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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville
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Using specific passages, how can "slippage", a feature of deconstructionist literary criticism, be seen in Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener?

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“Slippage” refers to the idea that meaning is not neatly contained by words but is always in a state of flux, subject to the arbitrary relationship between (for example) the word “tree” and what we might think of as a tree (one might think of an oak or a palm,...

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“Slippage” refers to the idea that meaning is not neatly contained by words but is always in a state of flux, subject to the arbitrary relationship between (for example) the word “tree” and what we might think of as a tree (one might think of an oak or a palm, for instance). Meaning therefore becomes based on a kind of “negative space” or difference—trees are trees not because of any innate “treeness” but because they are not bushes. The letters that make the word “tree” have no actual connection to the thing itself; they are arbitrary signs we English speakers agree point to a collection of images we have of tall, woody plants.

The character of Bartleby can also be thought of as a kind of “tree.” That is, he is defined by what he is not. In fact, his whole existence, to the extent the lawyer understands it, is based on what he “prefers” not to do. The lawyer’s struggle to explain Bartleby is, in effect, a struggle against the slippage of language. It’s not that he finds it impossible to describe Bartleby—on the contrary, the lawyer is hardly ever at a loss for words!—but that the categories he tries to use to define Bartleby simply don’t apply. Bartleby isn’t a “clerk” or even an “employee” in the ways that Nipper and the others are; he doesn’t seem to have a “home” or belong to a “family”—none of these terms fit.

This slippage becomes even clearer when we examine the lawyer’s motivations for writing about Bartleby. It’s clear that the lawyer has a troubled conscience. He feels badly about Bartleby’s unmoored existence and wants to “help” him, even though Bartleby himself doesn’t seem to share these feelings or require any help. For the lawyer, nothing could be worse than being “unclassifiable,” or not belonging to a category. Yet Bartleby resists all such classification. In the end, the lawyer gives up: he is “unable to gratify” our curiousity about Bartleby.

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Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener is often used in literature classes as an illustration of the application of Derrida's theory of deconstruction to literary texts. This aspect of deconstruction can be viewed as a revisionist reading of Saussure's linguistic theories. In Saussure, the relationship between signifier and signified is conceived as arbitrary. This means not only is our choice of "red" or "rouge" to signify a color arbitrary (we could equally well have chosen "qexcfl" or "xzdtfar"), but also the range of wavelengths we chose to demarcate "red" from "orange" or "purple" is arbitrary. Thus meaning exists as a series of differences. Derrida emphasizes that not only is the relationship between signifier and signified arbitrary, but it is unstable (this instability is "slippage"), and that chains of signification never lead outside the text but merely to other signifiers.

The narrator of the text, as a lawyer, looks for meaning in Bartleby, as he does in Turkey and Nippers. In the case of the first two assistants, the narrator assumes he has discovered the meaning of their behavior, attributing Turkey's afternoon irregularities to alcohol and Nippers' morning behavior to indigestion. In the descriptions of these two assistants, the narrator sets up binary oppositions of temperament and time. However, the narrator's drive for precision in his descriptions is constantly undermined by his use of such phrases as "I have good reason to believe ...", in which he implies that his own perceptions and knowledge are at best approximate. 

Although the narrator repeatedly tries to understand and categorize Bartleby, he is unsuccessful, due to slippage, and concludes:

But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, ... I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it.

In many ways, Bartleby's immobility and passivity function as a sort of transcendent signified. Although the narrator strives to understand Bartleby, the slippage of the signifiers used to describe him lead us only to more signifiers in a infinitely deferred chain of meaning, and our desire for the signified is ultimately unsatisfied. 

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