Bartleby the Scrivener essay
Bartleby the Scrivener essay

Two theoretical perspectives have been chosen (Existential and Marxist) and applied to Bartleby the Scrivener: A Wall Street Story.

Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener: A Wall Street Story is a tale about a social ‘reality’ set in New York. Since publication in 1853 the story has received widespread interpretations by philosophers of modern and postmodern times. This essay will apply Marxism and existentialism to Bartleby the Scrivener to interpret the literary metaphysics created by Melville and possibly his views on humanity.

Existentialism is a philosophical way of thinking seen in the 20th century’s Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the 19th century’s Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. Existentialism is not easy to define as its thinkers usually revolt against society and their inclusion into a social class. One common concern among existentialists is they are concerned with the problem of living life as a human being. Albert Camus believes existential interpretations can be seen in Melville’s work (Camus, 1955, p.64) and says “A man defines himself by his make believe,” (Camus, 1955, p.11) suggesting Melville’s views of the world are also inline with existential critics – who not only interpret Bartleby the Scrivener’s (Boies 1961) existential influence, but also Melville’s Moby Dick and Pierre (Oates 1962).

Bartleby the Scrivener has also had Marxism interpretations applied to it (Barnett 1974). Marxism is a political philosophy inspired by 19th century philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which deals with economic activities that define for humans, their position class wise, within a capitalistic system. Marxism believes capitalism in a social model that needs to be overcome. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles,” said Karl Marx (Marx, 1849, p.1) and his colleague, Friedrich Engels says that “history” and “class struggle” can be seen in the class antagonism between characters in society’s history such as the “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman,” a class antagonism which possess the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” who stand in “constant opposition to one another” (Marx, 1849, p.2).

A social struggle is present throughout Bartleby the Scrivener in a capitalist society predominantly created in a law chambers located on Wall Street, New York. The story’s main characters consist of four oppressed men who work under their oppressor, who is a nameless lawyer. The story is told as a first person narrative. Therefore, the first character to be introduced is the narrator, the nameless lawyer who refers to himself as a “safe man” who does “snug business among rich”. Existential thinkers will immediately interpret the lawyer as a humane character with a human value for “safe” linked to doing “business amongst the rich,” especially when the lawyer clarifies, “I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor.” When Melville provides this dialogue, not only does he set the lawyer up as a minority, or financially independent, in a capitalist society, but Melville also indicates his own awareness of the political surroundings in New York during the time of Bartleby the Scrivener’s publication. By this, particular focus on Melville’s reference to John Jacob Astor is of deep significance, since on May 10, 1849, a few years prior to Bartleby the Scrivener’s publication, the Astor Place Riots took place in New York City, killing at least twenty people – the majority of them belonging to the working class along with an eight-year-old boy. Nigel Cliff’s Shakespeare’s Riots (Cliff 2007) believes the Astor Place Riots were fuelled by class struggle and heavily influenced by class alienation in New York at the time. The riot’s conflict started between two actors of the time – William Charles Macready and Edwin Forrest. The conflict later influenced fans who supported Forest – predominantly working class Americans – and those who supported Macready – mainly the upper-class – forming a “class antagonism” similar to the class antagonism Melville eventually sets up to drive the plot in Bartleby the Scrivener. This social separation becomes evident once all story characters have been introduced.

Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener during a time of political change. He mentions the “Master of Chancery” had been “conferred” upon him and that the “new Constitution,” at the time, was still considered to by him a “premature act”.

Not only was Melville highlighting the political turmoil of the time, in Bartleby the Scrivener, the same political turmoil was playing a role in his everyday life. During the time of the Astor Place Riots, Melville was one of 47 New Yorkers to sign a petition to persuade William Charles Macready to perform a play scheduled on the date and time of the of the John Astor Riots. During the same year German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels inspired the development of Marxism with their work The Communist Manifesto which was published in 1849, forming the bases of Marxism. The publication says of the political social settings of the time, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great hostile classes, directly facing each other; Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx, 1849, p.2). This is also relevant to Melville’s story, while, after the lawyer, four more characters are introduced to highlight the class struggle depicted by Marx and Engels’s work. Before the characters’ introductions, the narrator is nothing more than a nameless lawyer. After the introductions, the lawyer becomes Marxism’s Bourgeoisie. Three of the characters are introduced by nicknames, “not usually found in the Dictionary”, with “First, Turkey; second Nippers; third, Ginger Nut”, which provide the Proletarian relationship to Bourgeoisie. Each nickname is linked to the worker’s individuality; “Ginger Nut” provides the office with ginger nut pastries. The workers are also introduced with a rank associated with their labor power – “third, Ginger Nut” who is “a promising young lad” at twelve years of age, according to the lawyer’s views. The lawyer’s capitalist thinking speaks of the three clerks as nothing more than their labor force which eventually creates the split society within the story.

Working class revolts can be seen in most references from the lawyer to his workers; Nipper’s lack of motivation at work is referred as “diseased ambitions” and that “he knew not what he wanted”. It seems Nippers would prefer to be doing something other than work, at least for the lawyer’s business; this is evident when the lawyer says that if Nippers “wanted anything it was to rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.” Though, instead of revolting against the capitalist society created in the office, Nippers reconciles and gives the occasional emergence of anguish, which was also the case with Turkey. The anguish the pair display, within the capital society, the lawyer referred to as simply “annoyances”. The lawyer eventually referred to those “annoyances” as “failings”. Though, the lawyer chooses to overlook the employee’s flaws, “Nippers […] was a very useful man,” just “like his compatriot Turkey,” although Turkey, in afternoons became “slightly rash with his tongue,” and “insolent”.It seems that not only was capitalism creating social separation on the streets of New York, during the time of Bartleby the Scrivener’s, it was also present in Melville’s writing with the anguish among the workplace employees, created by the oppressor – the lawyer – and the oppressed – the lawyer’s employees – who he refers to as “my three clerks” and “a promising lad as an office boy”. Important to note, is that possibly the most important character is never referred to by the lawyer as the lawyer’s personal property as is the case with the other proletariats in the story. The individual character, known as “Bartleby”, is introduced last in the story after a miniature capitalist society is constructed within the office. The lawyer initially describes Bartleby as an “incurably forlorn” who is “pallidly neat” and eventually as a “peculiar” man. Bartleby is employed as the lawyer’s scrivener – another member of the proletariat – who is further described as “a singularly sedate an aspect” and “a quiet man” who “at first, did an extraordinary quantity of writing […] silently, palely, mechanically,” as a scrivener, an affair the lawyer describes as “very dull, wearisome, and lethargic.” Bartleby is initial compliant with the class antagonism and accepts the minimum orders required to comply with the bourgeois society (Marx, 1849, p.15) and live life as a human being. Bartleby does not revolt against capitalism upon his arrival into the workplace. He initially reconciles with the ways of the office’s society – at least for the first three days of employment, while he is isolated away from the other humans in office, as he sits in a barricaded corner. On top of the workplace conditions, an office resembling “a huge square cistern” with a view “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’”. Bartleby’s inferior social position to the lawyer, whose attitude to the employees Bartleby seems to view as unacceptable – Turkey: “apt to look oily and smell of eating-houses” and the lawyer’s blindness to the employees’ natural human instinct of freedom.Despite the lawyer’s blindness, he tries to motivate one worker, in one case, by giving Turkey a “highly-respectable coat.” The lawyer thinking the action would improve Turkey’s appearance, and therefore the clients’ impression and lead Turkey to appreciating the gift. However, the gift caused Turkey to “abate his rashness and obstreperousness of afternoons”. The lawyer’s prediction was incorrect and he compared the “pernicious” effect to that “upon the same principle that too much oats are bad for horses” and not just that of any horse, but to that of a “restive” horse. According to the lawyer, the action of gifting the coat made Turkey’s behaviour “insolent,” then this is supported when the lawyer says Turkey “was a man whom prosperity harmed.” Although, at least to the lawyer, each of his proletarians possessed their “annoyances,” the lawyer never considered the likeliness that their actions may have been the result of their alienation in a capitalist system. The lawyer was always open to employment justification through the employees’ labour power, regardless of other flaws and always strengthening his character’s thoughts as those of a capitalist.

To Albert Camus, “living life implies a scale of values, a choice and our preferences” (Camus, 1955, p.40), each of which would require different responses from each character within Bartleby the Scrivener – a quality of each of the proletarians’ life the lawyer fails to see. Albert Camus also says it is “the exploitation of one individual by another,” (Marx, 1849, p.18) that causes class antagonism. The exploitation of the working class was the cause of Astor Place Riots, possibly influencing Melville’s motive to write Bartleby the Scrivener, given the relevance of the story to capitalism, the times, and Melville’s involvement with Macready’s partition. Marx says the aim of the “communist parties are the same for that of the proletarian parties […] overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of the political power by the proletariat” (Marx, 1849, p.13) – which fuelled the Astor Place Riots and Bartleby the Scrivener at the same historical time.

In Melville’s story, the first major revolt to the lawyer’s capitalism thinking occurs three days after Bartleby’s employment. Over those three days, Bartleby had been reconciled with the humane ways of the office. Bartleby’s revolt occurred when the lawyer “somewhat nervously extended” a copy so that “Bartleby might immediately snatch it and proceed to business,” to assess the work. The lawyer called Bartleby “before any necessity had arisen” for the copy to be examined to test if Bartleby would fulfil the “natural expectancy of instant compliance” to the Bourgeoisie. The lawyer’s position in the chambers was startled when Bartleby replied, “I would prefer not to,” accelerating a major turning point in the story and jolting the lawyer’s interpretation of American ideology. The same phrase is further used by Bartleby on numerous occasions throughout the story, making it a driving conflict – class antagonism – which moves the plot forward.

Albert Camus says there are two paths of the absurd man of existential thinker: “suicide or live without hope”. At this point, Bartleby has not committed suicide, though his “quiet,” “isolated,” and “sedate an aspect,” and his repetitive noncompliance to the lawyer’s requests, or to the capitalist system, start to highlight Bartleby’s thoughts on the world as one that is not for him. This not only creates distress for the lawyer, it also causes other proletarians in the office to form a small society against Bartleby, supporting Nietzsche’s existential thinking:

Injustice and filth they throw after the lonely ones; but my brother, if you would be a star, you must not shine less for them because of that. And be aware of the good and the just! They like to crucify those who invent themselves – they hate the lonely one! (Nietzsche 1886).

The lawyer, a man with hope and beliefs in capital values and who we later find attends Sunday’s Trinity Church – which doesn’t get in the way of his strong capital thinking – strengthens his battalion to interpret Bartleby’s neither negating, nor affirming reply. Possibly the lawyer has experienced a debt in the form of humiliation, or the pain of the humiliation, as a creditor who now requires repayment. According to Nietzsche, a group of creditors in favour of a debtor in debt is stronger than one (Nietzsche, 1886, p.47). “Ginger Nut,” on the other hand, kind of sits on the fence when the lawyer turns his attention to him to ask, “What do you think of this? […] Am I not right?”

“I think he’s a little luny,” Ginger Nut replies, a response which just like Bartleby’s, “I would prefer not to,” has a number of potential conclusions. Ginger Nut’s reply possibly indicates he may more humane than the lawyer.

According to Robert Solomon “the existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he can not accept” (Solomon 1989). This confusion appears throughout the story, in Bartleby appearing lost and confused to the lawyer, although this may not be the case, with the case being that Bartleby merely sees the world as absurd.

Nietzsche defines as the basic human instinct: the will to acquire freedom or “the will to power.” According to Nietzsche, “the will” is a link to freedom that can be paid off (Nietzsche, 1887, p.39) and he likens this to a creditor—debtor relationship. The kind of relationship that is scene in Bartleby the Scrivener between the lawyer, his “three clerks” and Bartleby, where the four proletarian’s wills are bought – an existential thought that provides a similar social interaction between Bourgeoisie and Proletarian in Marxism, although Marxism believes it is the proletariat’s labor power that is purchased. Not matter which philosophy, Marxism or existentialism, is applied to the social interaction the human trade of “freedom” occurs. In a legal system the creditor—debtor relationship can be traded with “pain”, where an offender may pay a creditor with the pain accrued by giving up their “will to power” or “freedom” for the term of a goal term. This creditor—debtor relationship can be seen in Bartleby the Scrivener with “freedom” with Bartleby’s “will”, and possibly pain, served to the lawyer in return for the lawyer’s credit in the form of a financial payment. Nietzsche believes, “The creditor always becomes more humane as his wealth increases; finally, the amount of his wealth determines how much injury he can sustain without suffering from it (Nietzsche, 1887, p.47)”, which could explain the lawyer’s blindness to other human needs.

Bartleby’s human “will,” or the pain of sacrificing his freedom, becomes evident three days into his role as a scrivener when he responds “I would prefer not to,” the lawyer’s request. This is the first serious indication of a revolt reflecting class antagonism within the story, a response to the Bourgeoisie far different to the repressed Turkey’s initial responses to the lawyer’s requests, “with submission, sir,” and “I consider myself your right-hand-man”. Turkey’s actions are included in the story to highlight to absurd revolt by Bartleby, as are the other passive proletariats in the story, when Bartleby’s reply startles the “moon-struck” lawyer. Bartleby repeats the phrase, “I would prefer not to,” at least 20 times throughout the story and maintains his employment until Bartleby provides an infinitive to his phrase, sometime into the story, which will be explained after further examination the phrase without the infinitive.

Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of Bartleby’s survival in employment is due to the “agramamatical formula” (Deleuze, 1997, p.68) in Bartleby’s dialogue, giving the phrase more than one possible interpretation. As often seen in poetry, agrammatical formulas such as “I have one not enough,” can leave its interpreters shuffling through the dialogue’s meanings: “I have too many,” “I don’t have enough,” “I am one short,” as Deleuze describes. In the case of Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to,” the lawyer potentially goes on to complete the phrase, in his own mind by infinity, due to the order of the given “not to”. This neither negates or affirms the lawyer’s request and from an existentialist thinker’s perspective and does not hinder the lawyer’s “will to power”. From a Marxism perspective this leaves the lawyer’s hierarchy, or social rank, neither negated, nor affirmed. This is Bartleby’s first revolt against capitalism. Nietzsche believes the “sovereign individuals,” the lawyer in this case, “is the kind of self-regulating animal required for the essential functions of a culture”(Nietzsche, 1887, p.24). This relationship can be seen in basic buying, selling, bartering and trade, where one member of society acquires the power of an object, while another acquires the power of the goods or services traded, and in the case of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, it was their labor power that was bought by the lawyer.

To Bartleby, the story’s social situation is absurd. Bartleby’s one desire seems similar to the theory of the communists: the “Abolition of private property” (Marx, 1849, p.13) and to be treated equal. Up until the end of the story Bartleby does not show traits of an existential nihilist. This is determined when he includes infinity to his phrase, “I would prefer to be doing something else,” plus “I would prefer to give no answer,” and “I would prefer not to take a clerkship,” indicating that Bartleby is still with hope to do something, even if it is to be difficult, therefore he has not entered complete nothingness in his hope to living life, at least not before the story’s end. Possibly Bartleby still has hope for some kind of change in the system or desire for what he would like to do with his freedom. This infinitive inclusion into Bartleby’s communication also provides a definite conclusion by the lawyer that Bartleby was of little use to capitalism.   Then the story ends with Bartleby being sent to “the Tombs as a vagrant” after a series of incidents occur that show Bartleby to be little value to capitalism. Bartleby is sent to the tombs with a clear mind judging by his communication with the lawyer during a visit,“I know you,” Bartleby said “and I want nothing to say to you,” followed by “I know where I am.” At this point, Bartleby was faced with Albert Camus’s thoughts:

A man may kill himself or learn to live outside of a system. With this way of thinking the absurd man must ask himself if the pain of the world worth enduring. If the answer is yes, he must reconcile with the absurd conditions around him (Camus, 1955, p.37).

Although, it seems Bartleby’s existential thinking answered “no” to the absurd world, as he reached a worthless, nihilistic desire for nothingness (Nietzsche, 1886, p.63), indicating this by his decision to accept nothing of the absurd world by committing suicide through starvation upon the story’s completion.

“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” are the final words of the nameless lawyer, a comment that seemed odd given the lawyer’s ability to do “snug business among the rich” and his capitalist thinking. The comment seems to be one that is cried on behalf of Bartleby, since for the entire story the lawyer was blind to Bartleby’s human preferences. Perhaps Camus is right about “A man creates himself from his make believe” and perhaps it is actually Melville who is crying “Ah humanity!” indicating Melville’s personal anguish with the world.

Gaston Cavalleri is an Australian author, screenwriter, travel writer and Jiu-jitsu athlete. If you’re interested in supporting his work please feel free to read and share one of the books available via the links that are available on this blog’s home page.


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