Herman Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener is a tale known as much for its varied interpretations as it is for the story itself. Perhaps the only certainty to be derived from its analysis is the inevitable mystery it provokes. Some critics believe Bartleby is in fact Melville himself, or even Christ or Gandhi (Cooke). Written in 1853 for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, the story “baffled” (Charters 877) readers. Since its publication, literary critics have examined and dissected Bartleby line for line in an attempt to find its true meaning.
The article Form and Meaning in Bartleby, the Scrivener, by Walter E. Anderson identifies the story’s meaning as a religious allegory. Likening Bartleby to the “Christian saints who practiced a strict asceticism” (Anderson), the text becomes Melville’s vessel to show “our inability to see the implications of God’s commandments” (Anderson). When examining the story, Anderson’s interpretation does have merit. The narrator finds Bartleby living at the office on a Sunday; a day reserved for religious reflections and prayer. Melville writes, “Somehow, the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going” (Charters 891). If Anderson’s theory of man’s inability to live by God’s commandments is applied, then the narrator’s statement suggests guilt at failing to recognize and rectify Bartleby’s plight. In a sense, the discovery showed the narrator he had failed in following God’s commandments.
Anderson continues to support his religious interpretation by analyzing the Sunday interaction. Anderson contends that through the event, the narrator “realizes that he and Bartleby are ‘sons of Adam bound together by ‘common humanity’” (Anderson). Indeed, from that point on, a change is seen in the narrator’s attachment to Bartleby. The narrator remarks, “Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence” (Charters 897). Anderson claims, however, that the narrator fails to protect Bartleby but “acted more charitably toward Bartleby than almost anyone” (Anderson). Anderson’s religious interpretation provides a solid glimpse into the story’s meaning. In 1850, Melville became friends with contemporary author Nathaniel Hawthorne (Hillway 14). Given Hawthorne’s religiously themed stories, it is logical to assume Melville incorporated some of the ideas when he published Bartleby, the Scrivener, in 1853.
However, religious overtones do not account for the theme in its entirety. Another heavily suggested influence to Melville is Henry David Thoreau. According to Jane Desmarais’ article Preferring not to: The Paradox of Passive Resistance in Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby,’ the story represents “the insistent and impeccable articulation of resistance in the wilderness called Modern America” (Desmarais). Like Bartleby, Thoreau passively resisted societal demands, and after refusing to pay his taxes went to jail (Desmarais). Even in jail, Thoreau claimed he was still free, and “imprisonment is a mere physical restriction” (Desmarais). Could the concept of passive resistance fully explain Melville’s intended theme?
Throughout the story, Bartleby remains firm in his resolve to only copy. Any attempt by the narrator to exert his authority is met with a simple statement, “I would prefer not to”(Charters 883). Desmarais claims Bartleby “exercises enormous power by refusing to comply with simple and demanding requests” (Desmarais). Given the fact that Melville wrote this story after America had gained its independence through violent means, the act of passive resistance is a departure from traditional means of rebellion. In fact, Desmarais credits Bartleby with becoming an “icon for various Peace Movements in the twentieth century” (Desmarais). While passive resistance seems a central theme, other theories have also emerged.
For many years, Marxist criticism was a popular form for reviewing Bartleby, the Scrivener. According to many Marxist criticisms, the piece “cast a realistic story, with an emphasis on working life” (Reed). Reed’s article The Spector of Wall Street: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the Language of Commodities quotes a Marxist criticism by Louise K. Barnett stating, “Bartleby is the ‘perfect exemplum’ of Marx’s alienated worker and Melville’s story a parable of the heartlessness of capitalism” (Reed). Indeed, on page 883, the narrator shows the concept of an alienated worker when he places Bartleby in a screened in corner, “so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done.” At first, Bartleby is a means to an end, but ultimately, the end changes the narrator forever.
Perhaps the best analysis of Bartleby, the Scrivener comes from Alexander Cooke’s essay Resistance, Potentiality, and the Law. Cooke writes, “Bartleby is each and every one of us.” Given the vast range of interpretations, allowing the reader to gleam their own sense of meaning offers the most realistic means of interpretation. Appendix five of The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction describes the Reader-response theory as one that “is as much a creative act as the writing of the text” (Charters 1782). Readers bring their own cultural and life experiences when reading the text, thus deriving uniqueness in interpretation. No one will ever know for certain Melville’s exact intentions, leaving Bartleby’s ultimate meaning a mystery open for individual interpretation.
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