Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is one of the most famous short stories written by world renowned author Herman Melville. John Self in his article in The Asylum describes the book as a keystone of modern literature. Published anonymously in November and December of 1853, it was again reprinted in The Piazza Tales in 1856.
Much as it is a classic, it still baffles a lot of critics and have been subjected to various interpretations by many. The story of Bartleby continues to live on and tells of a story that is honest and profound.
The best interpretation of the story which is deeply rooted in the cultural and actual economic makings of the United States is the theme that exploits the rise of capitalism during the time prior to the writing of the story. This makes the story something that is relevant and makes it a faithful account of the realities of the society during that development in the US economy. The economic transformation that happened did not only modernize the country but also affected the psyche of the working class as well as the personal relationship between employers and employees.
The Wall Street being a major element of the story and considering the fact that it is currently one of the financial hubs of the US, one can assume that the author has a good eye for future financial potential. Allan Moore Emery, in his article “The Alternatives of Melville’s Bartleby”, praises Herman Melville in his scholarly use of philosophy, theology and actual sources as he injected them with subtlety into his work. To have a thorough grasp of the the theme, one has to dissect the different elements in the story to see a clearer picture of how it relates to capitalism.
The story is narrated by a lawyer who has a business of taking care of mortagages, bonds, and title deeds of wealthy men. This alone showcases the proliferation of real estates and high rise buildings during that time in New York creating a financial market that involves the employment of lawyers by men to protect their assets and properties. This further emphasizes that capitalists have acquired capital and required proper documentation for ease of business transactions. In the story, the lawyer already employs 2 scriveners, Nippers and Turkey, who copy legal documents by hand.
He also has Ginger Nut who works as the office errand boy. The author in a way does not give specific details into his personal description of his characters making them all the more interesting and intriguing. However, it is notable how the author refers to his staff using nicknames and not by their formal given names. One can assume of the impersonal relationship of the lawyers with his workers. Here, the dominance felt by the upper classes is accentuated because of the actuations of the lawyer being the top person in the ladder.
He feels that because he is the one paying the salary of his employees, he has power over them inside the office. He describes them in a manner that is not very flattering. He comments that though Turkey works well in the morning, his output deteriorates in the afternoon. Opposite is the case for Nipper, who because of his indigestion, works better in the afternoon than in the morning. Ginger Nut was given the nickname because he was always asked to fetch Ginger Nut cakes for the two scriveners. Here, Melville has a stab at humor to hide the sarcasm that is evident in the descriptions.
The lawyer though pointing out the quality of his men’s work always has a critique for their work attitude. He points out their malfunctions but never even admitting any shortcomings from his side. The different characters of the employees are a representation of the structure in a capitalist environment. The staff embodies a work force that have little room for advancement and working on monotonous tasks that takes a lot of patience in the long run. To cope with the intellectual dead end, one can be physically affected or find short means of escape to fathom the same work everyday.
Thus, the break in the output of the lawyer’s staff is their way of coping with the stress of monotony. The story then further unfolds in the introduction of Bartleby who was hired by the lawyer to act as a third scrivener because of his growing business. Bartleby’s disposition can be described as eccentric and forlorn. A lot of the critics cannot help themselves to compare the attitude of Bartleby to Herman Melville. When Melville wrote this, it was a time in his life that he was also experiencing depression because of the failure of his work “Moby Dick”.
A lot of the readers assumed that he probably patterned the character of Bartleby to his own (SparkNotes Editors). Bartleby appeared to be a satisactory worker with quality output as is characteristic of new hired employees in an industrial setting. The day came when he said the famous line that was the turning point of the whole story. When asked to proofread a copied document Bartleby said, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 18). This astounded the lawyer but made him more curious of the personality of Bartleby.
In the normal business world of today, one only has to finish the sentence before being escorted out by security. In the story, Bartleby was not fired right away because the lawyer entertained the throught of compassion and considered Bartleby as a charity case. He further mentions how he found out that his stubborn scrivener lives and eats in his office. This may be interpreted as showing that the employer’s feel that their employees are dependent on them for their immediate needs. This clearly shows the capitalist idea that the working class are being fed by their hands.
Bartleby’s outright refusal is symbolic of his impertinence to be a slave to capitalism. Melville skillfully outlined how Bartleby gave up his work entirely and chose to do nothing. This is suggestive of his rejection to conform to the exploitative nature of capitalists. The conflict that arised between Bartleby and his collegues is imminent in the actual workplace. It shows of the struggles between individuals who have different views. It separates those who are management underdogs from those who are courageous enough to effect change.
Turkey and Nippers’ agitation at Bartleby is evident of their clear imprisonment to their dependency on their work and their inability to do something about it because of their age and probably their destroyed morale. Eventually, because of the exhaustion felt by the lawyer to the antics of Bartleby, he decided to leave his office. Bartleby created a ruckus in the old office because of his refusal to move out and was eventually taken by the police and imprisoned. This shows how property rights were strongly enforced during that time.
Furthermore, Bartleby’s act of sleeping on the corridors gives more emphasis on the gap between the capitalist and the working class. Though the lawyer tried to offer his house to Bartleby, one cannot be sure of the sincerity of it. One can interpret this as a way of pacification to alleviate the current condition of Bartleby. The capitalists often sugar coat their intentions to bribe and make the working class feel that there is something good that they can offer back. If Bartleby agreed on the lawyer’s terms, he knew that it would be for a fee.
He recognized this outright which made him refuse the offer. The lawyer’s additional act of compassion despite Bartleby’s indifference was to make sure that Bartleby was well fed in the prison. It seems that because of the growing capitalist power, they were able to form laws and punishments that will inhibit the obstinate acts of the workers but making it still appear moral by finding means of appeasing them as what is shown by the act of the lawyer. It is a way of paying for their conscience rather than a genuine act of compassion.
The death of Bartleby is an abrupt end that provided yet another open interpretation from the readers. His refusal to eat the food offered him is an act of self-preservation wherein until his last breath, he never allowed to get swallowed by the capitalist power and died with his principles intact. The story ends with the lawyer’s uncovering of Bartleby’s past. Bartleby used to work in a Dead Letter Office and the lawyer assumed that this was the cause of Bartleby’s absurd behavior. It is arrogant of the lawyer to assume this without further knowledge of the real story behind Bartleby’s life.
It may be that his depression was not caused by the nature of his former work but the mere closing of it. The change of administration that was the alleged cause of the Dead Letter Office’s closing is symbolic of the capitalist’s rise in power paving the way for a structure that is discriminate of the working class. In closing, Bartleby’s sruggle is reminiscent of an era that shaped the current working environment and tells of a story that is not aimed for confusion but for intellectual furtherance. Works Cited Emery, Allan Moore.
“The Alternatives of Melville’s Bartleby”. California: The University of California Press, 1976. Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener”. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 2002. Self, John. “Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener”. The Asylum. 7 June 2010 < http://theasylum. wordpress. com/2009/05/21/herman-melville-bartleby-the-scrivener/ SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Melville Stories. ” SparkNotes. com. SparkNotes LLC. n. d. 7 Jun. 2010. <http://www. sparknotes. com/lit/melvillestories/section3. rhtml