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Walled Commerce and Humanitarian Tragedy

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Mordechai Anielewicz once asserted, “The most difficult struggle of all is the one within ourselves. Let us not get accustomed and adjusted to these conditions. The one who adjusts ceases to discriminate between good and evil: he becomes a slave in body and soul.” In the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville explores the notion of this internal human struggle through Bartleby and his elusive interactions, or lack thereof, with the other characters in a corporate setting. Through his use of explicit detail and descriptive rhetoric, Melville reveals a reflection of the working class and portrays an overwhelmingly negative perspective of the role of commerce in society. More specifically, Melville depicts cultural messages of the mechanization, dehumanization, and repetition of employment in Industrial America, ultimately suggesting a dichotomy between the upper hierarchy of commerce and those in the working class subject to the long, arduous work as human copy machines. The resulting human tragedy ensues from Bartleby’s inability or unwillingness to articulate the reasons for his rebellion, ultimately leading to his alienation from the society.

In a capitalist society where a man does his work, earns his pay, and continues the process until he dies (or retires), Bartleby is an outcast. Bartleby announces that he “would prefer not to” follow his employer’s orders or even to be “a little reasonable,” and the Lawyer never really contemplates Bartleby’s stubborn refusal to be a working member of society. Throughout the story, Bartleby simply exists; he does do some writing, but eventually he even gives that up in favor of staring at the wall. Bartleby is a man who does not only reject work; he also rejects food, money, conversation, and all the things that create relationships among people. As Bartleby’s passivity picks up momentum, he deliberately refuses to make himself known to the community that surrounds him. The narrator becomes increasingly frustrated, as Bartleby uttering this phrase defies him repeatedly, and he eventually reconsiders his role and “begins to stagger in his own plainest faith” (7), doubting the rules upon which his own society, as he perceives it, is at fault. Already, it is clear that the interests of the individual, Bartleby, are not satisfied by those of the corporation, or in this case, the law office where he works.

The crux of Bartleby’s indifference to his work and life itself — and in due course, to his isolation — seems to derive from the repetitive, impersonal nature of his employment. Throughout the story Bartleby is portrayed as being isolated, mysterious, and even surreal, further developing the likeness of an “invisible man.” The screen which the Lawyer places around Bartleby’s desk to “isolate Bartleby from [his] sight, though not remove him from [his] voice” (5) so that “privacy and society were conjoined” (5) symbolizes the Lawyer’s compartmentalization of the unconscious forces that Bartleby represents. Bartleby is also portrayed as being different and alone, but not in the sense of being lonely, to emphasize the fact that he is exercising his own free will. Likewise, he is not associated with anyone and thus not subject to undesirable influence; instead, he is relying on his own instincts to make his own decisions. In this way, Melville explores the dehumanization of the working class within commerce, depicting motifs of homogenization and the expendability of the workers.

The phrase “I would prefer not to” is an understated way of refusing to conform: Bartleby is demonstrating the power of the individual to resist a societal pressure to comply. By uttering the words “I would prefer not to,” he effectively goes on strike without ever asserting that he has done so. The activity that he is employed to carry out, writing, is intellectual, stimulating, and original; however, it is soon reduced to a seemingly mechanical reproduction ruinous to the minds and bodies of the workers. There is a good deal of irony in the fact that Bartleby and his colleagues are hired to copy papers but his colleagues in Wall Street do not copy his behavior. As such, his actions are ultimately futile to the extent that they achieve no change, reflecting one important cultural message in the story.

Bartleby is the embodiment of a “victim” of commerce in society: the mindless mechanical nature of his work has stripped him of his soul and even his identity. From the beginning, the Lawyer confesses his inability to understand Bartleby, to whom he refers as “one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable” (1) and for whom “no materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography” (1). The narrator, limited by his profession and the legal logic of his imagination, proves unable to comprehend the mysterious Bartleby. It seems that no interpretation of Bartleby offered by the Lawyer could ever be complete, for the scrivener is a phenomenon totally alien to the narrator’s experience and sensibilities. In fact, the Lawyer’s inability to comprehend Bartleby’s resistance and his unwillingness to accommodate him reveals a sense of mystery and isolation surrounding Bartleby’s composure.

In a passage that foreshadows his inability to comprehend Bartleby, the Lawyer describes his other employees as mere caricatures. Quite simply, the Lawyer finds himself incapable of seeing his workers in any more depth. However, Turkey and Nippers, the two scriveners, have both demonstrated their usefulness to him in spite of their idiosyncrasies. He refers to Turkey as a “most valuable person to me” (2) and to Nippers as “a very useful man to me” (3). Even Ginger Nut, the office boy, is useful in that “his duty as cake and apple purveyor” (4) pacifies Turkey and Nippers and thus keeps them working. In other words, the Lawyer considers his employees useful as long as he can exploit them and make money from their labor, an agenda that is prevalent in the workplace in which bosses have a completely professional and transactional relationship with their employees.

Furthermore, the other employees mirror Bartleby’s lack of consciousness. In fact, when he refuses to do his part of the copying, their reactions are immediately hostile. Turkey actually supports the Lawyer, while Nippers says angrily, “I think I should kick him out of the office” (7), and Ginger Nut adds, “I think, sir, he’s a little luny” (7). Later, Turkey goes so far as to threaten Bartleby physically when he says, “I think I’ll just step behind his screen, and black his eyes for him!” (8). Evidently, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut are even less conscious of their conditions as slaves than Bartleby. These tensions between the scriveners reveal that they are part of the machinery of modern industry and commerce; they are educated men who do tedious, mindless work. “Part of the machinery” seems an apt description of their work: later, copy machines essentially replace their significance in the office.

Initially, Bartleby does an “extraordinary quantity of writing, as if long famishing for something to copy” (5). This action represents both a hunger for life and a desperate attempt to deaden his sensibilities among such sterile surroundings. As the Lawyer himself admits, copy examination constitutes “a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair” (5). Nevertheless, Bartleby works “silently, palely, mechanically” (5) until the day he “prefers not to” proofread copies any longer. Confused, the Lawyer says: “Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience, or impertinence in his manner […] I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (6). In other words, if Bartleby had presented any serious threat of disobedience to disrupt the class structure of the office, the Lawyer would have disposed of him. But Bartleby is no threat, and the Lawyer says that he would as soon throw out his “plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero” (6) as he would Bartleby. By his comparison, the Lawyer reduces Bartleby to the status of an object, a commodity, further revealing the conflicts between boss and worker, or individual and corporation.

Here begins a pattern that the Lawyer will repeat in each of his confrontations with Bartleby, portraying a transactional relationship between them. In retrospect, the Lawyer reacts to Bartleby’s refusals with indecisiveness, then backs down or retreats from the challenge, and finally rationalizes his behavior. The Lawyer repeats this pattern in his second confrontation with Bartleby, this time carrying his rationalization a step further. In justifying his decision, he convinces himself that he can “cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval” (8) by befriending Bartleby and by not having him thrown out into a society that he knows is not kind to vagrants. “To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing” (8), he says. The key word here is “cost”: everything becomes a matter of profit and loss. The Lawyer measures his sense of morality, as well as his conscience, in terms of how much it will cost him, a major cultural message describing the role of commerce and its materialistic impact on people.

Accordingly, Bartleby counts for no more than a commodity in the Lawyer’s office. But he prefers not to be one, which makes him the “forlornest of mankind” (13). The Lawyer describes him as a “lean, penniless wight” (9), one who spends all his days copying for “four cents a folio (one hundred words)” (9). He cannot escape from the workplace; in fact, the Lawyer eventually discovers that he lives at the office, among the emptiness of Wall Street. As the Lawyer says, “what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness” (11). The fact that Bartleby has no history, as we learn at the beginning of the story and in a later dialogue, suggests that he has emerged from the lawyer’s mind. He never leaves the lawyer’s offices and he subsists on virtually nothing. After he refuses to work any longer, he becomes a kind of parasite on the lawyer, but the exact nature of his dependence on the lawyer remains mysteriously vague. His persistent refusal to leave despite all inducements and threats implies that he cannot leave, that it is his role in life not to leave the lawyer’s establishment. Like “Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage” (11), Bartleby lives among the deserted walls of Wall Street, representing the sterile nature of commerce in society.

With his “dead wall reveries,” Bartleby provides a classic example of the tragedy of alienated man in the context of commerce, though the exact nature of his alienation remains a mystery to the Lawyer and thus to the reader. However, it is probable that his alienation results from the dehumanizing experience of Wall Street, a metaphorical prison of his socioeconomic system, which the Lawyer’s narrative renders in very precise detail. In this sense, Bartleby’s human tragedy is that he does not become conscious of the social causes of his alienation: he finds himself unable to make the connection between the office where he works and Wall Street in general, between his own individual alienation and the class alienation of the other workers. In surrendering to and embracing nothing but the wall in his own consciousness, Bartleby thereby fails to see his own condition within the context of other human lives and of their shared society. His rebellion is simply, and finally, silence.

Thus, the “wall” in this story symbolizes the human condition in the society within which Bartleby feels trapped, as well as the burden of his own identity within the limitations of such a society. The lawyer’s establishment on Wall Street, and the wall which is ten feet from his window (Bartleby’s is three feet from his), suggest his slighter awareness of his trapped human condition. The wall may also symbolize those limitations that give every individual his personal identity, for Bartleby’s unwillingness to accept his limitations as a suffering man motivates his vindictive drive to pierce the wall. However, when at the end Bartleby lies dead within the prison walls “of amazing thickness,” (23) he has succumbed to the impersonality of his society and to his inability to resist it actively.

Appropriately enough, the Lawyer’s narrative comes to an end in the Tombs and the Dead Letter Office. The Lawyer concludes his argument to the reader with the epitaph: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” (24). His words are ironic in that he cannot respond to Bartleby as a living human being, but only as an abstraction — an abstract concept of humanity. It is human nature to have faults; however, losing the ability to emote and connect with one’s surrounding world is perhaps the greatest tragedy an individual could experience or witness. In effect, the Lawyer has rationalized Bartleby’s humanity out of existence in his attempt to “mason up his [Bartleby’s] remains in the wall” (18). Ultimately, the walling up of Bartleby’s remains in the “walls” of Wall Street could stand as a metaphor for the dehumanizing, fatal nature of commerce and the human tragedy inherent in the tale of Bartleby, the scrivener.

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Walled Commerce And Humanitarian Tragedy. (2018, May 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from
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