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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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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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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