Essay, Research Paper
The Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “folie a deux” as “A condition in which symptoms of a mental disorder, such as delusive beliefs or ideas, occur simultaneously in two individuals who share a close relationship or association.” (231) In Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” this concept of coinciding peculiarity, or obsession is demonstrated quite vividly throughout three different stages. The first, Bartleby’s unwavering preoccupation with his employment, followed by his decision to do no work whatsoever, and finally Bartleby’s determination to accomplish nothing at all, not even partaking of the basic functions required to sustain life. During each of these phases, Bartleby’s actions are met with limited efforts on the part of the narrating lawyer, who endeavors to ‘help’ his odd employee. It is this interaction which poses the question of how much responsibility a human should have for his or her fellow man.
Bartleby’s focus passes through three main stages before his death, the first of which is his obsession with performing a single action to the exclusion of everything else. Initially, Bartleby works day and night, “as if famished for something to copy.” (Melville paragraph 18) His goal, it seems, is to single-mindedly to accomplish as much copying as is humanly possible. The first few attempts on the part of the narrator to tell Bartleby to do something else, no matter how moderate the task, are met with the simple refusal, “I’d prefer not to.” (Melville paragraph 21) The narrator reasonably chooses not to punish this insubordination because of both the quality, and the quantity of Bartleby’s regular work.
After a series of requests from the narrator that all end in noncompliance, Bartleby shifts his focus from the intensive copying of documents to simply doing nothing at all. This, of course, is a kind of obsession that is not acceptable in the modern work force, and can not feasibly be tolerated by the narrator. As the agent of punishment, the narrator is at this point stuck with making the decision to either sympathize with Bartleby, or lose his professional reputation. In a final attempt to clear his conscience, the lawyer proffers both alternate employment options, and temporary housing arrangements. Once again, all efforts on the part of the narrator to offer genuine help are rebuffed, and the narrator at last “proposes to remove his offices next week….” (Melville paragraph173) In this move he attempts to rid himself of the nuisance that Bartleby has become.
The concluding stage in Bartleby’s life begins when the character is shipped off to prison. When he is placed in confinement, Bartleby takes his former inactive life to the next extreme. Despite the extra care supplied by the narrator’s money, Bartleby is found, starved to death, “strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones….” (Melville paragraph 245)
While the narrator’s restricted exertions could be viewed as a genuine effort to show compassion to Bartleby, as the narrator most likely assured himself, they were for the most part half hearted attempts offered, sadly, too late. Throughout the story, when Bartleby refuses to proofread his work, or merely stands for hours on end looking blankly at the brick wall, the narrator does nothing except seek statements from his other employees that Bartleby’s behavior is neither normal, nor even tolerable. The narrator takes no effective action, but instead participates in a few wordy conversations and then moves his office in an effort to avoid the problem altogether.
The interplay between the two main characters of Bartleby and the narrator serves to illustrate the point that one’s individual responsibility to one’s peers cannot be undertaken lightly or only when convenient. The three stages of Bartleby’s peculiar behavior are matched by the narrator’s various lukewarm offers of assistance, which in regular society would be also regarded as selfish, eccentric indulgences, and mainly serve to appease the lawyer’s conscience. The idea of “folie a deux” is well displayed within the oddities of these two men, and provides a unique perspective from which to understand Melville’s classic short story.