Bartleby Essay, Research Paper
Humans and industrial society exist in a symbiotic relationship. We produce so that society can exist, thrive and evolve and in return, we are allowed to live in that society. Through extensive contact with this complex set of laws and rules we ve learned which actions will reward our efforts and which actions will bring punishment. For example, when we work to keep the system intact, we are rewarded with Armani suits, fast cars, champagne, and television. If you have no skill to offer the system, you re shunned and no matter how badly you may want to come back in, as long as society doesn t need you, you re doomed to live in boxes and eat from trashcans.
However, Herman Melville s Bartleby presents a new and slightly frightening corollary to these societal laws. It s already been established that if society doesn t need you, you re fucked. Suddenly, Melville asks a new question. What happens when you don t need society? Who s fucked then?
In our modern, democratic, capitalist culture, the smallest unit of industry is the worker. Without workers, production ceases. Nothing gets made and nothing gets done. Industry stops. And as any biologist can attest, when one organism of a symbiotic pair stops helping the other, both organisms suffer. Unless, of course, one organism finds another way to satisfy the void left when the other being abandoned them. In this case, the being that can t adapt dies. But can this concept be applied to our reality?
Sure it can! Case and point: one day, Bartleby just stops working. He stops working for the improvement of the institution of culture and he so he stops being rewarded by that institution. No more nice food, no more nice clothes, no more mail. But this doesn t bother him. He no longer needs No, he no longer wants those things. He doesn t want anything.
Many people would see Bartleby as a threat to our organized society because they desperately want to believe that their shiny cars and Armani suits define them as people. If Bartleby stops working, Turkey might stop working. If Butterball sees this, he might join them. Nerple, the narrator, the building s janitor. They all might stop working. And soon, society dies; shut off like a ceiling fan.
So why couldn t the members of society accept this? Everyone would be equal, and happy. Sounds nice huh? Well, imagine a laboratory rat that spends years learning that when he hits the little metallic lever, he gets a food pellet. Now take the little metallic lever away. What happens? The rat dies. He can t exist without a system to manipulate.
Now apply that microcosmic thought to our civilization. People work, they get paid, they buy luxuries. Take away work, the luxuries stop coming too. People don t have any way to tell themselves apart.
Now imagine that same laboratory rat realizing that he could eat the wood chips he s been sleeping on. Why does he need the food pellets? What good are they? Sure the wood chips suck but at least he s independent. Well, that s Bartleby.
Why is this a threatening thought? Because suddenly people can realize that while we can exist without society s rewards, society can not exist without our consent. With no symbiotic relationship, we alone can continue to be, but the system to which we were previously attached will flounder. And some people will fight bitterly to keep that system alive. They believe they need it. They fear life without brand names and designer labels, so they try to shut Bartleby out by putting him in prison where he can t influence anyone. Lock him up like the insane uncle you don t want your neighbors to know about.
But Bartleby had already planted his seed in the minds of his coworkers. This phenomenon is evidenced in the fact that these men already they have begun to adopt his idiosyncrasies. In addition, the narrator can t bring himself to force Bartleby out of his office. Perhaps he doesn t want him to go. Perhaps he wants instead for Bartleby to convince him to join the anti-societal cause.
Closing paragraphs bore me.