After the critical and commercial failure of Moby Dick and Pierre, Herman Melville, who was then supporting his wife and children, his mother, and his four sisters, was desperate for money. So when he received an invitation from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine to contribute short stories at the rate of five dollars a page, he accepted. He also sold short stories to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Both magazines, however, had very strict editorial policies banning any material which might conceivably offend even the most sensitive reader on moral, social, ethical, political, or religious grounds. This was a shattering limitation to Melville, whose deepest personal and artistic convictions were bound up in the defiant heroes and themes of highly unconventional metaphysical speculation of Mardi and a Voyage Thither, Moby Dick, and Pierre. He genuinely questioned many of the ideas which, although they came to be freely debated, were sacrosanct in the nineteenth century. These included the existence of a personal God outside the human spirit, the importance of material goods, the existence of absolute good and absolute evil, and the right of established civil and religious authorities to impose sanctions against those who expressed ideas that differed from the ideas of the majority. Obviously, neither Putnam’s Monthly Magazine nor Harper’s New Monthly Magazine would publish stories which dealt openly with opinions that would be objectionable to many of their readers. This left Melville in an apparently unresolvable dilemma: ignore his own strongest beliefs, or allow those dependent on him to live in poverty.
Not only did Melville find a solution, but also he found one which, while not ideal from an artistic standpoint, gave him a great deal of rather diabolical satisfaction. Melville’s short stories—all of which were written during this period and under these conditions—present bland and apparently harmless surfaces under which boil the same rebellion and the same questioning of established ideas that characterize his most controversial novels. Furthermore, these stories reflect, in allegorical terms, the same dilemma that produced them. Beneath apparently innocuous surface plots, Melville’s short stories center on the image of an anguished human being who is cursed with the ability to see more than the world sees; faced with the hostility that results from his challenge to the established beliefs of a complacent majority, his protagonist either fights against, withdraws from, or surrenders to the world.
“Bartleby the Scrivener”
One of the most effective devices that allowed Melville to achieve his artistic purpose was his use of reassuringly respectable elderly gentlemen as narrators. In the very act of allowing them to tell their own stories, Melville injected a subtle but savage mockery which both expressed and concealed his own attitudes. For example, the narrator of Melville’s best-known short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1856), which was collected in The Piazza Tales, is an elderly lawyer reminiscing about an incident which had occurred some time earlier. The lawyer’s own blindness to the deeper meanings of life is suggested in the first paragraph of the story, when Melville describes Bartleby as “one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable.” As the reader discovers, it is primarily the physical, external facts of Bartleby’s life that are unknown; but to the materialistic lawyer, these are everything. He sees only surface reality, never inner truth, a point which is underlined in the narrator’s next sentence: “What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.”
The lawyer begins his story by describing the office on Wall Street which he occupied at the time of Bartleby’s appearance. The significance of “Wall Street” becomes apparent immediately; the...
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- Critical Essays