Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Loving me some Melville

Below is a paper I wrote during my Melville seminar that I thought might be worth posting. If you've read Bartleby...I'd be curious to know what you think...

Finding Bartleby, the Scrivener among the Absurd: Reading with the Heart Rather than the Mind.
In the short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, readers encounter a character whose actions cannot be quantified in any logical manner. Bartleby is at first a very conscientious worker who rarely takes a break even to eat. When the lawyer asks for Bartleby’s assistance in a very routine examination of a short document, Bartleby replies in what is to become a repeated maxim throughout the work, “I’d prefer not to” (Melville 11) Bartleby, who appears never to leave the law office nor to eat, eventually gives up writing entirely in order to stare vainly at the wall. Although the lawyer becomes perturbed at Bartleby’s lack of action, the lawyer is unable to reprimand him or demand that he leave the premises. Realizing that Bartleby is not in want of money as he has a large stash in his desk and seems to require neither nourishment nor companionship to survive (at least until his untimely death in prison), the lawyer realizes that he cannot bribe Bartleby to work or to leave. In addition, the lawyer appears to be dumbstruck by Bartleby’s ability to “do nothing” which seems a paradox in terms. As we observe Bartleby’s idiosyncratic actions as described by the lawyer, we, like the lawyer are unable to posit any reason for his strange behavior. Since this story fits seamlessly into the Absurdist Literature genre, it is necessary to present a working definition for the term to further explore how Melville employs the use of absurdism and how that affects the reader.
[Absurdism] is applied to a number of works in drama and prose fiction which have in common the view that the human condition is essentially absurd, and that this condition can be adequately represented only in works of literature that are themselves absurd. (Abrams and Harpham 4)
Using this definition as a starting point, we can explore the effect that an absurd character has on the storyline as well as the way a reader reacts to them. Furthermore, we, as readers can learn to accept the “unknown” and “unexplainable” rather than hopelessly trying to understand the characters. By doing so we may be able to unearth philosophical gems and glean a better understanding of the nuances of absurdist literature instead of vainly attempting to make sense of the “incompressible.”
When the lawyer initially introduces, Bartleby to the reader in what appears to be a preamble to the actual narrative that follows, he lets the reader know almost immediately that, “Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from original sources, and in this case those are very small.” (Melville 4) If we heed the underlying warning from our narrator (a warning he, himself disobeys), we can read this story without the nagging desire to explain Bartleby’s unusual behavior. Unfortunately, we as readers cannot process any information that is not provided by our narrator and as a result are forced to see events through his eyes. His opinion, whether reliable or unreliable, indelibly shapes the way we view characters and their actions. From the very first time that Bartleby is asked to attend to the simple task of examining a document for the lawyer, he declines, citing, “I’d prefer not to” (Melville 11) as the only reason. The reader is at once taken with the idea that an employee would speak so brazenly to an employer, especially when they have just recently been hired. Human beings innately desire an explanation for anything out of the ordinary, so a reader’s automatic response is predominately a logical one, speckled intermittently with emotion. Taking our cues from the narrator, we respond much the way he does, “Prefer not to,’ echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride, ‘What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here- take it,’ and I thrust it towards him.” (Melville 11) The lawyer’s incredulous response to what appears to be defiant behavior on the part of Bartleby is not dissimilar to the reaction of the reader. We want a reason. We want to know exactly why Bartleby is refusing to do such a simple task. We, like the lawyer become increasingly agitated by the Bartleby’s repetition of the phrase, “I’d prefer not to.” (Melville 11) We at once make the decision to side with the lawyer since Bartleby gives us no adequate reason to dismiss the assignment. The lawyer goes on to describe Bartley’s countenance and ponder his own dilemma,
Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises…… This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? (Melville 11)
Since we are unable to determine that Bartleby’s refusal is a form of impudence, we cannot become enraged at his failure to comply. This causes us to feel a crippling sense of confusion as we try to make sense of the absurd situation. Like the lawyer, what we so desperately seek as readers and as humans is to find some way to compartmentalize Bartleby that allows us to understand him. We want to take pity on him but we cannot because we do not understand his plight. We want to like him. We want to view his refusal to do work as a protest against an unjust capitalist society but we cannot since so evidence has been offered that this is the reason he has refused to work. We would even like to hate him: to view his failure to comply with his boss as the mark of an angry and selfish person who refuses to be a “team-player” and provide his needed services but again we cannot since no evidence points to that being the case. Like the boss, we find ourselves dumbstruck, in a futile attempt to understand this absurd character.
Although at first Bartleby appears to tirelessly work engage in work, he appears not to engage in any of the normal activities required to sustain life. “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went anywhere.” (Melville 13). As we watch the lawyer attempt to make sense of Bartleby’s strangeness, we take the cue to do the same,
He lives then, on ginger-nuts, thought I; never eats dinner, properly speaking; he must be a vegetarian then, but no; he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but ginger-nuts. My mind then ran on the reveries concerning the probably effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on ginger-nuts……. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then, had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none. (Melville 13)
Although it ends with a humorous pun on Bartleby’s “catch phrase”, the purpose of such a passage is to help the reader to make the mental leap from trying to understand Bartleby to accepting his unfathomable absurdity. Although it is easy to misread such a passage and like the lawyer, continue in the futile attempt to dissect the motives behind Bartleby’s odd actions, it is important to instead listen to the subtle clues that Melville is giving us that, yes Bartleby is an absurd character and that his actions, although thought provoking and maddening, cannot be explained.
If there is no explanation available to interpret Bartleby’s “motdus oprandi”, then what is the point of reading Bartleby, the Scrivener? The goal of reading any medium which employs the principles necessary to be deemed “absurdist fiction”, is one much more closely linked to idea of process rather than seeking a finite result. Rather, than reading Bartleby, the Scrivner in an attempt to extract meaning, one can only seek to evaluate the feelings they experience as a reader such as anger and confusion and push past them into the unknown. One can only posit that the meaning of such texts is inextricably linked with the theory of absurdism. Understanding that the characters, much like real human beings cannot be so easily boxed into categories is a key element to experiencing rather than understanding the story. Reading Bartleby, the Scrivener as an absurdist piece of fiction allows the reader to explore their own feelings, attitudes, and theories about human nature and offers the reader a rare opportunity to learn more about themselves.
Some reactions that readers are likely to experience when reading, Bartleby, the Scrivener are annoyance, anger, and exasperation toward both Bartleby and the lawyer. We are angry with Bartleby, because he is an absurdist character and thus is incomprehensible. Although Bartleby’s role in the story is a foil character whose purpose is to contrast the lawyer and thus highlight the lawyer’s attitudes and opinions, we fail to glean any pertinent information with which to evaluate Bartleby’s character so his motives remain a mystery throughout the work. What irritates the reader aside from the vagueness of Bartleby’s character is the disappointing lack of action that the lawyer takes in response to Bartleby’s uncooperative behavior. What the reader wants is to see Bartleby confronted for his failure to complete the tasks that are asked of him. What we receive from the lawyer instead is a futile attempt to justify Bartleby’s behavior coupled with the same frustration we feel as readers. After the lawyer moves his office to a new location rather than confront Bartleby and Bartleby is then sent to prison for loitering in the same location where the occupancy has been filled by a new law office, the lawyer continues to try and explain Bartleby’s odd behavior. After Bartleby’s subsequent death from starvation in prison, the lawyer still grasps for means to understand his strange employee and shares them with the equally baffled reader:
But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it…..But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without a strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change of administration. (Melville 34)
At this point, we assume as the lawyer does that Bartleby was removed from his former position and that is how he came to seek employment with the lawyer. The lawyer feels guilty because in moving his office to a new location, a similar change in administration occurred which led Bartleby to be thrown in jail. Upon hearing the rumor of Bartleby’s past, the lawyer remarked, “I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me.” (Melville 34) Throughout the work the lawyer’s emotions tend to mirror our own as readers. Perhaps this was Melville’s intention when writing the story. Without them, we would have no way of adequately interpreting even our own emotions toward Bartleby.
Readers of Bartleby must make an effort to ward off the rational part of them that seeks explanations and resolutions and instead embrace a less cerebral approach to reading. Of course it is necessary to acknowledge one’s frustration as they read Bartleby. Reading absurdist fiction in this manner is taking a leap of faith and is not a simple task. Asking someone to read in this manner is comparable to trying to convince an atheist that there is a God. Human-beings are fond of logic and do not enjoy the unexplainable cognitive-dissonance that reading absurdist fiction entails. Readers of absurdist fiction, like those who believe in religion must learn to tune-out the part of their brain that seeks logical explanations and must instead begin to read using only their emotions. After reading this story, one will not have gained a better understanding of Bartleby as a character nor will they feel that the lawyer has come to understand his former employee’s psyche with any clarity. Instead, a reader will have experienced the appropriate emotions: anger, confusion, anguish and perhaps even had a laugh or two at the absurdity of the situation. Ultimately the reader will come away with a better understanding of the way they think and view the world. Perhaps a reader will see that they believe in the capitalist ideals that suggest that one should receive monetary remuneration only if they work for it. Perhaps a reader will question in a philosophical manner why they have been brainwashed by a capitalist theory of work ethic. It is also plausible that the reader will feel a burning envy, wishing like Bartleby, they too could “do nothing” and get paid for it. A reader may also ponder the prospect that “doing nothing” is even a philosophical possibility. There are a myriad of ways that a reader can glean meaningful insights about human nature by reading Bartleby, the Scrivener the way all absudist fiction is intended to be read; without attempting to theorize or understand the work on a cognitive level. Instead, readers must seek only to experience the situations on an emotional level. Any attempt to make sense of the story will be futile and detrimental to the reader’s experience.

Works Cited
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffery Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 9th. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.
Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, The Scrivener." McCall, Dan. Melville's Short Novels. Ed. Dan McCall. 1st. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2002. 3-34.

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