In the short stories, "Bartleby the Scrivener," "A Hunger Artist," and "Borges and I," what is the relationship between all of them?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I think that one distinct relationship between all three works is the way in which alienation is developed.  The construction of alienation in each is one where the individual is divided between the way they appear to the world and another form. The protagonist in each writing displays alienation in their lack of connection to anyone or anything.  Perhaps, this form is a more true essence of identity, or is simply another way that the individual sees themselves. However, in each story, characters are presented in an alienated manner, one where totality is impossible and division of consciousness is the only certainty.

In Melville's characterization of Bartelby, alienation is evident.  It is seen in the way that Bartelby takes no action and withdraws from the world.  Bartelby is alienated through the lack of connection he experiences with others or other forces in the world.  The profound level of indifference that Bartleby feels towards his own life creates an alienated existence, one where there is no connection to anything else.  It is here where Bartleby is alienated.  He lacks connection to other people and even to food, as he dies out of starvation. Melville shows alienation to be a way of living where there is no attachment to anything or connection to anything.  Bartelby is not necessarily liberated or enlightened for he fails to find any connection to anything.  It is in this regard where Melville displays what alienation or division from connection looks like.

In Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," there is an alienation present in how the hunger artist goes about his art.  Kafka describes this as  ‘‘symbolic of his isolation from the community of men."  In this regard, there is an alienation from others.  It can even be argued that the hunger artist's art is alienated.  He does not see the construction of his art for its own intrinsic value.  Rather, he perceives art as a means to be observed by the public.  The value he places on his art is one in which he is able to gain others' attention.  When this attention wanes, the hunger artist intensifies his effort, and in the process, alienation results, doing so by ‘‘withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything.’’ The hunger artist is not connected to anything transcendent.  Like Bartelby, he lacks a form of totalizing connection, the very condition that makes him alienated.  This sense of division is evident in the last words of the hunger artist when he says that he only became a hunger artist because , "I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."  In this statement, the hunger artist's alienated state is confirmed with his last words. Bartelby's preference "to not to" and the hunger artist's inability to "find the food he likes" are representative of the alienated condition in both.

Borges's construction in "Borges and I" intensifies this alienated sense of being in the world.  It is clear that alienation is evident in how both forms of Borges cannot coexist:

I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

The withering away of one form of Borges and its acknowledgement contributes to the story's development of alienation.  To be alienated, as with Kafka and Melville, is to lose connection or be devoid of it with something more than oneself.  Borges articulates a pointed lack of meaning in terms of one form of Borges defeating the other.  There is no totality in this vision, as evident in the last line of the story in which it is unclear who is writing.  The lack of connection to a totalizing and meaningful notion of the good is where alienation exists.  The development of this mode of alienation is vital to the significance of each work.

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