the reader. Moby Dick begins with the direct phrase “Call me Ishmael” (Melville, 1). This is truly a command, in a sense, and it serves to draw the readers in without giving them a choice. The phrase also causes the reader to question the narrator’s reliability: is his name really Ishmael, or is he just telling us to call him that?

            “Bartleby the Scrivener,” on the other hand, opens with the phrase, “I am a rather elderly man” (Melville, 1). This phrase does not grab the reader in quite as much, as it is not a command, and the description of the narrator is average and somewhat dull. His reliability as a narrator seems to be fairly stable – he presents himself in a steady, credible manner.

            In the opening of Moby Dick, Ishmael dives right into a description of himself, first going back to several years earlier in his life. He then describes his emotions and proceeds to state what these emotions mean he must do – “get to sea” (Melville, 1).

            The elderly lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener” takes a different approach. After his initial identification, he does not discuss himself, but others. The only emotions he mentions are also those of others. Towards the end of the first paragraph, he begins to narrow his focus to the scrivener Bartleby, taking the attention away from himself. However, in the next paragraphs, he describes himself. His description is, again, very credible – he describes himself as unambitious, yet as being fond of money.

            In Moby Dick, Ishmael proceeds to speak directly to the reader using second person, and describes the initial setting of the novel.


            The self-presentations of the narrators that occur in the beginning of both the novel and the short story serve to instill different “moods” in the readers of what to expect and what to be wary of in those that lead them through the plot.

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Mar 05 2010

Bartleby: An Independent Spirit

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Reading “Bartleby the Scrivener,” what I wondered most about was Bartleby’s motivation. Why did he start work as a scrivener? Why did he prefer not to do things? Why did he stop working and stop eating? It seems to me that Bartleby preferred to be independent, and did things because he wanted to. He even went so far as to not do things specifically because he had been told, or because he had to depend on another person.

At the beginning, Bartleby answered the lawyer’s advertisement all on his own. Soon after his employment, the lawyer asks him to examine a paper. He prefers not to. He goes back to his own writing (without being asked). Later, he is invited to examine copies with his coworkers, and prefers not to. It seems at this point that Bartleby does not answer to commands, but does respond to politely put questions. The lawyer sometimes would summon Bartleby “in a short, rapid tone,” and would receive no response. Bartleby is a gentlemen. The narrator makes that clear when he describes him that fateful Sunday morning. The narrator also makes it clear that the reason he allows Bartleby to refuse to do things is because of the civil and polite manner in which he refuses. Bartleby is the reverse. He does not allow the narrator his way because he is neither calm nor civil.

That’s how it seems. Until a bit later when our narrator questions Bartleby about his life in quite a calm and polite manner, to no avail.

Bartleby decided himself to stop writing. He did not go get exercise in fresh air as the narrator suggested, possibly because it was suggested at all. Upon receiving more urges from his boss to write, Bartleby gives up writing all together. When asked to leave, he does not.

Bartleby never takes the lawyer’s money, or invitations to his home.

At the end of our story, the very nice lawyer narrator arranges for Bartleby to receive delicious food at the prison, as opposed to nasty, bland prison food. Bartleby dies of starvation. He does not accept the food, perhaps because it would make him dependent – dependent on the lawyer to provide him with a nice life, and dependent on Mr. Cutlets for the food itself.

Bartleby was a stubborn character, but there is no denying that he was completely independent.

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Mar 05 2010

Food for Thought

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We technically are supposed to have only one blog entry about Melville’s short stories, but I can’t help that there were two big, very different aspects of “Bartleby the Scrivener” that caught my interest. The first was Bartleby’s motivation. The second is the motif of food.

The narrator reveals to us about half-way through “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street” that he believes food and personality are intertwined. He tells us about the ginger nut cakes that Bartleby lives on, and asks, “What is ginger? A hot spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all.” He suggests that food consumed and behavior should somehow be related, and he stands by this in describing his other employees.

It begins with Turkey. Turkey, who is drunk after dinner, smells of “eating-houses,” and reminiscent of a turkey in both looks and behavior, is often described by our narrator as “bland” in the morning. Bland like the flavor of turkey.

Next is Nippers. Nippers may not have a food name, but he is still very much a part of the lawyer’s food world. Nippers suffers from severe indigestion, and is described as having a “brandy-like disposition.”

Then there is Ginger Nut. Ginger Nut has a drawer full of various nut shells. He works as the cake and apply purveyor, and every day at noon he eats an apple. Mr. Cutlets, who makes a brief but significant appearance, is a “broad, meat-like man” and his name is “Cutlets!”

Food-related analogies and descriptions prevail in the first half of the short story. In explaining Bartleby’s good work, the lawyer narrator states, “As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion.” Later, after Bartleby has begun to pose a problem for the company and for our narrator, the death the narrator imagines for Bartleby, were he to fire the scrivener, is starvation. The narrator decides against the dismissal, which he says is “delicious self-approval” and a “sweet morsel for [his] conscience.” The narrator continues to contemplate Bartleby, soon coming to the realisation that “He never visited any refectory or eating house.” We now see that the narrator thinks of food as a social activity. Bartleby stays cooped up inside all by his lonesome. He never goes out to eat with friends or family. Bartleby’s starvation, then, can be seen as a sign of his loneliness. He eats only what he needs to survive. He socializes with others only as much as he has to. When Mr. Cutlets invites him to dinner, Bartleby responds “I am unused to dinners,” meaning not only does he eat very little, but he socializes very little, and would not do well at a social gathering.

Bartleby died of starvation in the end. Perhaps what he really died of was loneliness. The narrator describes the dead as he who neither “eats, nor hungers anymore.”

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Mar 05 2010

“Pitchpoling” in context

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For this post, I am taking Professor Friedman’s suggestion to contextualize more fully how Melville writes about “pitchpoling,” at once referring to its regular usage, meaning a boat’s capsizing, and also to a sperm whale’s breaching, a connotation which Melville seems to have crafted himself.  In doing this, Melville is subtly comparing through metonymy the whale, as a natural phenomenon or symbol, and man, who is represented through the actions of the boat.

At the end of an earlier post, I briefly mentioned that chapter 84 itself is titled, “Pitchpoling.”  Upon rereading it however, I notice that Melville seems to be writing primarily about harpooning the whale, as he doesn’t actually mention breaching or capsizing at all.  Melville might have conceived a third complication of the term, literally referring to “pitching,” or throwing, a “pole,” as a harpooner does.

After looking at several online dictionaries, the only formal definition I could find for “pitchpoling” was to somersault, or to capsize a ship.  In conclusion, it appears to me that Melville has taken it upon himself to create mixed meanings for the term, using it to describe several different things.  Surely, it is evident that Melville likes to have fun with language.

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Mar 05 2010

Dead Letters

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As much as I am intrigued by the countless complexities presented in Melville’s story, Bartleby the Scrivener, I decided to focus specifically on the last paragraph in which the reader, and the lawyer, gains the tiniest bit of perspective on Bartleby’s life prior to his simple existence as an obstinate Scrivener. Just as the narrator wonders, I too wonder whether such a miserable job–burning letters that have been sent to people who have since died or vanished–was the cause of Bartleby’s gradual demise and ultimate descent into possible insanity. Upon the narrator’s discovery of Bartleby’s prior employment, he exclaims,

“Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can nay business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters…”(Melville 29).

The narrator’s assumptions seem perfectly logical to me, however I wonder if he is simply using this small tidbit of knowledge about Bartleby to excuse what really happened to Bartleby, and moreover the narrator’s personal failure in helping Bartleby escape his misery. I am just questioning this idea, because throughout the story the narrator is constantly questioning himself and weighing his obligation to help Bartleby vs. the annoyance of his presence in his office. I’m not sure if this critique holds much ground, but it was just one of my initial reactions to the narrator’s response to Bartleby’s past.

In further examining Bartleby as a dead letter sorter and what dead letters may symbolize I think it is important to note the final line of the story. “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (Melville 29). In closing the story with this boldly symbolic statement, Melville is obviously trying to emphasize to the reader that Bartleby and his fate are a symbol for the plight of human existence and perhaps the consequences of societal pressures and constraints. And what is Melville trying to say the ultimate consequence and outcome of becoming trapped within the constructs of society…? Well, death of course. I think there is a lot to be said about the message Melville is offering concerning the daily struggles of a man stuck in the repetitious work of middle class America who is constantly subject to the will of others, but that is a whole other discussion. I think that Bartleby’s period of employment at the Dead Letter office symbolizes the nature of Bartleby’s demise. Just as the narrator describes the letters as “on errands of life, these letters speed to death”, Bartleby, on his path towards liberation and freedom via the assertion of his individual will (by “preferring not to”) he has actually initiated his path to death.

The premise of the Dead Letter Office remains somewhat of a mystery to me, but I think it is an interesting way to end the story. Melville could’ve simply concluded with Bartleby’s death, but he decided to provide the reader and the narrator with some perspective into Bartleby’s mysterious existence with the Dead Letter Office. Ah Melville! Ah humanity!

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Mar 05 2010

Melville’s use of metaphor

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In the chapter, The Chase – Second Day, Melville conceives several literary devices that are quite intriguing.

In the first, on page 534 in the Signet book, Melville writes,

“The rigging lived.  The mast-heads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs.”

His combination of metaphors here is fascinating.  Instead of simply saying that the men rigged the mastheads, Melville uses metonymy to say this with “The rigging lived.”  Without the further context provided in the next sentence, this is rather confusing, as the rigging sounds personified.  He then compares the mast-heads to tree tops and implicitly describes the riggers, referring only to their limbs.

In another example, on the same page, he describes Ahab  mistaking something else for Moby Dick’s spout.  He writes,

“…for hardly had Ahab reached his perch; hardly was the rope belayed to its pin on deck, when he struck the key-hole to an orchestra, that made the air vibrate as with the combined discharges of rifles.”

Here, he employs two metaphors within a sentence to describe a single subject.  This creates a unique sort a imagery, with several unlike things being compared in the same breath.  The imagery becomes quite surrealistic.  It is enjoyable how Melville here is complicating and enriching the description of the scene at hand by at once referring to an orchestra and a band of gunmen, which are two things that have no connection to what is actually happening on the boat, but that keep the story interesting and inventive.

Lastly, on the next page (535), Melville states,

“Unmindful of the tedious rope-ladders of the shrouds, the men, like shooting stars, slid to the deck, by the isolated back-stays and halyards.”

As with this sentence, it certainly is easy, especially within the rest of the epic text, to pass over the subtle poetry laced throughout Moby Dick. This specific example captured my attention.  Indeed, I had to reread this sentence to ensure I had interpreted it correctly.

“…The men, like shooting stars, slid to the deck…”

How beautiful!  Simply said, Melville has a great imagination, which makes this book all the more delightful and entertaining.

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Mar 05 2010

Finally, a reliable narrator

Besides having a completely different subject, I found that Bartleby the Scrivener also differed from Moby Dick in its narration style.  Ishmael is very present at the beginning of Moby Dick, but his voice becomes increasingly disembodied as the novel continues.  The unnamed lawyer narrator remains present throughout Bartleby, and readers follow him through all his various interactions with other characters.

Ishmael does not interact much with other characters after he arrives on the Pequod.  While his voice continues to inform the reader of what is happening on the ship, we rarely get an actual glimpse of him.  He appears briefly in such chapters as The Monkey-Rope and A Squeeze of the Hand.  Yet he still does not enter into dialogue with anyone aboard the ship.  The most dialogue that Ishmael engages in during the part of the book that he is on the ship happens when he is having a flash forward to later describing the Town-Ho’s story to friends in Lima.  Ishmael as a body aboard the ship seems to disappear from the story entirely until the Epilogue.  He does not even alert the reader that he was one of the men on Ahab’s boat until after the ship has sunk.

The narrator of Bartleby has conversations with numerous other people in the text, and often uses the pronoun “I” to describe his personal thoughts and feelings.  His constant flow of opinions and theories regarding Bartleby’s condition contrasts sharply with the reader’s lack of insight into Bartleby’s mind.

I enjoyed reading a piece by Melville where the narrator remained consistent for the duration of the plot.  The narrator was as reliable as Bartleby was unreliable as an employee.

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