How is the total transformation of the American society criticised through the characters' behavior in "Bartleby the Scrivener"?
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Many critics see this excellent story as a critique of the way that American society was beginning to embrace capitalism as a doctrine that would come to transform and define it. Note the way that this story is set symbolically in Wall Street, the heart of the new financial workings. In fact, walls are a common symbol in the story, and are used to indicate the way in which this emerging financial system actually imprisoned and inhibited people. Consider the way that the windows of the office only look out onto more walls in every direction:
At one end they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious skylight shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom... In [the other] direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade...
Bartleby himself seems to spend a lot of time focusing blankly on the wall he can see from his working station, and the lawyer comes to refer to this as being lost in a "dead-wall reverie." Bartleby is a character who spends his entire life living in a sort of living prison, and it is therefore ironic that he finally dies in prison.
Bartleby therefore seems to be used by Melville to profoundly question America's unequivocal embrace of capitalism by raising the vexing question of how this will impact our human freedom. Bartleby is forced to work carrying out meaningless labours in exchange for a small salary which therefore limits him profoundly as a human in terms of who he is and his potential to develop. The way in which capitalism is presented in this excellent story therefore forces us to consider what we have lost through our whole-hearted acceptance of capitalism, and how that acceptance might actually have limited our freedom.
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