Saturday, May 24, 2008


I hadn't read Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener until just recently. My Yankee wife tells me it's a standard in American high-school English classes. I can see why. Melville's tale is puzzling in a provocative way and rich in the kind of symbolism that my high-school English teachers loved. It cries out for interpretation.

A Wall Street lawyer hires the eponymous character to work as a scrivener. Poor Bartleby seems trapped in the soul-killing monotony of his job, a job that leads a co-worker to get soused every day at lunch. After a while, Bartleby starts refusing his assigned work, but in turning away from these tasks he doesn’t turn to doing anything else. His rebellion is passive – staring at the brick walls that enclose him and the others on Wall Street, he becomes a standing rebuke of superficial ‘busy-ness’, a rebuke from which his employer eventually flees.

I appreciated this story more after reading Mordecai Marcus’ interpretation of it (‘Melville’s Bartleby as a Psychological Double’, College English 23 [1962]: 365-8). Marcus sees Bartleby as his employer’s ‘double’. That is, this recalcitrant worker is a part of the lawyer’s own psyche, one that suffers neglect in the urban office. Something essential to its sustenance is missing. Obdurate in the face of monetary enticements, this increasingly spectral other won't fit its assigned slot in the urban workplace. It belongs to nature, the lawyer’s own nature, and is marooned in 'unnature' (Wall Street). Naturally, it withers in this world of material plenty (as Bartleby starves in a place where food is abundant).

The story reminds me of Theodore Roethke's poem 'Dolor', with its lines about 'the inexorable sadness of pencils' and 'desolation in immaculate public places'.


Anonymous said...

I have this on my shelves to read. The edition I have is sadly not the beautiful Melville House one you show, but the UK edition published by Hesperus Press, which also includes Benito Cereno. On the upside it has an enlightening introduction by Patrick McGrath, which manages to cover many of the interpretations of Bartleby in about three pages.

praymont said...

Thanks, John. I'll see if I can find McGrath's intro. This short work is so rich in interpretive possibilities.