in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”
by Pamela Prochaska
George Edward Woodberry, author of the Heart of Man, published in 1899, emphasized the significance of the role of the individual as an active and equal partner in American democratic rule: “ The doctrine of the equality of mankind by virtue of their birth as men, with its consequent right to equality of opportunity for self-development as a part of social justice, establishes a common basis of conviction, in respect to man, and a definite end as one main object of the State; and these elements are primary in the democratic scheme. Liberty is the next step, and is the means by which that end is secured. It is so cardinal in democracy …” to strive for a balance between the individual and the mass, so that the identification of the common man as an American ensures him of the promises proposed by the government. (226-227).
During the early 1800’s, America struggled with the search for identity and the shift toward Liberal Individualism. The revolutionary words of freedom, equality, and brotherhood gave birth to the doctrine of government by the people, for the people, and of the people. These principles were the substance of democracy; these tenets, though fundamentally sound and idealistically honorable, seemed elementary, but to assume that the ideals of democracy were rudimentary and easily attained was a national betrayal. This betrayal, depicted as the futility of the individual to achieve political and representational inclusion in the government and, more importantly, the realization of his importance, belied the struggle.
The shift toward Liberal Individualism created the need for a balance between the individual and the community. The election of 1828, which propelled Andrew Jackson to national prominence, marked the emergence of the voice of the common man; “democracy lay ahead, while a traditional concept of stately honor was unwilling to yield to it” (Burstein 195). This unwillingness to alter national traditions was evident in the struggle between the individual and the community. However, with the emphasis now on the advancement of the individual, many citizens wondered how the new country would maintain the national community. In an attempt to address this struggle, Romantic writers such as Melville concerned themselves with an escape from the traditions and the authorities of the past. In promoting the formation of a unique American Literature with a unique national identity, the Romantics created the interplay between the reader and the writer and, in doing so, stressed the importance of the interdependence between the individual and the community. Romantic authors critically studied the social values of the emerging democratic nation in order to create a new identity rather than a representation. Hawthorne and Melville defined the Romance genre as the self-conscious expression of nineteenth-century America: “ a common vision of our literature as distinguished from an English literary tradition. Ironically, the most striking feature of their vision was its kinship” with the emerging voice of the individual. (Strout 1)
Herman Melville depicts the struggle for individual sovereignty in his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener”; through the actions and the attitudes of the elite narrator in the story, the deceptiveness of democracy is evident. The ideology of democracy purports that all men are created equal and are equally represented in the voice of government. Yet, the scriveners as common men are separated from the elite narrator who creates the walls of exclusion in order to perpetuate the myth of his individual importance. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Melville demonstrates that, in reality, the implementation of American democracy in the 1830’s – 1850’s excludes the individual and, in doing so, fails to achieve a balance between the individual and the community.
In the opening of the tale, the narrator perceives himself as a man of conviction but, in reality, his life, a meaningless existence, lacks creativity and uniqueness. The lawyer offers his philosophy of life: “I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (2403). The lawyer is a man of assumptions; he assumes that his comfortable life, free from the economic hardships that plague the scriveners, mirrors their lives. For thirty years, he manages the fortunes of elite members of society; accustomed to the certainty of his profession, the lawyer enjoys that “snug berth in the safe business of manipulating other people’s money” (Hans 286). However, the lawyer enjoys his association only with those defined by their wealth and, more importantly, defines himself because of his advantaged position. But in the revelation of his self-definition as the “drawer-up of recondite documents of all sorts” (2407), the lawyer echoes the meaninglessness of reality: he merely copies the work of other men; he creates nothing new or unique. Alienated from his wealthy benefactors, he mimics the impotence of an aimless profession. In their book Federalists Reconsidered, authors Ben-Atar and Oberg, justify the quest of the narrator: “For men of great dignity and consideration …to prefer private [good] to public good, the honors, wealth, and pleasure of time, to those of eternity, [is] inconsistent with the reason and dignity of man” (205).
Ignoring the plight of the scriveners who
suffer from despair and economic hardship, the narrator establishes his
economic superiority and applauds his insight into their lives. The
lawyer considers himself a man of status as the Master of the Chancery,
he believes that he understands the oppressive lives of his scriveners:
“The Nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me more
than ordinary contact with … an interesting and somewhat singular set of
men … the law-copyists or scriveners … I have known very many of them,
professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories,
at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might
weep” (2402). Therein lies the assumption of power by the lawyer;
he believes that he knows the lives of the scriveners simply because of
his lengthy business association with them. But in reality, his association
with them is a vacuous relationship. As the lawyer reveals his knowledge
about each copyist, he assigns each one a certain value. Bainard
Cowan, author of “Melville’s soul’s code,” identifies the origin of this
value that is placed on the individual as the “notion of idealistic individualism
– which seeks to locate a culture’s meaningful values within the individual”
(639). But the description of each scrivener only reaffirms the narrator’s
opinion of the men: he tolerates them for his own benefit and his own advancement.
The narrator introduces the scriveners: “ … I had two
Although he suffers from illnesses from deplorable working conditions, the second scrivener, Nippers, displays a generosity that is misunderstood by the narrator. Suffering from alcoholism, poverty, and indigestion and described by the lawyer as a temperate young fellow, Nippers displays “an irritable, brandy-like disposition” (2406). The narrator surmises that ambition causes Nippers to suffer from indigestion. In reality, he works on a desk that is unsuitable for the tedium of a copyist: “he put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard … if, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin … then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms … In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted” (2405). Again, the lawyer deems himself the omniscient soul of his employees. He describes Nippers as a plunderer when, in reality, the scrivener suffers from inhumane and unsuitable working conditions. The physical and psychological pain that these conditions incur causes him to be irritable; the long hours of tedious work with no hope for advancement or ease frustrates the scrivener. Nippers suffers from ill health like Turkey. And like Turkey, he has no escape from the condition of his life. Extending generosity toward his fellow man, Nippers serves as a ward-politician, collecting overdue debts. Crediting Nippers “diseased ambition” among his many faults, the narrator fails to see the soul in need; instead he praises himself as “an eminently safe man … my first grand point to prudence; my next, method” (2403). Perceiving the humanitarian work which Nippers performs as a lawyer for the poor as a failure of character the lawyer fails to realize the generous nature of his scrivener. The lawyer prefers the safety and prudence of his prestigious law office, where the walls obscure the truth of poverty and destitution of the common man, and the realm of an illusory existence appeases him.
Without the concern of the narrator, Ginger-Nut is relegated to a life of poverty and destined to hopelessness. Ginger-Nut is the narrator’s third employee: “sent … to my office as [a] student at law, errand boy, and cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it very much. Upon inspection, the drawer exhibited … various sorts of nuts” (2406). The narrator assumes that Ginger-Nut is interested not in law but in fulfilling his role as errand boy for the scriveners, but the child is caught in a cycle of poverty: hungry, bored and forlorn. Although the narrator perceives the child’s circumstances as serious, he fails to help him; the lawyer neither feeds the child nor apprentices him in preparation for a better life. Described as “proverbially a dry, husky sort of business” (2407), the narrator concludes that the law profession is ill suited for the child. As a favor to the young boy’s father who is “ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart” (2406), the narrator controls the future of the child; he perceives his humanitarian effort of employing the child as noble but fails to apprentice him. He justifies his neglect of the boy because “[to] this quick-witted youth the whole noble science of the law was contained in a nutshell” (2406). Again, as the omniscient predictor of the child’s ability to fulfill the duties of a lawyer, the narrator negates the boy’s chances for a more prosperous and fulfilled life; in his regard of the scriveners as men of meager worth, the narrator merely fulfills his obligation.
The narrator disregards the needs of his struggling scriveners and confines them to impoverished lives without hope for advancement. The existence of the lawyer is fraught with illusion and disdain for the employees of his office; he tolerates their weaknesses in order to confirm his importance. In his book The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics, Thomas R. Dye asserts that “life in a democracy … is shaped by a handful of men. An elite is the few who have power; the masses are the many who do not … Being more influential, they [the elites] are privileged; and being privileged, they have, with few exceptions, a special stake in the continuation of the system in which their privileges rest” (3). Thus the lawyer perpetuates the status of the common men as unable to transcend their life of poverty and hardship; he reinforces the restraints that limit their success which ensures their inability to transcend their lives of poverty and despair.
The addition of Bartleby as a passive and reliable scrivener maintains the equilibrium of the law office. The passive nature of Bartleby’s character pleases the lawyer; described as “a man of so singularly sedate an aspect …” (2407), the narrator engages Bartleby as a scrivener who is easily led and comfortably controlled. Hired to transcribe and mimic the words that merely represent the ideas and efforts of others, Bartleby offers the narrator a stability that the office needs. Furthermore, Bartleby “operate [s] beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers” (2407). In order to maintain homeostasis in the workplace, the four law clerks work together to continue the narrator’s life of ease. Douglas M. Strong, author of Perfectionist Politics, reaffirms the determination of the narrator as ego-centric: “ By failing to sustain their principles for very long, they [the elite narrator] demonstrated how difficult it is for personal freedom and social order to function simultaneously with an increasingly diverse democratic society” (167). Therefore, the narrator must carefully control the scriveners. Although a diverse group, the law clerks, led by Bartleby, maintain the social order of the law office under the guiding direction of the narrator.
Bartleby’s mechanical work demonstrates the futility of his life, an existence without hope or advancement. “At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing … he seemed to gorge himself on my documents” (2407) explains the narrator. An industrious and diligent copyist, Bartleby seems willing to accommodate the narrator by copying volumes of law papers. But Bartleby displays no joy in his work, as the lawyer observes that the law clerk writes for hours “silently, palely, and mechanically” (2407). Caught in the pointless employment as an automaton, Bartleby has no reason to be cheerful; his endless hours of work merely accommodate the advantaged life of the narrator.
Bartleby’s isolation in the office, through his confinement within the walls, exacerbates the disparity between himself and the elite narrator. In the placement of his desk next to a wall, Bartleby is limited in his movements; new buildings built adjacent to the tiny window obscure the limited view and “commanded at present no view at all” (2407). The confinement behind the walls destroys any glimmer of hope for Bartleby; his limitation of movement and thought incarcerate him in a prison of doom. Melville writes that Bartleby’s vision is so narrowed that it offers no window of opportunity, no hope for the future: “within three feet of the [window] panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above … as from a very small opening in a dome” (2407). Relegated to the least hopeful and most depressing conditions of existence, Bartleby is never free from his confinement. Alienated from other human beings, sequestered from the inspiration of light, and denied the possibility of advancement or a better life, he suffers from internal and external impotence; the walls that separate the scrivener and the lawyer “destroy the universality and immortality of being” (Stovall 68).
Trapped within a pointless existence, Bartleby refuses to verify his work and disrupts the social order of the law office; thus the emergence of the his voice disarms the complacency of the narrator. The lawyer assigns little value or importance to the presence of Bartleby in his office and to the tasks that he accomplishes. In referring to his task as “trifling” (2407), the narrator reaffirms his ambivalence toward the plight of the scrivener until Bartleby asserts his preference not to review the law documents. “Now and then, in the haste of business … was to avail myself of his [Bartleby’s] services on such trivial occasions … Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when … Bartleby in a singular mild, firm voice, replied ‘I would prefer not to’”(2408). Bartleby asserts his own individuality, his personal power of choice: he asserts his will of non-compliance. As the representative of the common man, he breaks free of the constraints held in place by the narrator. Despite the risks, Bartleby abandons the safety net of complicity and dares to assert his will. In the confrontation of will, the common scrivener releases the repression that binds him to a life of trivial tasks, a life of meaningless toil and suffering. Now he has a choice and demands to be heard. In the repetition of his reply: “ I prefer not to”, Bartleby defines himself as an uncommon man, one who is willing to resist the authority and assert himself against a culture that “is biased in favor of individual desires over social needs, private interests over public interest, and individual liberty over community” (Hudson 109).
Hesitant to release Bartleby from his duties as a copyist, the lawyer maintains his reputation in the community and perpetuates his own self-interest. The narrator rationalizes the behavior of the scrivener: “it is seldom the case when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins … to surmise that … all the justice and all the reason is on the other side” (2409). Unable to recognize the plight of the life of the common scrivener as intolerable, the narrator justifies Bartleby’s non-conformity as a flaw of reason. The narrator, believing himself the victim of reprehensible behavior by his scrivener, reaffirms his own good nature: “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance … I regarded Bartleby and his ways. Poor fellow! Thought I … his eccentricities are involuntary. To befriend Bartleby … will cost me nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience” (2410). Hancock concludes that the chasm between the advantaged and the common man is so extended that it separates the common man “from the influences of another, a democratic man has no access to the things themselves, because to know things, a person has to go outside himself …” (215). But the lawyer refuses to look beyond his own self-interest; instead, he justifies the reason that he keeps Bartleby in his employment: his reputation will suffer if he fires the indigent copyist. The narrator rationalizes his efforts as just and righteous and his interaction with the scrivener as fair. But Andrew W. Achenbaum, author of the article, “The social compact in American history,” asserts that the assurance of equality among men is tenuous “when the condition of society becomes democratic and men adopt as a general principle that it is good and lawful to judge of all things for oneself” (16). In that singular perception of inequality, the common man discovers the absence of fraternity and resolves himself to abandon the search for the bond of brotherhood.
Frustrated with Bartleby’s self-assertion and preference, the narrator confronts the scrivener’s defiance of authority. By the assertion of his individuality, Bartleby’s behavior is perplexing to the narrator: “ I resolved upon this; - I would … give him a twenty dollar bill over and above whatever I might owe him, and tell him his services were no longer required …The time has come; you must quit the place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go” (2415-2417). Because Bartleby is so forlorn, the lawyer pities him. Yet, his pity quickly turns to repulsion when Bartleby asserts his individuality and states that he prefers not to leave the office; compliance with Bartleby’s wish to remain in the office creates fear in the mind of the narrator. Unaccustomed to Bartleby’s assertiveness and experiencing a sense of vulnerability himself, the lawyer demands Bartleby to leave. Deciding the fate of the common scrivener empowers the lawyer and consequently, he denies the shame of his own existence. “He must project it [his shame] onto another individual in order to distance himself from the repulsive origins he has found to be the defining core of his desolate being” (Hans 289).
Unable to evict Bartleby from his law office and, more importantly, from his life, the narrator seeks refuge from him, thus the radical individualism of the narrator violates the democratic principles of consideration promised to all men. Seeking refuge from the reality of the scrivener’s plight and frustrated by his lack of control over Bartleby, the narrator escapes from his office: “ Since he will not quit me, I must quit him … I will move elsewhere … and shall no longer require … [Bartleby’s] services” (2422). Moving his practice to another building is the last resort for the lawyer. He surmises that there is no other solution to rid himself of the memory of Bartleby. Unconcerned that Bartleby is homeless and impoverished the narrator rejects the needs of the scrivener and excludes him as a valuable member of the community of man. William E. Hudson, author of American Democracy in Peril, asserts that the inclusion of the common man is challenged by American individualism: “Most fundamentally, it [American individualism] erodes the habits of the heart that tie democratic citizens to one another and promote civic virtue” (108). In this way, the lawyer imposes the restraints of his self-serving individualism on Bartleby, who as a common man, is imprisoned within a system of futility and excluded from the promises of democracy: equality, freedom, and brotherhood. Matthew Arnold reaffirms the encumbrances of Liberal Individualism in his book, Discourses in America, written in 1885. He compares the individual, “the working part of the community … not much better off than slaves, and not more seriously regarded … the mass to be considered has not leisure, but is bound, for its own great good, and for the great good of the world at large, to plain labour … dissatified with these pursuits and unfitted for them” (77) as victims of a democratic society.
Overwhelmed by the feelings of rejection,
Bartleby succumbs to abandonment by the narrator. The narrator is notified
that Bartleby is relocated to the Tombs. On a visit to the jail, the narrator
searches for Bartleby. Immured in the silent tomb where hopeless
men are surrounded by thick walls that protect them from the harsh world,
Bartleby lies “strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn
up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, [there]
I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred” (2427). Bartleby
dies the same way that he lived: alone, isolated from the external world,
relegated to an existence outside the bond of brotherhood, and rejected
by the very men
Herman Melville addresses the futile plight
of the individual in his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. As
America endeavored to achieve a balance between the individual and the
community, Bartleby, a common man, is excluded from the promises of democracy.
Confined by those who erect walls of constraints, restrained by those who
protect the advantages that they uphold as theirs alone, and betrayed by
those he served, Bartleby is unable to transcend his life of hardship and
despair. His effort to assert his individuality, his self-will, is noble
and admirable, yet Melville concludes that his attempt was to no avail.
Melville recognizes the importance and worth of the common man as an integral
member of a democracy. Yet, he purports that society is merely a
collection of isolated individuals unable to perceive that the humanity
that exists outside the individual is important and worthy of the fulfillment
of the democratic promise. Thus, Melville reveals that equality and
freedom are relegated to only a few men who betray the ideals of a democratic
brotherhood in search of individual glory.
Achenbaum, W. Andrew. “The social compact in American history.” Generations 22 (Winter 98-99): 15-18.
Arnold, Matthew. Discourses In America. London: MacMillan, 1885.
Ben-Atar, Doron and Barbara B. Oberg. Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: UP Virginia, 1998.
Burstein, Andrew. Sentimental Democracy: The Evolution of America’s Romantic Self-Image. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.
Cowan, Bainard. “Melville’s Soul Code.” The Southern Review 33 (Summer 1997): 637-41).
Dye, Thomas R. and L. Harmon Zeigler. The Irony of Democracy. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1970.
Hancock, Ralph C. “Tocqueville’s practical reason.” Perspectives on Political Science 27 (Fall 1998): 212-19.
Hans, James S. “Emptiness and plenitude in Bartleby the scrivener and The crying of lot 49.” Essays in Literature 22 (Fall 1995): 285-99.
Hudson, William E. American Democracy in Peril. Chatham: Chatham House, 1995.
Stovall, Floyd. American Idealism. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1943.
Strong, Douglas M. Perfectionist Politics: Abolitionism and The Religious Tensions Of American Democracy. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1999.
Strout, Cushing. Making American Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.
Wilentz, Sean. “Striving for Democracy.” The Wilson Quarterly 23 (Spring 1999): 47-54.
Woodberry, George Edward. Heart of Man.
London: Macmillan, 1899.
FGCU CAS 2000, Fort Myers, FL.
This is an official web page of Florida Gulf Coast University.
Updated Summer 2000.
Webmaster: Dr. Jim Wohlpart