Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street Essays and Criticism

Herman Melville

Multiple Meanings and Interpretations

(Short Stories for Students)

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 Marcus suggests that the character of Bartleby functions to remind the lawyer of his repressed hatred of his own life. Marcus believes that the story was meant as a devastating criticism of the sterile and monotonous business world inhabited by men like the lawyer, who responds with honor to witnessing his "psychological double" act out his hidden desires.

Many critics of ''Bartleby the Scrivener'' have attempted to psychoanalyze the title character. Bartleby has been interpreted variously as schizophrenic, neurotic, manic depressive, and autistic. Bartleby has also been compared to Jesus Christ. Donald M. Fiene's 1970 essay "Bartleby the Christ" suggests that Bartleby is a Christ figure because his death results from the lawyer's failure to extend Christian charity to him. In "Dead Letters and Dead Men: Narrative Purpose in 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," (1990) Thomas Mitchell argues that the story is really about the lawyer. Mitchell offers an interpretation that is sympathetic to the lawyer's point of view and suggests that the lawyer ultimately rejects Bartleby's nihilism, or belief in nothing. Finally, David Kuebrich's 1996 article, "Melville's Doctrine of Assumptions: The Hidden Ideology of Capitalist Production in 'Bartleby'," argues that the story is about class conflict and demonstrates the author's intention. Indeed, part of "Bartleby's" enduring appeal comes from its well-crafted ambiguity and denial of easy interpretation. Such an enigmatic story by one of America's greatest writers has proved an irresistible challenge to scholars in numerous fields, including literature, history, philosophy, psychology, and religion. These various approaches to "Bartleby" have deepened our understanding of the issues in the story, even if they have not solved the riddle of Bartleby's behavior. Perhaps to understand the story one must first accept that there is no single meaning to the character of Bartleby. This essay will consider Bartleby's actions in light of the possibility that his ultimate meaning is not meant to be understood by the reader.

Let us briefly examine one of the most influential interpretations of "Bartleby the Scrivener." In a 1953 essay Leo Marx argued that the character of Bartleby symbolically represents Melville himself, who resisted the pressure to write the kind of unoriginal, formulaic fiction that could provide him with a comfortable living. Marx believed that ''Bartleby'' was Melville's testament to the misunderstood artist who refuses to "copy" popular forms—as Bartleby refused to copy legal documents—and who suffers rejection and alienation from society on account of his independence. It is tempting to interpret the story in this fashion because, undoubtedly, Melville was something of a Bartleby. Throughout his life, Melville felt himself an outcast from society and looked askance at America's self-confident republic. His innocence was shaken by his father's financial ruin and early death, which led to Melville's years of aimlessness as a sailor. Even after he obtained a good reputation and a steady income as a writer, Melville remained unfulfilled. He constantly challenged his readers with difficult works that betrayed an unpopular degree of pessimism about the state of humanity. Melville refused to change his message despite the consequences, as he complained to author Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Dollars damn me ... What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet ... write the other way I cannot." Or, as Marx would have it, Melville would prefer not.

Like many who have interpreted "Bartleby," Marx sheds some important light on the story, but he does not explain enough. Unlike Melville's, Bartleby's resistance is entirely passive. Bartleby takes no action and offers no overt criticism of society or even a reason for his actions. Bartleby cannot communicate his ideas or feelings in any form except the inadequate statement, ''I prefer not to." Bartleby's strange unwillingness to articulate his feelings casts serious doubt on the argument that he represents the uncompromising artist. Bartleby is described as eerily "mechanical" and "inhuman." Unlike Bartleby, Melville never became mentally or socially paralyzed. Moreover, his feelings of pessimism about society never reached the tragic depths that appear to affect Bartleby. The effort it took to create Melville's works of fiction demonstrate that he must have had at least a glimmer of hope that they could somehow make a difference to...

(The entire section is 2417 words.)