Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Revisiting "Bartleby"- questions and more questions

How can I find anything new to write about "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street", Melville's 2nd most known work and perhaps most widely read work, more than Moby Dick (because it's short, more accessible, and taught in schools)?
1 thing though, I won't make any claims or conclusions, because after several readings I've decided that "Bartleby" is a rich, open and ambiguous work that supports multiple interpretations and can mean many things at once.

1/ 1 Sunday morning, the narrator goes to church and, finding it early, decides to go to his office. To his surprise, he discovers that the door is locked from the inside, and:
"... thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but he was deeply engaged just then, and—preferred not admitting me at present. In a brief word or two, he moreover added, that perhaps I had better walk round the block two or three times, and by that time he would probably have concluded his affairs."
What's Bartleby doing then?

2/ How does the narrator feel, upon discovering that Bartleby has been making the office his home?
"Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!
For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam."
That feeling doesn't last long.
"... Revolving all these things, and coupling them with the recently discovered fact that he made my office his constant abiding place and home, and not forgetful of his morbid moodiness; revolving all these things, a prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach."
Then he decides to fire him. That he doesn't do yet, as we see in the next scenes, but he thinks of firing him, even though at that point Bartleby hasn't stopped copying.
The narrator isn't as kind as he thinks and says he is.

3/ Later, having sacked Bartleby, given him money and expected him to have gone, our narrator comes to his office the next morning in a feeling of relief mixed with uncertainty.
"As I had intended, I was earlier than usual at my office door. I stood listening for a moment. All was still. He must be gone. I tried the knob. The door was locked. Yes, my procedure had worked to a charm; he indeed must be vanished. Yet a certain melancholy mixed with this: I was almost sorry for my brilliant success. I was fumbling under the door mat for the key, which Bartleby was to have left there for me, when accidentally my knee knocked against a panel, producing a summoning sound, and in response a voice came to me from within—'Not yet; I am occupied'."
At this point, Bartleby has given up on copying (actually, the word in the text is "writing"). The only thing he does all day, according to the narrator, is standing and staring at the wall.
What's he possibly doing then? Occupied with what?
To me, it's unlikely that he's simply standing there in his dead-wall reveries. There must be something secretive that Bartleby does in the office before other people show up. I have no idea. Let's start speculating.

4/ This is the goodbye scene, when the narrator changes his office:
"I re-entered, with my hand in my pocket—and—and my heart in my mouth.
'Good-bye, Bartleby; I am going—good-bye, and God some way bless you; and take that,' slipping something in his hand. But it dropped upon the floor, and then,—strange to say—I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of."
What is the something?

5/ Look at Bartleby's corpse: 
"Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. " 
Like a foetus? 


  1. Isn't the problem of the story built into the characterization of the unknowable, impenetrable Barnaby? Is it possible ever to know anyone? It is possible for anyone to know herself? Where and how shall knowledge be found? Is knowledge ever possible? Are we all isolated in not knowing? Are we Barnaby?

    1. R.T.,

      I see that you are preparing to deal with the nihilistic 18-20 year-olds you will encounter in your courses.

      It's been decades since I last participated in those late night/early morning BS sessions which we thought were so profound and original.

    2. Ouch, Fred, you wound me! Okay, no more BS.

    3. Tim's questions:
      Yeah, part of the point is that Bartleby is unknowable and impenetrable. Impenetrable as the wall that obsesses him.
      No, it's not possible to really know anyone, or oneself.
      Where and how knowledge shall be found, that's the question. Melville does address book learning vs experience in Moby Dick.
      Is knowledge possible? Absolute knowledge, no, but we try.
      What do you mean, if we're isolated in not knowing?
      And yeah, in some sense you can say we're all Bartleby, depending on how you interpret the character.

  2. i think R.T. is circling around a good point... i believe Melville thought in a metaphorical way and that B represents basically an allegory reflecting the hopelessness he himself felt in his ongoing pursuit of a meaningful existence... life for most people IS standing in one place, staring at a wall in one sense or another; most don't realize it; they think they are going somewhere, but they're really just caught up in a social niche that enables them to survive; in their delusional states, they imagine themselves "going" places, without ever becoming aware that there is nowhere to go... and that the only goal they can be sure of reaching is the final one... i even see this in Moby, in which Ahab is stuck in his fixation and can't get out of it, like he's staring at a wall, a fixation that glues him to the deck of a whaler and keeps him from getting on with his life... i'm still thinking about it, but the above seems logical to me...

    1. Yeah, that's a good point. I agree with you.
      I've been thinking about the walls in "Bartleby". He's surrounded by the walls of his cubicle. Beyond the walls are the wall that Bartleby sees through his window. That's all he sees, there is no view. Beyond that literal, concrete wall of course is the metaphorical wall, the feeling of hopelessness and despair Bartleby feels and the pointlessness he sees in everything.

  3. New to me!

    It is possible that the wall is not blank and impenetrable for Bartleby. Maybe he sees something on it, or through it. Maybe it is intensely interesting.

    1. I need to get this right.
      "At one end they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom. This view might have been considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call "life." But if so, the view from the other end of my chambers offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes. Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern."
      "I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall, and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome."
      So the lawyer's office's surrounded by 3 walls, right? A white one, a black brick one, and a wall of unspecified colour close to Bartleby?


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