Herman Melville Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Herman Melville Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 lawyer has surrounded himself with walls, and his windows command no other view. When the lawyer hires Bartleby as a scrivener, or copier of law documents, he assigns Bartleby a desk near a window which faces a wall only three feet away. On one side of Bartleby’s desk is a ground glass door separating him from the other two copyists, and on the other side, the lawyer places a folding screen. Having imposed upon Bartleby his own claustrophobic setting, the lawyer gives him law documents to copy. For a while all goes well; Bartleby copies documents neatly and efficiently. On the third day, however, the lawyer asks Bartleby to examine his writing.

In ordering him to examine his writing, the lawyer means that Bartleby should read through the copy he has made while someone else reads aloud from the original. This is an extremely boring task, but an accepted part of every scrivener’s work. Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer reacts with characteristic indecision: He feels impelled to expel Bartleby from his office, but does nothing because he is unnerved by Bartleby’s total lack of expression, by the absence of “anything ordinarily human about him.”

Several days later, when Bartleby again refuses to examine his copy, the lawyer appeals to him in the name of two ideals which are of great importance to the lawyer himself: common usage and common sense. Bartleby is unmoved. Instead of asserting his own authority, the lawyer appeals not only to his other two scriveners but also to his office boy. All these uphold the lawyer’s view. He then calls upon Bartleby in the name of “duty”; again, Bartleby fails to respond to the verbal cue.

The lawyer’s inability to cope with Bartleby is anticipated in the story by his tolerance of the Dickensian eccentricities of his other two scriveners. The older one, Turkey, works well in the morning, but after a lunch which is implied to be mostly liquid, he becomes reckless, irascible, and messy. The younger copyist, Nippers, is dyspeptic. His irritability takes place in the morning, while the afternoons find him comparatively calm. Thus, the lawyer gets only one good day’s work between them. Nevertheless, he always finds some rationalization for his lack of decisiveness.

The first rationalization he applies to his indecision regarding Bartleby is the difficulty of coping effectively with passive resistance. The lawyer feels that Bartleby’s unaccountable displays of perversity must be the result of some involuntary aberration, and he reflects that tolerating Bartleby “will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” Even on the comparatively rare occasions when he is sufficiently...

(The entire section is 2745 words.)