Bartleby, the Scrivener (American History Through Literature)
"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" is one of Herman Melville's most highly acclaimed works of short fiction, along with "Benito Cereno" and the novella Billy Budd. "Bartleby" is also one of the most celebrated short stories in American literature. After publishing seven novels between 1846 and 1852, including his magnum opus Moby-Dick (1851), Melville (1819891) turned to short fiction, writing "Bartleby" and thirteen other stories and sketches between 1853 and 1856. First published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1853, "Bartleby" was subsequently published by Dix and Edwards of New York in 1856 in The Piazza Tales, a collection of six of Melville's stories.
Readers have been both intrigued and puzzled by Bartleby, the enigmatic and seemingly eccentric clerk of the story. Why does he refuse to work? And what does he want from his employer? In analyzing his character, critics have proposed remarkably diverse interpretations. To some he is a Christ figure; to others a mysterious misfit; to still others he represents the exploited worker, a Thoreau-like practitioner of passive resistance, or even a projection of Melville as alienated author. Readers have also disagreed about the character of the lawyer-narrator. Is he a spineless employer? Or a callous boss? A self-serving hypocrite? Or a compassionate employer whose helpful intentions are frustrated by Bartleby's incurable pathology? Is he a static or dynamic character? Does he understand the story he so artfully tells?
In the early twenty-first century there are two dominant readings of "Bartleby," one of which might be termed psychological and moral and the other economic and ideological. The first, perhaps best articulated by Milton R. Stern and Dan McCall, suggests that Bartleby is, for reasons that are never disclosed, a deeply melancholic soul and that the lawyer is a sensitive and well-meaning employer who recounts, with disarming candor, both his sincere efforts to understand and help his troubled but inscrutable scrivener and his own moral shortcomings. The other dominant reading, which is developed in this essay (see also Gilmore; Kuebrich; and Foley), views Bartleby as a demoralized, exploited worker and the boss as an unreliable narrator who, blinded by his upper-class perspective, is unable to understand the underlying causes of his clerk's unusual behavior.
Unlike the first interpretation, the second considers "Bartleby" to be a historicized text, and it emphasizes the importance of placing the story in the context of antebellum capitalism. In the decades prior to Melville's writing of "Bartleby," the United States underwent a complex process of economic transformation. The building of superior surface roads, the introduction of railways, and the invention of the steamship for hauling goods upriver marked a transportation revolution. New forms of labor-saving machinery were developed with the effective use of steam and waterpower. And unprecedented opportunities arose for acquiring and securing capital, made possible by more numerous banks, new insurance companies, and state laws facilitating the creation of business corporations.
These changes in the infrastructure in turn altered the nature of production. Since the Middle Ages, most manufactures had been created by skilled artisans who maintained small shops in or near their homes. A master artisan shoemaker or blacksmith, for exampleould own his own shop and perhaps be assisted by a journeyman and an apprentice. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Europe and nineteenth-century America, this mode of manufacturing was gradually replaced by entrepreneurs who built large workshops or factories and hired skilled and unskilled workers in increasing numbers, paying them by the hour, day, or piece. For the first time in history, a system of production was established in which masses of workers sold their labor to capitalists who provided the tools needed to produce market goods.
Workers now encountered an impersonal work-place, more tedious work, and less opportunity for advancement. Under the artisanal system, the master knew his workers well. They worked alongside each other, took their meals together, and often lived under the same roof. The master was responsible for training and overseeing those under him, even to the extent of providing for or watching over an apprentice's intellectual and moral development. In contrast, in the emerging industrial order, employers and employees no longer lived and dined together and might not even know each other. Employees became more specialized and less skilled, and their work became more monotonous. In a traditional tailor's shop, a master or his assistant would know how to do every aspect of clothes making; in a new clothing factory, however, a worker might only attach a collar to a shirt or sew on the buttons. Another difference was that workers felt boxed in with little or no chance of rising to a better position or owning their own business. With the older craft system, it was expected that an apprentice would become a journeyman and then go on to become the master of his own shop. In contrast, the new wage laborer was poorly paid and could never expect to amass the necessary wealth to build a factory and employ others. Thus the social mobility and comparatively low degree of social stratification that had characterized life in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic regions during the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century gave way to a more rigid class system.
In "Bartleby" the workplace is not a large shop or factory but a Manhattan law office, yet Melville invests the office with many of the characteristics of the new urban-industrial workplace. New York City's population increased from 124,000 in 1820 to 814,000 in 1860. The population growth resulted in a rapid rise in real estate prices that created a market for tall buildings like those that hem in the lawyer's office. The high cost of space in lower Manhattan also forced workers to search for cheaper housing elsewhere, thus creating the story's austere Wall Street setting that during evenings and Sundays is virtually devoid of human life. The building that houses the law office, described by the lawyer as a space "entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations" (p. 36), further suggests the impersonality of Bartleby's work environment and the loneliness of his life.
Although the lawyer has only four workers, his office mirrors the hierarchical division of labor and impersonality characteristic of the new factory system. The lawyer seems to know his employees only by nickname, and he separates himself from them by screen and partitions, commands them rather than consults with them, and limits their activities to monotonous copying and serving as gofers. There is seemingly no possibility for any of them to become lawyers. At age sixty, Turkey
The story's omnipresent wallshe Wall Street setting, the tall brick buildings surrounding the office, the folding glass doors and portable screen that divide the office internally, and finally the prison wallserve as symbols of the growing division between employer and employee and between the capitalist and working classes. They also indicate the barriers that confine the workers to their mind-numbing, poor-paying jobs and prevent their social advancement. In addition they are outward markers of the ideological assumptions that separate the lawyer from his scriveners, preventing him from understanding them and having genuine compassion for their plight.
Melville's primary concern, however, was neither to detail the physical conditions of this new workplace nor to describe the sufferings of the workers but to expose the underlying ideology that legitimated this new system of production. As the old system of small workshops was being displaced by industrial capitalism, supporters and opponents of the change developed rival ideologies to justify their positions. The pro-capitalist position stressed that American workers, unlike their European counterparts, had ample opportunity to achieve a reasonable competence. In an address given to the American Institute of the City of New York in 1844, Alexander H. H. Stuart maintained that in the United States "no class of our population [is] subsisting on wages of six-pence or a shilling a day!" and that an adequate living was possible for "every man who is disposed to exercise ordinary industry and frugality" (p. 9). For such apologists of capital, the workingman's chief impediments were the age-old sins of laziness, dissipation, and drink; the solution was to embrace the Protestant virtues of industry, thrift, and sobriety.
Advocates for the working class, however, argued that an economic system that made the poor subject to the rich for the necessities of life was unnatural and undemocratic. They maintained that everyone has a God-given right to the property or work necessary for one's livelihood. In the view of Thomas Skidmore, a spokesperson for New York laborers, the wage-labor system was a form of slavery: "He who can feed me, or starve me; give me employment, or bid me wander about in idleness; is my master; and it is but the utmost folly for me to boast of being any thing [sic] but a slave" (p. 388).
As these brief quotations suggest, the change to large-scale production was giving rise to new ideological formations in which the capitalist would assume the benignity of the system, ignore employee complaints, and blame the poverty of workers on their own moral failures. The workers, or at least their more radical spokespeople, with the opposite point of view, would address the inequality in the economy and the workplace, and they would define their dependency as a form of slavery. Both sides would, as is so often the case in American political debate, claim God as an ally.
Ideology, however, especially the dominant ideology, functions at an unconscious level as well as at a conscious level. When an ideology becomes established in a society's institutions and daily practices, it becomes the "natural" or "commonsense" manner of thinking and acting. Almost everyone assumes it is the "right" or "only" way. For instance, if a culture establishes the primacy of property rights, then the work-place will be hierarchical. Employers will feel it is only "reasonable" that they control their workplaces and pay, command, hire, and fire their employees as they please. Under such a system, it does not seem unnatural if the employer is rich and the workers poor or if the employer orders his or her workers around and assigns them menial work and trivial tasks. In contrast, if a society were to emphasize equality in the work-place, the right to meaningful work, and a living wage, then the workplace would be much more democratic. Workers would have more power, and pay would be more equal. It would seem natural that bosses function as coordinators, help with the boring work, and run an occasional errand or two.
If a boss were quickly shifted from a hierarchical to a democratic workplace, he or she would find the new circumstances bewildering, even infuriating, and would demand some explanation for the workers' seeming audacity and insubordination. To a limited extent, the lawyer-narrator in "Bartleby" experiences this disruptive shift because his hierarchical work-place is infiltrated by a worker who begins to protest, albeit quietly, the unfairness of his condition. Accustomed to running his office as he pleases, the lawyer assumes he will treat his new clerk just as he has treated Turkey and Nippers. However, Bartleby, depressed by his tedious work and commodity status, stops taking orders; resisting the injustice of the system, he refuses to cooperate and begins to exercise his own choiceo do as he "prefers." The lawyer is utterly befuddled: How can Bartleby act in such contempt of common usage? Bewilderment turns to exasperation, then anger, and finally he fires his obstinate clerk.
It is hard for readers to understand this ideological conflict between the lawyer and his recalcitrant scrivener because their views are never explicitly presented. The lawyer simply assumes his right to exercise unlimited authority, and Bartleby, although convinced his resistance is justified, appears too depressed to speak or perhaps feels the forces aligned against him are so overwhelming that open protest is futile. However, the story also is perplexing because readers unconsciously subscribe to the same ideology as the lawyer. Living in a society that gives precedence to property rights and thus the rights of employers over those of employees, Americans are conditioned to assume that owners will be much more affluent than their workers, that employers will call the shots, and that their workers will simply comply. One can scarcely imagine a worker saying "No"; and if one does, it is expected that she or he will soon receive a pink slip. In short, as readers, Americans encounter "Bartleby" from the perspective of the culture's dominant ideology regarding employer-employee relations. One shares the lawyer's exasperation and outrage: "What's with this preposterous clerk?" "Shouldn't he be fired immediately?" Melville intends, however, that as a good reader one will slowly come to realize that the ideology consists of ideas and practices based on power rather than reason or right. If one does this, one will have freed his or her mind of its ideological fetters, and one will be able to entertain the possibility that what before seemed the only way to do things may be quite arbitrary and unjustnd as is true of the lawyer's office, quite wasteful of human energy. A more democratic workplace might prove more natural, fairer, and more productive.
UNCONSCIOUS IDEOLOGY: THE LAWYER'S ASSUMPTIONS
Careful examination of the lawyer's behavior discloses several key assumptions that shape his views of the workplace and workers and prevent him from understanding his employees and addressing the problems that beset his office. Melville directs the reader's attention to this aspect of the story in the episode in which the lawyer first attempts to rid himself of Bartleby: after giving him his full pay plus a severance allowance, the lawyer leaves for the evening, assuming that his unwanted clerk will be gone when he returns to the office in the morning. Notable at this point in the story is the lawyer's use of some form of the word "assume" eleven times, twice italicized for emphasis verbal pattern that underscores the gap between the lawyer's desired understanding of Bartleby and Bartleby's actual behavior:
It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby's departure; but, after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby's. The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer so to do. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions. (P. 34)
Here the lawyer recognizes that his assumptions about Bartleby may be belied by the facts. What he fails to understand, however, is that he also carries around various class-based assumptions about his clerks and the workplace that are equally erroneous. These beliefs, part of the dominant ideology used to legitimate the new wage-labor system, are so deeply ingrained in the lawyer's consciousness that he conceives of them not as human constructs but as natural laws or common sense. In accentuating the lawyer's assumptions, Melville directs attention to a preconscious dimension of the lawyer's thought that twentieth-century students of ideology, such as Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams, speak of as the ideology of the "lived social process" (Williams, p. 109), that is, an unreflective acceptance of some values or beliefs as proper or natural simply because they are given concrete embodiment in one's social world.
Because the lawyer is scarcely aware of these largely unconscious dimensions of his belief and so never articulates them, they must be inferred from the information he unwittingly provides in telling the story. If one attends to the assumptions that underlie his behavior and speech, however, one can identify a set of beliefs that inform his understanding of workers and the workplaceeliefs that legitimate the inequalities inherent in the emerging system of wage-labor capitalism.
The first of these is that the problems of workers are due to vice, poor health, and misfortune. The lawyer never entertains the idea that the dissatisfactions or strange behavior of his clerks may be understandable responses to their monotonous, low-paying, dead-end jobs. The reason Turkey becomes fiery and reckless in the afternoons is simple: he is an alcoholic who drinks too much "red ink" (wine) at lunch (p. 17). Nippers's forenoon nervous tics and irritability are explained by the fact that he is the "victim of two evil powersmbition and indigestion" (p. 16) and that "nature herself" has endowed him with an "irritable, brandy-like disposition" (p. 18). Bartleby's behavior is imputed to an "organic" psychological ill: an "innate and incurable disorder" (p. 29). Rather than relating the clerks' behavior to their working conditions, the lawyer always points to external factors, thus absolving himself and the wage-labor system of any responsibility.
The second belief is that workers are the servants of the boss. The lawyer feels comfortable exercising a near-despotic power over his clerks. This is evident in his dealings with Bartleby, whom he locates at a desk near his own (but separated by a high screen) so he is "within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done" (p. 19). On the third day of Bartleby's employment, the lawyer "abruptly called" to him in "natural expectancy of instant compliance" (p. 20, emphasis added). Any idea of equality in the workplace is totally outside the lawyer's consciousness. He thinks it is acceptable to use Bartleby as his personal factotum, and he believes he has the right to do this even though the scriveners are paid only for the pages they copy, and so Bartleby will earn nothing for these additional tasks.
Third is the belief that property rights are supreme. The lawyer feels he has the right to do as he pleases at the workplace; after all, it is his office. When he discovers that Bartleby lives there, he feels no compunction about violating his privacy by unlocking his desk in search of personal information. This intrusion is justified, he tells himself, because "the desk is mine, and its contents too" (p. 28). In a later encounter with his clerk, he challenges Bartleby's de facto claim to a right to live in the office by asserting that his property rights have precedence over Bartleby's need for shelter: "What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?" (p. 35). For the lawyer, the property rights of the rich clearly trump the survival needs of the poor.
That Bartleby is protesting being reduced to little more than a gofer and copying machine is made clear in two instances in which he qualifies his refusal to work change brought about by the lawyer suggesting that he considers his clerk to be not just an employee but a fellow human being and even a friend. In the first of these episodes, the lawyer goes beyond his usual appeals to reason or custom, stating, "I feel friendly towards you" (p. 30). Moved by this profession of warmth and equality, Bartleby discloses "the faintest conceivable tremor of . . . [his] white attenuated mouth" and for the first time instead of simply replying "I would prefer not to," he implies that he may become more cooperative in the future: "At present I prefer to give no answer" (p. 30, emphasis added). In the second episode, the lawyer assumes his "kindest tone" and actually invites Bartleby to "go home with me now"; in response Bartleby maintains his independence but again hints at lessening his resistance: "No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all" (p. 41). With good reason, Bartleby remains suspicious of his boss, but at the same time these responses indicate that given adequate respect and fair treatment, he would return to being a productive worker. What Bartleby waits for is clear evidence that the lawyer sees the error of his ways and becomes a more considerate and fair-minded employer. Unfortunately, this does not happen, and so the standoff continues until Bartleby dies.
Returning to the questions posed at the beginning of this essay, one can assert that Bartleby is not a Christ figure, an alienated author, or a victim of some obscure psychological malady. His melancholy, given adequate explanation by the story, stems from his being a demoralized worker, and if he practices passive resistance, it is because he recognizes the injustice of the system and decides to oppose it. His lawyer-boss, who proves to be a more complex and puzzling character than his initially mystifying clerk, demonstrates far too much patience and sensitivity to be easily dismissed as a religious hypocrite or callous capitalist. In fact, it is because he is a respectable and compassionate figure that the story is of enduring interest. By investing the lawyer with these positive qualities, Melville crafts a narrative of much greater social significance: he directs attention not to the shortcomings of an individual employer but to the deficiencies of an economic system and its legitimating ideology. The lawyer should be seen as a better-than-average boss. Yet despite his good qualities and intentions, he possesses a limited moral imagination, and he does not significantly improve during the course of the story fact clearly indicated by his still referring to Bartleby in the sequel as a victim of "nature and misfortune" (p. 45) rather than recognizing the true basis of his complaint.
That the lawyer remains a static character despite his need to change calls attention to what it is that restricts his understanding: namely, his "assumptions," that is, the latent ideology he shares with the larger society. Exactly why the lawyer fails to recognize these assumptions as the protectors of class interest remains tantalizingly undetermined. Is the ideology so deeply ingrained in his consciousness that he cannot think in other ways? Or does he refuse to interrogate his habits of mind and conduct because to do so would call into question his privileged position? Or is his behavior a mix of blindness and self-interest? The text does not resolve this issue, but by the end of the story it is clear that "Bartleby" is primarily an account not of an obstinate clerk but of a narrator who fails to acknowledge the exploitative nature of his relationship to his employees.
See also Battle-Pieces; Moby-Dick; Short Story; Typee
Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street." 1853. In The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839860, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill., and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987.
Skidmore, Thomas. The Rights of Man to Property! 1829. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d.
Stuart, Alexander H. H. Anniversary Address before the American Institute of the City of New York. New York: James Van Norden, 1844.
American Social History Project. Who Built America? Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon, 1989. See pp. 22067, 31863.
Foley, Barbara. "From Wall Street to Astor Place: Historicizing Melville's 'Bartleby.'" American Literature 72, no. 1 (2000): 8716.
Gilmore, Michael T. "'Bartleby, the Scrivener' and the Transformation of the Economy." In American Romanticism and the Marketplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Kuebrich, David. "Melville's Doctrine of Assumptions: The Hidden Ideology of Capitalist Production in "Bartleby." New England Quarterly 69, no. 3 (1996): 38105.
McCall, Dan. The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.
Stern, Milton R. "Towards 'Bartleby the Scrivener.'" In The Stoic Strain in American Literature, edited by Duane J. MacMillan, pp. 191. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.