Archive for March, 2010

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 06 2010

Antitranscendentalism in Moby Dick: The Malevolant God of the Deep

In my last post, I discussed the implications of Captain Ahab as a fallen priest, leading his flock along the path to perdition.  Yet there is another perspective on this topic that bears acknowledgement: Moby Dick is not a false idol, but actually God. His destruction represents not God’s wrath against those who have fallen from his grace and sinned, but against those his defy his power.

In this reading, a thread that I have consistently followed through my reading drastically changes: Ahab is no longer necessarily an antagonist; Moby Dick—God—is the only truly malicious character.  Moby Dick in this reading is the uncaring, even cruel God.  He is the God that Poe wrote of, and that of Flannery O’Connor.  Ahab is the only character that attempts to rail against the almighty power.

So how does this reading work?  Moby Dick is, whether or not you call it God, a manifestation of an all powerful force, and one that is malicious, or simply does not care for humanity and antagonizes them in its pursuit of some other goal.  With this being the case, Ahab is a lone man trying to defy the destiny that it seems he has been dealt; he attempts to destroy the power that took his leg and has scarred not only his body but also his soul.  He is the one of the crew who has suffered most in this world, and therefore seeks revenge on the almighty.  Does this mean he is sane?  No. Trying to kill a God is usually reserved for the mad.  Yet he is not simply crazy, he is a man attempting a glorious and justified fight against an insurmountable force.

This reading also drastically changes the view of Starbuck that I have maintained.  Throughout this novel, I have seen the first mate as a conflicted heroic figure.  In this reading, he is in fact the opposite: a cowed, subservient man who is frightened of battling against an indestructible force, no matter how malevolent it is.  He simply is trying to live his life as he always has, in constant fear and constant supplication.  He truly is the epitomic God-fearing man.

This reading also makes Ishmael a much more fascinating character.  His conflict becomes more interesting as he is not simply deciding whether the pursuit of his captain’s revenge is justified, but if the entire pursuit is right.  Is it right to fight God, even if it does seem wicked.  Is it right to fight an evil force if one is destined to fail?  Is it worth the good fight, if the good fight is doomed?  Ishmael’s dilemma is, in the anti-transcendentalist reading, far greater.  It becomes a question of faith and righteousness; of fear and of supplication.

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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

Ishmael in the Epilogue

The Epilogue of Moby Dick is somewhat of a letdown.  After the epic drama of the whale chase, we are left with a narrator floating in a calm sea for two days.  This may seem like an odd way to end this novel, a throwaway page, and in some ways it is.  However, I think it is fitting.  Ishmael has been an odd, detached, and often invisible narrator for much of this novel.  His stories are interesting because of the people in the, and because of his philosophical musings based on these events.  However, at this point, there are no other characters left.  Everything has been destroyed, and he is too tired to muse.

Ishmael does not seem to find himself, alone, important enough to ponder.  He says “The drama’s done.  Why then here does any one step forth?  – Because one did survive the wreck.”  He makes it clear that the interesting part is over.  Furthermore, he does not even say that he is the one who survived, merely that “one” did.  Ishmael seems lost without others around.  This is a symptom of the invisible narrator who, as I previously discussed, very rarely focuses on himself.  Without any one else around, he is at a loss.  And that brings about the very sad, lonely, and sparse end of this intense and overpopulated novel.

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Mar 05 2010

Outlets at Sea

It seems everyone on the Pequod has some type of outlet, some means or object of self-medication, dissociation, or meditation at sea. For Ishmael it is simply going to sea–his substitute for pistol and ball. For Queequeg, it is his little black idol. For Subb, of course, his pipe, and Flask, his drink.

But what about Ahab? What is his outlet for driving away the spleen? I don’t believe he has one, and I think that is precisely one reason he is wound up the way he is. Almost any man on the ship would go nuts without some kind of reprieve or belief or something to take the edge off of one’s depression or boredom or pondering. But Ahab does not appear to have or seek any means of doing so, and therefore is stark mad and thoroughly agitated.

Or perhaps as a result of his madness, his spitefulness, or his monomania, he has cast aside all of his outlets and diversions. He abandoned his family, cast away his pipe, cast away anything that got in between him and the target of his revenge that goes beyond revenge.

One might say that Moby Dick is his outlet. And perhaps it is in some backwards fashion. Instead of praying and worshiping a deity Ahab only condemns his foe. Instead of writing letters home, he writes out his plans for the death of the white whale.

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Mar 05 2010

The Epilogue

Published by under Narration and narrator

The brief and spare epilogue comes as a bit of a shock after 500+ pages of Melvillian conditioning. Ishmael doesn’t often find himself lost for words, so why is he so tightlipped about a situation that so lends itself to hyperbole? In class Professor Friedman suggested that the epilogue allows us to reframe Moby Dick as a survival account, the entire narrative is comprised of Ishmael’s varied attempts to make sense of his sole survival retrospectively, that the detachment is his description of such harrowing personal experiences as if through another lens. The novel explores every position possible to try to understand why he was the only survivor, was it fate or chance, god or science?

I think that we can lend further support for this view of the epilogue in an earlier account we have read of someone lost at sea – Pip. Ishmael was clearly not present for Pip’s lonely experience as a castaway, so we can read the detailed account of it as Ishmael projecting his own time spent alone at sea onto Pip, and in this way trying to explain it to himself.

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, throu. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes…He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad” (172)

Pip glimpses the eternal, God, and the infinitude of his own soul – he sees more than he can bare and becomes mad, or is perceived as mad. Is Ishmael then further defending himself against the possibility of his own madness? Then too, the investigation of Ahab is another delving into a personal madness, trying to make sense of it in extension. Ahab is Ishmael’s White whale, he clings to him trying to conquer Ahab’s madness by explaining it, vicariously surmounting his own. In Pip’s account we feel Ishmael’s pain, his smallness lost in the endless ocean. We come to this text-island (the epilogue) and grabbing it as a life raft are left in a like space, adrift and unsure.

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Mar 05 2010

Passivity in Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the scrivener’s case is an interesting one. Devoid of information concerning his past, except for the brief ‘rumor’ offered in the epilogue (which truthfully, seems superfluous) we must take him at face value. It is arguable, although ultimately unimportant, whether Bartleby’s politely disagreeable behavior is firmly in place for the discovery by the narrator, or whether the narrator’s own admissions of Bartleby’s responses gives him permission to expand his behavior. What their relationship becomes is the opposite of what it seems- it appears that Bartleby is the one who refuses to do anything, removing himself from life, while the lawyer, filled with conviction, struggles for a way to help him. However, it is Bartleby who has convictions, and the lawyer who ends up a passive participant in his own life. Part of the narrator’s passivity comes from a good place- he, unlike the other characters with agency in the short story, feels compassion for Bartleby, and maybe admiration for Bartleby’s assured attitude. He relies on the “divine injunction: ‘A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.’ Yes, this it was that saved me…charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle” (9). He makes the effort to accommodate Bartleby, and it seems less because he feels like he has no choice but because he finds Bartleby curious and assured.

However, social pressure confounds their relationship, stripping the narrator of his passivity as two pressures, filled with conviction, force him to make a decision. What finally gets to the narrator is the realization that Bartleby’s presence and his own acquiescence is “scandalizing my professional reputation” (10). Bartleby’s conviction, so at odds with the pressurized nature of social convention, disturbs those who have the power to disrupt the narrator’s attempt at charity: “At last I was made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature I kept in my office. This worried me very much.” (10). Lacking the same charitable character of the narrator, but possessing a different (and more pathetic) sort of passivity, the new owners of Bartleby’s building force him out.

Bartleby’s end begs the question of what could have been had social pressures not influenced the narrator towards complete avoidance of Bartleby. It seems that social pressure, not Bartleby, really pushed the narrator away. His actions are symptoms of his passive nature; even if he feels he is doing something right, if others do not agree with him he is wont to create no disruptions, no rifts in his life. I think he could imagine himself as Bartleby in another life.

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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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