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Living in the 21th century, with unprecedented material abundance, we post-modern people, on the one hand, feel lucky to be blessed with the glories of this productive industrial era; on the other hand, however, we are frequently confronted with the problem of relocating ourselves in this kaleidoscopic society and of soaring ourselves into the full development of our personality, which, unfortunately, is frustrated halfway through our pursuit of this ambitious goal. With monitoring device almost everywhere to watch us 24/7, we felt helpless but to follow the technological burden. Therefore, modern society has let human existence to alienation and lose individuality. And it is reflected throughout the story.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, manual labor has been replaced by machines. Efficiency and productivity emerge as the single most important aspect of modern society. And the lawyer’s chamber can thus be regarded as a method of exerting power in a most effective way. In which the elderly lawyer is in the central tower with his eyes wide open onto the individual cubicles where the four clerks, namely, Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nuts and Bartleby, works. Just as the elderly lawyer describes in Bartleby that “the ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my scriveners, the other by myself. According to my humor, I threw open these doors, or closed them”. Obviously, the elderly lawyer is standing in a central place though it is not actually a tower, it serves the same function as central command, for the elderly lawyer has the right to push open the doors any time he wishes to examine the clerks who work for him while the clerks are never permitted to walk out of the door at their will and all they can do is bear in mind that they are under surveillance and they must do their best to keep their position.
As for Bartleby, the lawyer makes a wiser arrangement. “Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined.” He devises a vocal game rather than a visual one, making voice a superior option than visibility. He can make himself heard anytime by either of the clerks and this works on Bartleby perfectly when he first comes. The operation of the modern society – the chamber boasts of its high efficiency in the case of Bartleby. “At first, Bartley did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.” Of the four clerks in the chamber, Bartleby represents the powerful effects of the modern society – the efficiency.
Yet Bartley is not the only one who is disciplined in this way. The four clerks altogether makes a collective effect, while in another way, they are perfectly separated, each is supervised by the guardian – the elderly lawyer and each is disciplined effectively, just as the most representative one – Turkey always replies to the lawyer, “With submission, sir.” Submission is the goal of the functioning of the chamber behind which efficiency is the vital benefit the discipline strives to achieve in our society.
In the story Bartleby, observation plays a crucial part in disciplining the clerks by the boss – the elderly lawyer, who has the privilege of monitoring their moves in detail, and that is also why this novel is written from a first person perspective, for only in this way, can this novel achieve the descriptive authenticity through the eyes of an omnipresent lawyer. Therefore, it is no wonder that we are shocked to know every detail of every odd behavior of the four clerks just as if someone has used a microscope to observe a tiny little thing. The portrait of every clerk is hung before our eyes and we can see even the winkles on their foreheads. Just as the three clerks are nicknamed Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut, which are “mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters.” The elderly lawyer gives a detailed description of a submissive Turkey in a day’s work just as if he were right there under their noses. “In the morning, one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after twelve o’clock, meridian – his dinner hour – it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continual blazing – but, as it were, with a gradual wane – till six o’clock, p.m., or thereabouts; after which, I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which, gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity and undiminished glory.” The elderly lawyer’s observation of Turkey is not just of apparent expressions on his face, but it is of subtle changes in him which are tainted with psychological transformation. We are amazed to realize that the elderly lawyer seems to be invisible in the chamber while he can detect what happens in every corner just like an omnipresent god.
As for the next one on the list, Nippers, the lawyer’s observation is right to the core of his soul. Despite the description of him as a whiskered, sallow, and rather piratical-looking man of about five and twenty, the lawyer draws the brief conclusion about him as the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. “The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly professional affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked.” From the very beginning, we can see that the elderly lawyer is endowed with the insights with which he can penetrate the deep guts of people. However, we have every reason to deduce that this ability to tell people’s very character is developed through close and constant observation within reaching distance and mostly, without the conscious knowing of the object.
From the very beginning, Bartleby does not show even the slightest submission to the disciplinary society, especially ignorant of the way his boss feels when he replies in his usual way, “I prefer not to.” It seems that Bartleby is not “human” in this society and the secular rules and regulations just do not mess up with him. He lives a life according to his own principles which are at odd with this industrial world
In Bartleby, the Scrivener, the law chamber is a surveillance and the elderly lawyer is in the center, gazing upon the prisoners in the surrounding cells, in which Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut and Bartleby reside. Being gazed by the employer, the three clerks simply follow suit, willing to do whatever they are ordered to, and besides, they take Bartleby’s refusal to fulfill his duty as something abnormal and even agree to kick him out of the office. Through normalizing judgment and close examination, the elderly lawyer finally concludes that Bartleby cannot be trained as an eligible clerk and thus cannot be tolerated any longer, therefore he finally decides to change the location of his chamber, leaving Bartleby to decay later in Tombs, the prison. Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut, though deemed as eligible clerks and have managed to survive, have felt the sweeping pressure and suffocating atmosphere of the disciplined society, and the employer, too, is perplexed and troubled by the shadow Bartleby cast on him. Though Bartleby dies in the end by refusing initially to work and finally to eat, he, on the other hand, has successfully managed to keep his humanity intact. How to keep one’s personality intact in a disciplined society and at the same time accomplish one’s dreams without giving up the most precious gift God has bestowed us—our life, has been a problem we can’t afford to avoid. It’s a tough job to deal with but we should not stop trying. This is also the thinking provoked by this short story. Up to now, few people have succeeded avoiding being trained, which might be why Melville sighed at the end of the novel, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Obviously, in the story Bartleby, observation plays a crucial part in disciplining the clerks by the boss – the elderly lawyer, who has the privilege of monitoring their moves in detail, and that is also why this novel is written from a first person perspective, for only in this way, can this novel achieve the descriptive authenticity through the eyes of an omnipresent lawyer. Therefore, it is no wonder that we are shocked to know every detail of every odd behavior of the four clerks just as if someone has used a microscope to observe a tiny little thing. The portrait of every clerk is hung before our eyes and we can see even the winkles on their foreheads.
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