Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Story of Walls and More

Great Short Works of 
Herman Melville 

Great Short Works of Herman Melville

"I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw, or heard of." (p 39)

In the spring of 1853 after the failure of his novel Pierre: Or the Ambiguities and the rejection of his most recent manuscript, The Isle of the Cross (now lost), Herman Melville submitted three stories to Harper's. This was the beginning of period that would see the publication of such great stories as "Bartley, the Scrivener", "Benito Cereno", "The Piazza", and others. It would culminate with his great unfinished novella, Billy Budd, Sailor. All of Melville's tales including Billy Budd are included in this collection from Harper's Perennial Library.

By the end of 1853 Melville submits his first story that can be considered not only great but even amazing; this is Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. The story amazes in many ways and on many levels. One theme is a world of walls as the narrator, an "unambitious" lawyer who prefers the peace of his office to the bustle of the courtroom with judge and jury. He describes himself as "an eminently safe man", certainly someone who his clients can trust. The world of his office, located on Wall Street, is one of walls within, separating the scriveners from the lawyer, and walls without since the view from the few windows is limited by the proximity of the walls of the building next door.
Into his apparently prosperous business enters Bartleby, a scrivener or clerk, who is hired to handle some additional copying work. Bartleby, as we soon learn, would "prefer not" to do any task other than copying and before too long he seems to slowly stop doing any work. He is a "forlorn" and sickly character from the beginning (reminiscent of the copyist "Nemo", a minor character in Dickens' Bleak House). And his presence gradually requires the narrator to attempt, unsuccessfully, to provoke him so that he might respond in kind. Their worlds clash and in another deeper sense a spiritual realm is entered. The result is a crisis of faith for the lawyer, he thought to himself: "I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach." (p 56)
Death seems to surround Bartleby from the moment he walks in the door and into the narrator's life. He's described incessantly as "cadaverous," and this corpse-like disposition is reflected not only in his pallid appearance, but in his eerily calm manner. There is a chilling vision of Bartleby as a corpse in his winding sheet, which evokes both sympathy and fear in himself and in his readers, and even when Bartleby is alive (technically), he has a certain undead quality about him. Also significant is what the narrator calls Bartleby's "dead wall reveries," in which Bartleby stares at the "dead," blank brick wall outside his office window for hours on end. This presence of the living dead in the office is a really disturbing one – there's something incredibly creepy about Bartleby's perpetually incomprehensible inaction.
A question that does not arise is the position of women in the story.  Since there are literally no women in the 19th century world of commerce that we see here (and this is true of much Victorian fiction that is not based on the world of commerce--the example of  Stevenson or Wilde immediately comes to mind), any question of heterosexuality is simply a non-issue. As with most Melville texts, an argument could be made for the presence of some very, very faint homosexual undertones – however, in this story, it's not really much to base an argument on. While some might claim that the narrator's interest in Bartleby is really some kind of deeply hidden desire for Bartleby, I suggest that this is much more a story about the nature of humanity – what makes Bartleby fascinating is simply the incomprehensibility of his character.

The story introduces Bartleby by citing his "advent" and this is not the only allusion to Christ.  So we may interpret Bartleby as a "Christ-like" messenger, but what is his message? The variety of themes in the story takes on an objective pathos and parabolic overtones that are almost Dostoievskian in complexity.  The story ends with a sort of epilogue that succeeds only in muddying the message further. What makes the story so magnificent is all of the many different possibilities present in it. Just as the narrator has his faith shaken and his perceptions changed by Bartleby, the reader finds his imagination roiled by the possibilities -- the ending merely lays out a choice for the reader. You decide what it all means.

Great Short Works of Herman Melville.  Harper Perennial books, 1969.

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