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Herman Melville uses the concept of identity to highlight certain features of the characters in his short story Bartelby the Scrivener. The character of Bartelby illuminates the narrator’s unexplained feelings of innate compassion and pity through his actions of passive resistance.
Bartelby’s mantra, “I would prefer not to,” suggests powerful implications of blatant defiance while giving the illusion of only a polite refusal. While typically it is unnatural for an employee to have the freedom to exercise personal choice within the workplace and so obviously not conform to the status quo, Bartelby’s outright rebellion is masked by the polite nature of his defiance. On the surface, the scrivener’s repeated use of this phrase seems as non-threatening as the manner in which he carries himself, perhaps being the reason the narrator continuously excuses his complete lack of obedience. The word choice of the repeated refusal also evokes the question as to what Bartelby would prefer to do, if anything at all, further pointing towards a form of blatant defiance rather than one of just simple preference. After Bartelby utters, “I would prefer not to,” the narrator challenges him by questioning, “You will not?” which in turn elicits the response, “I prefer not” (Melville 15). In this instance it is evident that while Bartelby does not specifically decline the narrator’s question, the reaction that it provokes from the narrator holds the same force as it would had he have said “no.” Despite Bartelby’s passive word choice, it is clear that he is ultimately in control of his own free will by saying “no”, simply through a form of politeness.
The narrator exudes initial feelings of anger and confusion when Bartelby passively refuses to conform to his demands. Unused to an employee so unenthusiastically refusing a simple request, the narrator is baffled when Bartelby replies, “I would prefer not to,” to his every request. While confusion would be an appropriate emotion to describe the initial reaction of the narrator upon hearing Bartelby’s courteous refusal, fast approaching emotions of anger and irritability were quick to replace any previously existing bewilderment. The narrator, himself, admits “The passiveness of Bartelby sometimes irritated me,” (14) further adding “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance” (13). This display of passive resistance challenges and quite obviously overpowers the narrator’s authority, causing immense emotional turmoil within the narrator, seen initially as anger and confusion. The fact that Bartleby is able to bring forth any hostile emotions from the narrator at all is significant in itself, considering the narrator introduces himself as a “man of peace” who “seldom loses [his] temper” (4).While these emotions of exasperation only occur for a short period of time, the reactions which Bartelby elicits from the narrator by uttering his phrase of passive resistance are noteworthy in that they exhibit the narrator’s emotional range in relation with the scrivener’s actions throughout the story.
Bartelby’s vacuous, non-threatening manner masks the colossal power he is able to exercise over the narrator. One of the reasons the narrator is so oblivious to Bartelby’s blatant defiance is due to his mild and almost ghost-like, yet mechanic characteristics. Bartelby poses no threat to the narrator, so in this way he is able to gain power and control over the narrator by slipping under the radar, predominantly in the way of not receiving any form of punishment from the narrator. The narrator appears to touch on this notion when he remarks, “Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises” (11).
Bartelby’s escalation of power ultimately ascends to the point of him taking residence in the narrator’s law chambers, and upon discovery, Bartelby suggests to the narrator that if he left and went for a walk, by the time he returned he would “probably have concluded his affairs” (16). Abiding by the scrivener’s request, the narrator notes that Bartelby’s utterance was said with a “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance, yet withal firm and self-possessed” (16) manner, accentuating the ultimate control Bartelby was able to obtain over the narrator. Further acts of Bartelby’s control are evident when the narrator notes that “every added repulse of this sort which I received only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the inadvertence,” (16) a form of power comparable to that of positive reinforcement. While Bartelby’s words and manner may be passive in their nature, they ultimately serve to render complete control over the narrator, illuminating characteristics within him that we would not typically see under the influences of another character.
The narrator displays an almost immediate change of heart, quickly transitioning from feelings of anger to those of pity, suggesting a deeper connection between him and Bartelby. Countless refusals from Bartelby cause unexplained feelings of compassion and empathy to immediately engross the narrator. After Bartelby’s usual monotonous statement, the narrator reasons that “he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence,” (12) strangely going on to further discuss what a valuable asset he is to the business. The very fact that the narrator is so quick to provide a reason as to why Bartelby refuses to obey any orders shows a protective, almost father figure-like quality about the relationship between the two men. The narrator reinforces this idea of a deeper connection then when he acknowledges that “both [he] and Bartelby were sons of Adam” (17) and the unexplainable melancholy he was experiencing must have been of a fraternal nature, a connection so strong between the two that the narrator was feeling these intense emotions of compassion and melancholy “for the first time in [his] life” (17). The men’s relationship, on the surface, appears to simply be one of employer and employee, but with further analysis it is evident that the narrator’s unexplained feelings of pity in reaction to Bartelby’s passivity are perhaps explained through a deeper connection not entirely visible upon initial examination.
With his actions of passive resistance, Bartelby’s character serves to highlight qualities of compassion and pity within the narrator that we would not typically see, while also suggesting a more deeply rooted connection between the two characters. The implications of this topic are significant in that it puts the inscrutable character of Bartelby in a different light, revealing aspects which lead us to a deeper understanding of him through the narrator’s own emotional journey of self-discoveries. A more in-depth analysis of each character could, perhaps, shed some light on Melville’s intentions behind creating such an unspoken connectivity between Bartelby and the narrator.
Melville, Herman. “Bartelby the Scrivener.” Melville’s Short Novels. Ed. Dan McCall. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002. 3-34. Print.
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