Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
Reading with Literary Theory

Critical Theory * Marxist Theory * Psychoanalytic Theory

Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, published in 1853, is a story that captures what Critical Theory might call the ALIENATION of modernity. Sequestered in a suite of offices, where scriveners do nothing but copy and proofread legal documents, the narrator, “an eminently safe” lawyer, reflects on the “cool tranquility of [his] snug retreat” (20). Unlike Bartleby, whose alienation is expressed in terms of a near-autistic withdrawal from the world, the lawyer constructs a fantasy realm of “snugness” to protect him from the very social forces that guarantee his financial success. He is a prototype of what Herbert Marcuse calls the “one-dimensional man,” whose function is to safeguard the interests of the ruling classes. The narrator's fondness for John Jacob Astor, one of the great early American capitalists, is based not on any sense of the man's character but rather on his name, which he loves to repeat, “for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion” (20). The rationalization typical of one-dimensional thought, which negates transcendental possibilities and restricts human activity to the sphere of material existence, here reduces Astor to the sound of money. In a quite similar fashion, the narrator portrays himself as equally empty of character, a nameless factotum - successful, highly regarded (or so he claims), articulate - but without emotional investments in the people around him. That is, until Bartleby comes to work for him. When confronted with his new employee's recalcitrance, his “preference” not to work, the narrator reflects on the human condition: “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (45). The phrases simply do not ring true, especially when one remembers that just pages earlier the lawyer had contemplated the return on his investment in Bartleby: a “cheaply purchase[d] … delicious selfapproval,” a “morsel for my conscience” (38). Bartleby is “useful,” not so much as a scrivener but as a reminder that the lawyer is in fact a human being. The pathos of the story depends in part on the gap between the lawyer's IDEOLOGICAL function in a modern capitalist society and the humanity of which Bartleby reminds him. The irony, of course, lies in

the fact that Bartleby himself is even more profoundly alienated, a condition symbolized by his position “close up to a small side-window,” with a view of a wall, surrounded by a “high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from [the lawyer’s] sight.” Though the narrator muses that in this manner “privacy and society were conjoined” (31), the main thrust of the story is to dramatize how forcefully he has replicated the rationalized, one-dimensional world for which he, as a member of the legal profession, is partly responsible.

From a Marxist point of view, the alienation represented in Bartleby is of a slightly different character. Melville presents the reader with a meditation on a crucial period for capitalist development, a period during which industrial capabilities were consolidated in monopolies and trusts, which required the services of law firms to guarantee their smooth operation and protect the private property derived from them, the “rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds” (20) that are the lawyer's stock in trade. However, Melville's depiction of the law office, though rendered in comic terms, illustrates the ALIENATING effects of labor. The other scriveners - Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut - are entirely cut off from the natural world in which they might create useful things and are also cut off from the legal materials that they are instrumental in constructing. Nippers and Turkey are half-men, each suffering from “eccentricities” that make them useless for half the day, victims of the mind-numbing work involved in copying documents. They are representatives of a class of literate clerical workers required by the industrial phase of capitalism. Their alienation is no different from the unskilled laborer, except insofar as it manifests itself in idiosyncratic behavior that is tolerated because they could, at least half the time, accomplish “a great deal of work in a style not easy to be matched” (23). Nippers and Turkey comically depict the dehumanization and alienation created by industrial capitalism and sustained by a legal IDEOLOGY that protects and nurtures private property. Bartleby's dehumanization - his imprisonment in a “dead-wall reverie” (52) - results ultimately in a form of rebellion, a refusal to work. One of the strengths of Melville's story from a Marxist perspective is that it captures the complexities of class struggle, and it does so not by IDEALIZING the workers but by showing in realistic terms the effects of their exploitation. It also provides a glimpse into the lawyer's mind, exposing his high-handed justifications (“Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence” [61]) as illusions designed to mystify the real nature of class struggle.

This alienation and dehumanization can also be explained in Psychoanalytic terms. On this view, the lawyer’s alienation from his employees is a function of his narcissism. His high-handedness, his sense that Bar- tleby is “useful” to him, indicates a pathological inability to empathize, to create a libidinal bond beyond his own ego. The belief that he is providing sanctuary for Bartleby, so that he will not fall into the hands of “some less indulgent employer” (38), masks his own narcissistic gratifications according to which Bartleby's alienation provides a “morsel” for his conscience. Bartleby not only stands for the guilt engendered in modern civilized societies by the forces of repression but also for the super-ego that administers that guilt. He is a persistent reminder of the need for repression and the need to abide by social conventions. He is at once “perverse,” “peculiar,” and “unaccountable,” like the repressed unconscious wishes and desires that populate dreams, and a “valuable acquisition,” a model of acquiescence to the reality principle. However, Bartleby's curious refusal to work (indeed, to live) is a final relinquishment of reality. His own narcissistic tendencies lead not to a strict adherence to the reality principle, which we find in the lawyer's case, but rather to an unfettered acceptance of the pleasure principle. Through the compulsive repetition of his mantra - “I prefer not” - Bartleby relives in order to manage some unrecovered trauma, symbolized perhaps by his prior employment at the Dead Letter Office. It is no wonder that he succumbs to the pleasure principle and a radical flight from pain and tension that fuels what Freud calls the “death drive.” For unlike the lawyer, whose adherence to the reality principle has resulted in the repression of desires that might threaten his livelihood, Bartleby opens himself up to the primal pleasure of death, to a return to the stasis and peace of an original inorganic state, a process hauntingly symbolized by his wasting away in the Tombs.


Melville, Herman. Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.