Scrivener : A Testament To Society Essay, Research Paper
Some interpretations of Herman Melville s Bartleby the Scrivener and William Faulkner s Barn Burning have explained these works as a testament to the individual s struggle against society. These stories highlight and illustrate the currents of social inequity and revere one s stake in their identity beyond all adversity. Both stories conflicts deal with the characters resistance to these injustices and, consequently, cause their inevitable downfall. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast Bartleby the Scrivener and Barn Burning , as they are reflections of the moral, ethical, and personal conflicts that existed at the time in which they were written.
The time period in which Barn Burning is set allows for the moral and ethical conflicts to unfold. It takes place in the late 1800 s to the early 1900 s in the rural American South. This was a time in our history during which Blacks were grossly oppressed, and where whites dominated the legal and social circles. Inequity between the races was especially notable in the American South as this was the ebb of post- Civil war America. In Barn Burning , Faulkner uses the Snopes family, a poor Black family living in the South and the deSpains, a rich white family, to illustrate the inequality that existed in contemporary society.
From the onset of the story, the Snopes family was pitted against the Harrises, another rich white family. Abner Snopes (the father) was suspected of burning down a barn, and a lawman was questioning both Abner and his son Sarty about the incident. Both the landowner and lawman are symbols of white dominance. The engagement of these two parties in a legal conflict are representative of prevalent moral conflicts in society at the time William Faulkner lived. Benjamin DeMott describes the perception of Abner Snopes toward the rich deSpains and Harris families as a product of his ignorance and brutality in the Article Abner Snopes as a Victim of Class (DeMott 2). Abner is a product of oppression and inequality. It would be reasonable to say that DeMott s assessment of the Snopes family is a testament to Faulkner s grasp on social ills.
Abner Snopes did burn the barn down, and made his son lie to the law about it to protect himself. Yet Faulkner allows Abner to be the victim. As stated by Mary Ellen Byrne in Barn Burning: a story of the 30 s : In Abner Snopes, Faulkner captures the conflict and split within the Snopeses value system Although the father (Abner Snopes) is a destructive individual, abusive and violent within the family, slothful at work, a man to be feared, still he embodies many of the qualities Faulkner celebrates (Byrne 3). Abner is a deplorable human being with no redeeming qualities, yet his actions are rationalized, and at the end, is pitied as a victim of the social class structure. As Byrne states, Faulkner uses Abner, this malignant individual, to illustrate the depth of social inequality. Although Abner is a wretched individual, he is not as wicked as the society he lives in.
The moral issue is this: can one rationalize Abner s actions (barn burning, stealing horses, etc.) by his state in society? He is a victim of class, of inequality, of discrimination, of injustice. Should he be held accountable? In the 1949 Nobel Prize ceremony, the president of Swedish Academy, Gustaf Hellstrom, commended William Faulkner:
Hellstrom described Faulkner as a social and psychological historian of the post- Civil war American South (who) depicted the sufferings of his people as they attempted to adjust to violent changes in the foundations of their values; he showed extraordinary pity for his characters and their plight, presenting a sympathetic portrait of an often unjust and inhumane culture (Devin Richards 111).
By this depiction of Faulkner s sense of right and wrong, one would answer no; Abner should not be held accountable.
Here one can see why Barn Burning is a social commentary of the times. The moral conflict in Barn Burning is between Abner and the landowners. And although he was legally at fault, Faulkner redresses the perspective of morality by allowing Abner to be the victim, again allowing Abner to reflect the evils of social inequity.
An ethical dilemma occurs when Abner tells his son to lie to the lawman to cover up his actions. The ethical struggle is a conflict that Sarty must toil with himself. Should he or should he not tell on his father? Through Abner, Faulkner establishes a dependency on blood (family) and a perspective of right and wrong. DeMott states that Abner reaches his take on society through the exercise of his own primitive intelligence, he makes sense of the world, and arrives at visions of the relations between money, labor, and the beautiful (DeMott 1). DeMott says that one experiences right and wrong through Abner. Through Sarty, however, who has not experienced or seen what Abner has, one reaches a different assessment of the situation. Sarty s view seems to be the traditional view, without sympathy for the individual (Abner). So Sarty rats on his father, destroying Abner s web of dependency on family. And Abner is the victim.
Herman Melville s Bartleby the Scrivener is similar to Faulkner s Barn Burning in that the characters are a reflection of the author s attitudes toward society. Both characters delineate the moral, ethical, and personal problems that the authors experienced in their lives.
In Bartleby the Scrivener Melville creates the character, Bartleby, as a symbol of the individual against society. The concept of Bartleby is an abstraction of himself, used to illustrate Melville s own displacement from society. As said by Mark Elliot in An Overview of Bartleby the Scrivener : Bartleby symbolically represented Melville himself, who resisted pressure to write the kind of unoriginal, formulaic fiction that could provide him with a comfortable living. Elliot is stating that, like Abner Snopes who rebelled against his employer by burning down his barn, Bartleby is a testament to Melville as a misunderstood artist, who refused to copy legal documents and suffered from rejection from society on account of his independence (Elliot 2).
Like Faulkner in Barn Burning , the time in which Herman Melville lived was a direct influence of the conflict in the story. As stated by Frank Davidson in Bartleby: A few observations : The very idea of a double self was no stranger to the Romantic Period in which Melville lived (Davidson 2). Unlike Barn Burning which was set in the rural post-Civil war south, Bartleby the Scrivener was set on Wall Street during the same time. The conflict here, then is not because of social class inequality, but because of individuality. Melvilles s double self is a product of the society that he himself lived in and is reflected through the character of Bartleby.
Like William Faulkner, whose message was equality and sympathy among human beings, Melville s was nonconformity. As a reaction to Emerson comment: For nonconformity the world whips you with displeasure , Frank Davidson states, Melville commented on the world as full of lies a place where Truth is forced to fly like a scared doe in the woodlands (Davidson 3). Here one can see the character Bartleby as a product of Melville s own ethical dilemma against society. As said by Davidson, Melville disliked conformity, for which he was forced into to be able to make an income.
The character of the Narrator/Attorney procured the role of society in Bartleby . The story of Bartleby is told from the perspective of the Attorney, who is also the antagonist in the story. The fact that the story is from the point of view of the antagonist is interesting because one is looking at the individual, Bartleby, from the outside in. And because the Narrator is so normal one never understands Bartleby, but sympathizes with him as does the Narrator. In this symbolism of individual against society, Bartleby refuses to do his work, to copy. The Narrator, consequently, hires a man that does not want to work, and as stated by Frank Davidson: the narrator is urged by his professional and social group to return and dispose of (Bartleby) and, at last, in order to free himself, abandons the double to the mercy of the group (Davidson 4).
Similarly, in Barn Burning , Sarty gives up his father to the mercy of the group , based on principles arrived at by the social majority. Even though, in Bartleby , the narrator was interested and perplexed by Bartleby, he is forced to get rid of him and as a result Bartleby dies. Though he parishes, states Davidson, he leaves a distinct impression on the narrator of his worth (Davidson 4). Symbolically, people such as Melville and Bartleby intrigue society. However, there is no place for those who do not conform and perform and produce.
Mordecai Marcus states in the article Melville s Bartleby as a psychological double that when the narrator accepts Bartleby as a part of his natural world, the narrator s professional friends, who Marcus views as the normal social world, encourage him to get rid of Bartleby. Marcus goes on to say that the Narrator declares, after he rids himself of Bartleby, Strange to say- I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of (Marcus 1). The one person who did sympathize with Bartleby, is finally influenced by society. This personal reflection of Melville s feeling toward the world is personified in the character of Bartleby. Bartleby attempts to be a nonconformist and fails. Bartleby, like Abner Snopes, attempts to correct the social ills affecting them but to no avail. It is interesting to note, however, that both William Faulkner and Herman Melville are considered a great part of American literary history. That is to say, although society never accepted Bartleby or Abner Snopes, it accepted Melville and Faulkner.
Barn Burning and Bartleby the Scrivener differ in setting, characters, and styles. However, both William Faulkner and Herman Melville have incorporated a common theme into these stories. Their views and discords are expressed through the characters and their struggles. One can observe what the authors must have experienced through the toil of the characters. In their time they experienced society in similar ways: as a monolith of destructive and powerful quality.