, Research Paper
All literary works are written from a specific standpoint. This standpoint originates from the mind of the author. The author, when creating his literary work, has a specific diagram/plan and vision of what the story is supposed to convey. However, not all readers will interpret the literary work in the way that the author him/herself has presented it. Many times, in fact, the audience will perceive the literary work as having an entirely different meaning than what it was meant to have.
The short story, Bartelby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, has been reviewed by several different critics as having several different standpoints. These standpoints include Bartelby as a Psychological Double to the Narrator, an apostle of reason, having biblical ties, and as being Melville himself. A personal standpoint that proves to be different than those that have come before it is to perceive the story, Bartelby the Scrivener, as a story of family. Of all of these views and interpretations of the story Bartelby the Scrivener, none can be perceived as correct, except by the author. Furthermore, none can be seen as incorrect because literary works, unlike visual works of art, leave us the option to imagine. In fact, our interpretation of another critic’s thesis is merely a product of our views on their standpoints. I say that only to justify that we are able to formulate our own opinions and form our own thesis just by reading the words on the page.
Bartelby as a Psychological Double
The critic of this standpoint is Mordecai Marcus. He feels that Bartelby is a paralleled character or a “psychological double” of the narrator. In his criticism of Bartelby the Scrivener, he writes:
“I believe that the character of Bartelby is a psychological
double for the story’s nameless lawyer-narrator, and that
the story’s criticism of a sterile and impersonal society
can best be clarified by investigation of this role.” –
“Bartelby appears to be the lawyer chiefly to remind him
of the inadequacies, the sterile routine, of his world.”
(College English, pg. 68)
Marcus is trying to say that Bartelby and the narrator have a sort of inter-connection. Not as two separate entities, but as two separate personalities residing in one, viewing life from separate standpoints. This view that Marcus has on Bartelby (used as a short for the title), can easily be digested due to the descriptive nature of the story itself. The narrator, confidently from the very introduction of Bartelby’s character, describes his every move and demeanors as if it was his own. He is able to successfully convey to the unidentified audience who Bartelby is, while managing to leave room for mystery within the character. The familiarity in the narrator’s description leads to a sort of justification of Marcus’ theory of the narrator and Bartelby as a “Psychological Double.” However, in order to successfully justify this theory, I believe that Marcus should have proceeded to convince his audience that the other
characters, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, are also alter personalities of the narrator. They too were an intricate part of the narrator’s description. Each of these characters possessed several positive and negative qualities quite familiar to the narrator. I feel that it is inadequate for Marcus to solely choose Bartelby and leave out the other characters as alternate personalities.
Critique of Reason
The critic, R.K. Gupta, uses “reason” to justify his standpoint on
Melville’s, Bartelby the Scrivener. Gupta writes:
“ The unnamed narrator of “Bartelby, the Scrivener” is
an apostle or reason. His outlook on life is clear,
unambiguous, and uncluttered by mysticism or
imagination. Reason and common sense are his deities,
and he looks upon them as infallible guides to human conduct.”
(IJ of AS pg66)
Gupta’s position on reason, like Marcus’ theory, is easy to digest. Throughout the story, the narrator makes it his goal to understand Bartelby. He yearns to have control over the situation merely by using reason. The narrator introduces himself by describing himself as a man who likes things to go easy. His references to not addressing the jury in court convey to the audience that he feels reasoning should be enough to convince an individual who may have doubts.
The narrator spends the length of the story trying to use reasoning as a method of understanding Bartelby; however, reasoning proved to be
ineffective. What Gupta failed to mention in his opening statements towards reasoning is that the character, Bartelby, also had a clear outlook on life. Bartelby was a fairly straightforward man with his repetition of the words, “I prefer not to.” Bartelby also seemed to live uncluttered by mysticism and imagination. He did not request unattainable things. Although the audience may not have been clear as to what Bartelby wanted, we were definitely clear on what he did not want, or in the words of Bartelby, what he did not “prefer”. Now looking at the previous theory in conjunction with the presently discussed theory, I could conclude that they are closely related; or at least that Gupta’s theory can serve as a smaller sub-theory to Marcus’ theory of the Psychological Double due to reasoning being a quality which one would like to possess.
Bartelby having Christian Ties
In the overall critique of the story, Bartelby the Scrivener, critic Steven Goldleaf makes reference to Bartelby as having biblical ties. In fact, he goes as far as saying that Bartelby represents Jesus Christ. In his critique, he writes:
“Bartelby represents Jesus Christ, the master whose commandments the narrator ignores. Accepting his impending death calmly, Bartelby responds to his persecutors’ questions indirectly, but with omniscient contempt.”
(RF to SF pg. 1)
Goldleaf can be considered valid in his comparison of Bartelby to Christ. From the introduction of his character, he holds a sort of mystic presence about him. He is also seen as the perfect hard working gentleman that the narrator had been waiting for, with the exception of resistance as the story went on. Bartelby also seems to have this unspoken confidence within his short-spoken vocabulary. Like Jesus, his actions and resistance was attacked upon in the story by the confusion/frustration of the narrator, and by Turkey who wanted to “blacken his eye”. I think that the clue in to a comparison Between Bartelby and the Jesus can be found at his introduction and his departure from the story. His existence was like a quick wind, coupled with the fact that he led a very simple life requiring only the bare minimum of life. Like Jesus, he entered the story without much mention of how he got there, and departed the story by dying amongst thieves. What sealed this theory is one of the last words about Bartelby in the story, it reads:
“Eh!-He’s sleep ain’t he?” “With Kings and counselors,” murmured I.”
(Meyer pg 136)
Bartelby is Melville
“Melville was something of a Bartelby. Throughout his life, Melville felt himself an outcast from society and looked askance at America’s self-confident Republic. -…his father’s financial ruin and early death led to Melville’s years of aimlessness as a
common sailor. -*Melville refused to change his message despite the consequences…”
(SS for S pg. 1)
Critic Mark Elliot, while writing an overview critique of Bartelby the Scrivener, wrote these words in an attempt to justify why he believes that the character Bartelby could represent the author Melville. When reading Elliot’s words, I cannot help but see the direct connection.
Like Melville, Bartelby served as a sort of an outcast due to his methods and resistance to change. Bartelby was seen as an outcast, not only by the narrator, but by the fictive society set in the story. Like Melville who was described as a common sailor, Bartelby was also seen as aimless in his approach.
Last, but not least, Bartelby, much like his creator, refused to change his message (in Bartelby’s case his response “I prefer not to…”) regardless of the consequences. Melville was one to stand firm and unmoved from his style of writing. His writing style was challenged by many, just as Bartelby’s disposition was challenged by the society surrounding him. Melville’s attitude is directly conveyed through his character Bartelby in the story, Bartelby the Scrivener.
Like the critics before me, I also have several standpoints on the story Bartelby the Scrivener. I believe that this literary work has two very distinct lessons. It is a lesson about family, as well as a lesson about power.
Bartelby the Scrivener as a Lesson About Family
There are many different parts of this story that convey to the audience that family is a direct subject. First and foremost is the concern and thorough understanding that the narrator has about his employees. It is almost as if the narrator studies their every action and disposition as if he were a father observing his children. In the story, Melville writes:
“ I had two persons as copyists in my employment, and a promising lad as an office-boy. First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut. These may seem names, the like of which are not usually found in the Directory. In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters.”
(Meyer pg. 114)
The narrator gave his employees nicknames, which is something often done within a family in order to give each child a sense of individuality due the their respective actions. In this story, like in a family, these names have completely replaced their birthnames regardless of age or issue.
Another thing that can be found as interesting in this story that relates to family is Melville’s choice to place the characters in a business setting. Businesses are often referred to as a family affair. It is not uncommon to hear an employer say that, “In this business we are a family”, or “We must work together as a family to make this business work”. I don’t think that Melville’s choice of setting was merely coincidental.
While remaining on the topic of family, it is not to far-fetched to believe that the addition of Bartelby to the story can be seen as adopting a child into the family. Like many adoptions, the narrator knew not an extensive history of Bartelby’s background. He knew only that he wanted to add him to the family. He made an appropriate space for him; went well out of his way to provide for and nurture him as he did his other “children”. The “father” was even there at the advent of his death to see him off to peace. Like a family they had disagreements and power struggles, which like any family, causes difficulties. So conclusively, family can be seen as a very strong theme in this story.
Bartelby the Scrivener as a Lesson About Power
Power played a very strong role in this literary work. The power that I am referring to is not a physical power, but more a power through words. In mentioning this, I refer to the power that Bartelby has over those surrounding him. His use of verbal and non-verbal communication was used masterfully. In fact, he played them like an instrument having mellow tones, but evoking emotions in those around him.
Verbally, had had only to use the words, “I prefer not to…” and he had not only confused any number of individuals, but also angered and humbled them at the same time. The narrator mentioned quite often his numerous changes of emotions due to the utterance of those four simple
words. One quote that explained the narrators disposition is as followed:
“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance”. (Meyer pg.120)
Even Turkey, who was described as not having any cares after twelve meridian, was riled up enough to blacken Bartelby’s eyes after hearing those few simple words. His use of verbal communication was to be admired; however, I feel that his use of non-verbal communication was in complete competition.
Bartelby’s use of non-verbal communication didn’t present itself as a physical movement or some extravagant action. It merely presented itself as silence. This silence spoke for itself at times. It infuriated the narrator so much that he himself has questioned whether or not he should address it at times; possibly even trying some non-verbal communication of his own. An example of this in the story is written as followed:
“”Bartleby!” No answer. “Bartleby,” in a louder tone. No answer. “Bartleby,” I roared.
Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.”- “Shall I acknowledge it? The conclusion of this whole business was, that it soon became a fixed fact of my chambers, that a pale young scrivener, by the name of Bartleby.” (Meyer pg. 122)
The narrator uses, “Shall I acknowledge it?” as a question as to whether he should use his own form of non-verbal communication just as Bartelby had been using on him. I believe that power through communication, verbal and non-verbal, can easily be digested by an audience as a possible theme of the story.
In conclusion, Bartelby the Scrivener, can easily be interpreted in many different ways. Some of these approaches have been mentioned; however, as a member of Melville’s audience, I cannot limit myself to just these theories. Countless other theories can be formed on the actual theme of the story. I truly believe that Melville had those intentions, not only for this story, but also for all the stories that he has written. Literary works are meant to be examined and interpreted by the individual reading it. Authors produce the material. All we are required to do is produce the imagination and personal understanding of what has been presented before us.
1.) College English, Vol. 23, No.5, February, 1962, pp.365‐68
2.) Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol.4, Nos. 1-2, June and December, 1974. Pp.66-71.
3.) Meyer, Michael The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Library of Congress Catalog
Number: 98-85194, copyright 1999 by Bedford/St. Martin.
3.) Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed., edited by Noelle Watson, St. James Press,
4.) Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997
Key: (as cited in the paper)
(IJ of AS) – Indian Journal of American Studies
(BI to L) – The Bedford Introduction to Literature
(RG to SF) – Reference Guide to Short Fiction
(SS for S) – Short Stories for Students