Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853) is one of those tantalizing stories that invite multiple fascinating interpretations:
Bartleby is an eccentric individualist who refuses to conform to social norms. Society wins.
Bartleby is a mentally ill homeless man who becomes one of society’s disposables.
Bartleby is H D Thoreau, passively resisting authority and paying the price.
Bartleby represents all the victims of greedy capitalism.
Bartleby is a victim of the mindless, mechanical work of industrial society.
Bartleby represents natural human rights (to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?) in conflict with the property rights of capitalist, industrial society.
Bartleby is a Christ-figure or, at least, “one of the least of these” that Christians are commanded to treat as if they were Christ. His fate illustrates the incompatibility of capitalist, industrial society and Christian values.
Bartleby is the trial sent by God to test the state of the lawyer’s soul as one of the Elect or one of the damned.
Bartleby represents the dehumanization of those caught in the capitalist machine.
Bartleby is a projection of the lawyer’s own dehumanization and his powerlessness to save himself.
Bartleby represents the extreme exercise of free will, allowing him complete freedom, though it leads to his death.
Bartleby represents the universal human condition of the individual in conflict with society.
Well, some are more fascinating than others.
It’s important to note that the full title of the story is “Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.” It’s hard not to infer that Melville intends to comment on the financial center of capitalism. Nor is it unreasonable to expect the reader to interpret it as such. The first-person narrator, the lawyer, has found himself a safe, comfortable, and lucrative niche protecting the property rights of capitalists on Wall Street. The lawyer’s office is tucked between two walls, one white, transparent and well lit and the other black, opaque, and dark. Bartleby spends much of his time staring out the second blank wall. Is Melville suggesting that the work of Wall Street walls us off from each other? That the capitalists enjoy the view of a bright wall while the workers’ outlook is dark? That the lawyer is comfortably located between the two, earning a good living in service of the capitalists supported by the labor of his office workers. Do the walls represent the divisions between economic classes in a capitalist society?
And what of the work that the office workers perform? A scrivener is a human Xerox machine, literally copying documents by hand and then laboriously checking the copies for accuracy as the lawyer reads the original aloud. This mechanical, mindless work is paralleled by the predictable behavior of the workers, who themselves seem somehow “programmed.” The elderly Turkey is mild-mannered and productive in the morning but turns erratic, and error-prone in the afternoon. The young Nippers, on the other hand, is restless and nervous in the morning but settles down in the afternoon. Does their robotic behavior reflect the mind-numbing nature of industrial work under capitalism?
Into this Pavlovian world enters Bartleby, who starts out as a reliable copier but refuses to participate in the checking of the documents, simply replying “I prefer not to” when called to work by the lawyer. He then begins to reply in the same manner when asked to run an errand. Eventually, he refuses to work at all and simply stares at the window at the dark, blank wall. Unlike the lawyer, who fits comfortably into the world of Wall Street, Bartleby asserts his free will in the extreme, using “passive resistance” to defy the lawyer and his world.
The lawyer, to his credit, tries every means of persuasion to win Bartleby’s cooperation before finally firing him. Bartleby, however, refuses to leave the premises. It seems he has been living there all along. Rather than resort to calling the police or forcibly removing Bartleby himself, the lawyer takes the extreme measure of moving his office to another site. But, this action, similar perhaps to Pilate washing his hands of final judgment on Jesus Christ, merely enables the lawyer to avoid taking any responsibility for the man. When the new occupant of the lawyer’s old office space shows up to insist “you are responsible for the man you left there,” the lawyer, like Peter denying Christ, responds, “the man you allude to is nothing to me…no relation or apprentice of mine that you should hold me responsible for him.”
If these comparisons to Christ seem to be a bit of a stretch, consider that, at one point when the lawyer is debating what to do about Bartleby, he overhears a conversation, which he believes at first is about his indecision but then realizes is actually about the mayoral election being held that day. In Melville’s day, “election” would have a religious as well as a political meaning. In the Calvinist theology in which Melville was steeped (http://philosopedia.org/index.php/Herman_Melville) one was predestined to be one of Elect (preordained by God for salvation) or one of the damned. Is Bartleby a test of the state of the lawyer’s soul? Is the lawyer one of the Elect or is he damned? According to Matthew 25: 31-42 Christ will return on Judgment Day and determine who goes to heaven and who to hell based on whether one has treated those in need as if they were Christ himself.
In the end the lawyer visits Bartleby in prison, where he is found facing a “high wall” among “murderers and thieves.” Is it significant that Christ was crucified between two thieves? Is it significant that when the lawyer returns to find Bartleby dead he makes a reference to him being at rest “With kings and counselors” (Job 3:14)?
For all the compassion that the lawyer feels toward Bartleby, in the end he does not take responsibility for this “least of these” (Matthew 25: 40). From a realistic perspective, we might say that the lawyer went far beyond what was reasonable to expect by not calling the police on Bartleby or throwing him out forcibly. Yet, from a Christian perspective, we might say the lawyer utterly failed to meet the test that Christ set for salvation. Is Melville questioning whether a capitalist society can also be a Christian society? Or is he questioning whether Christian ethics is realistic and reasonable in the human realm?
If the lawyer, who seems to allow circumstances to determine his actions, represents the Calvinist belief in predestination (absence of free will), does Bartleby represent the Transcendentalist belief in free will and individual responsibility? If so, do the two characters represent the extremes to which the two positions can be taken? Is it fair to condemn the lawyer for failing to meet Christ’s high standard for salvation? Is it fair to glorify Bartleby for his (selfish?) insistence on individual “preference”? Is Melville, like Hawthorne (see previous posts Oct. 2012 & May 2013), using Puritan Calvinism to critique romantic Transcendentalism and vice versa?
For that matter, is Bartleby truly a victim of capitalism or society in general? Or is he a victim of his own willfulness?
I find myself intrigued, though, by the idea of Bartleby as a projection of the narrator’s own psyche. To what extent has the narrator been dehumanized by his acquiescence to his social and economic circumstances? To what extent is it dehumanizing to deny the power of free will to individuals? Does Bartleby represent the lawyer’s own dehumanization on one hand and his repressed desire to rebel and assert himself on the other? If Bartleby is a fantastic version of the lawyer’s own psyche, does he take such an extreme form because the lawyer himself is so extremely passive, non-confrontational, and powerless?
In any case, the story raises profound questions regarding social organization, material vs. spiritual well-being, religion, individualism, ethics, and our responsibility to each other as fellow human beings.