Essays and Criticism
Multiple Meanings and Interpretations
Almost one hundred and fifty years since it was first published, Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" remains one of the most elusive short stories in all of American literature. What is the reason for Bartleby's strange behavior in the story? This is the question that plagues the story's narrator, and it has plagued the readers of "Bartleby the Scrivener" as well. While many intriguing hypotheses have been offered over the years, no single interpretation dominates critical opinion or seems to ber issue of 1853. It was republished three years later in Melville's collection of short stories titled The Piazza Tales. Written during Melville's decline in popularity, "Bartleby the Scrivener" attracted little attention when it first appeared. Since the rebirth of Melville scholarship in the twentieth century, however, this story has become widely considered a great work of short fiction.
Although contemporary critics have been unanimous in their praise of ''Bartleby the Scrivener'' as a work of genius, there has been little agreement about the meaning of the story. Leo Marx's 1953 article "Melville's Parable of the Wall'' argues that the character of Bartleby was autobiographical in nature. In Marx's opimon, Melville saw himself as a nonconformist who preferred not to copy the conventional fiction of his day, much as Bartleby refused to copy legal documents. Alternatively, in his 1962 essay, "Melville's Bartleby as Psychological Double," Mordecai...
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"Bartleby" Melville's Critique of Reason
"Say now, that in a day or two you will begin to be a little reasonable—say so, Bartleby."
''At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable, '' was his mildly cadaverous reply.
The unnamed narrator of "Bartleby" is an apostle of reason. His outlook on life is clear, unambiguous, and uncluttered by mysticism or imagination. Reason and common sense are his deities, and he looks upon them as infallible guides to human conduct.
All goes well with the narrator until he decides to engage as his new scrivener an inscrutable and ''motionless'' young man named Bartleby. For two days, Bartleby diligently does "an extraordinary quantity of writing.'' But on the third day, when the narrator calls him to compare a copy sheet, Bartleby, "in a singularly mild, firm voice," replies: "I would prefer not to." The narrator is stunned by what he considers to be the unreasonableness of Bartleby's conduct and briefly argues with him. But Bartleby remains unmoved.
A few days later, the narrator again solicits Bartleby's help, and Bartleby again replies: "I would prefer not to." This time, the narrator is so amazed at Bartleby's intransigence that for a few moments he is "turned into a pillar of salt." The first thing he does on recovering his composure is to ask the "reason" for it: "Why do you refuse?" (italics Melville's). When Bartleby simply repeats the refrain: "I would prefer not...
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"Melville's Bartleby as Psychological Double''
Most interpreters of Melville's haunting story "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853) have seen it as a somewhat allegorical comment on Melville's plight as a writer after the publication of Moby Dick and Pierre. Others have suggested that the story dramatizes the conflict between absolutism and free will in its protagonist, that it shows the destructive power of irrationality or that it criticizes the sterility and impersonality of a business society. The last of these interpretations seems to me the most accurate, and the others suffer either from an inability to adjust the parts of the story to Melville's experience (or that of any serious writer), or to adjust the parts to one another.
I believe that the character of Bartleby is a psychological double for the story's nameless lawyer-narrator, and that the story's criticism of a sterile and impersonal society can best be clarified by investigation of this role. Melville's use of psychological doubles in Mardi, Moby Dick, and Pierre has been widely and convincingly discussed. Probably Melville's most effective double is Fedallah, Ahab's shadowy, compulsive, and despairing counterpart. Bartleby's role and significance as a double remain less evident than Fedallah's, for the lawyer is less clearly a divided person than is Ahab, and Bartleby's role as double involves a complex ambiguity. Bartleby appears to the lawyer chiefly to remind him of the inadequacies, the sterile...
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