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Written in 1853, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A story of Wall Street” portrays the character of Bartleby, a “scrivener” hired to work in the narrator’s law office. Throughout the story, Bartleby’s character changes from a polite, cool and firm scrivener to a ‘difficult-to-understand’ person who refuses to take his tasks at the office by using a simple phrase “I would prefer not to” (Wells 38).
Many scholars have attempted to use different approaches to determine the cause of Bartleby’s character and its real-life implication, including philosophical, religious and ethical analysis of the character. However, it is convenient to analyze the story from a philosophical point of view. For instance, the transcendental ideologies of self-reliance and individual freedom appear to contradict with ethics at the workplace, thereby revealing the philosophical thinking of civil disobedience.
Philosophical analysis of “Bartleby the Scrivener”
Bruce Michelson says “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a sad but funny pursuit of the understanding of “self” and other people… and is a predicament of human sensitive mind as it considers the demands of modern life. From a philosophical approach, it is clear that Melville’s narrative is a reflection of transcendental ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries. First, it is necessary to define what transcendentalism philosophy entails. According to Stevenson (47), transcendentalism philosophy argues that people can transcend the limitations of their physical aspects in order to achieve individual freedom and greater truths.
Thus, organized religion and civil government are some of the major barriers to individual and moral freedom. The role of the government should be to facilitate individual freedom and moral rights in a country (Stevenson 53). The people have the right to judge the government based on their individual moral standards. If the government does not respect these rights, the people have the right to rise above its limitations. The people have the right to resist to civil government by involving civil disobedience such as failure to work and pay taxes (Zlogarm 71).
It is necessary to determine how the character of Bartleby the scrivener fits into the transcendentalism and civil disobedience philosophies. Although it is clear that he is suffering from a psychological problem, Bartleby is actually not willing to take his responsibilities at the narrator’s office. In fact, he uses his simple reply “prefer not to” as a means of stating his stance whenever asked to perform a certain task such as proofreading his work.
While his colleagues at the office want Bartleby fired for his irresponsibility, the narrator attempts to understand his position. From the narrator’s perspective, the reader can see some aspects of disobedience and transcendentalist ideas in Bartleby’s actions. For example, it is likely that Bartleby was feeling that his individual freedom was threatened by the heavy work at the office. He felt that the demands of the modern world and the modern way of life are too much because someone has to perform huge tasks just to earn a living (Sten 34).
He seems to believe that it is the right of every person to achieve individual and moral freedom. He tends to believe that it is not necessary to take orders in order to survive. Secondly, by refusing to work, Bartleby tends to believe that both the employer and the government at Wall Street are going beyond their limitations. For example, employees need enough freedom at their work to achieve moral freedom. Instead, the government and employers are exceeding their mandate. As such, to gain his freedom, Bartleby is simply being disobedience- he does not want to take some tasks. He also seems to hate paying taxes, especially because he does not have a home, does not buy foodstuffs and does not use public transport.
However, it is evident that rather than applying philosophical approaches of transcendentalism, it is probable that Bartleby was suffering from psychological depression. Towards the end of the story, the narrator reveals that Bartleby had been sacked from his previous job, where he worked in the “dead letter office” just because the new practices of doing business at the Wall Street no longer needed workers in the section. Therefore, it is probable that Bartleby had suffered psychologically after the loss of his previous job, which led him to adopt the “I prefer not to” behavior.
Still, on transcendentalism philosophy, it is important to consider the issues Bartleby could have been resisting. For example, the narrator reveals that Bartleby is not lazy, especially in the first few days of his employment at the law office. In fact, his work impresses everyone at the office, especially the narrator. Within a few hours, Bartleby produced many papers and was even willing to proofread them. In addition, he went to the extent of working at night using a candle, which made him a better worker than both Nippers and Turkey, who were active only at certain parts of the day. However, it is evident that Bartleby does not want to proofread papers, even those he writes (Sten 33).
He is resisting this task probably because he feels that it is invading his individual freedom. Secondly, it is possible that Bartleby is resisting excessive work, yet the payment at Wall Street is limited. It is worth noting that the narrative was written at a time when Wall Street was quickly becoming the center of America’s business sector, especially in terms of monetary control. In addition, Bartleby could have been resisting taking extra work because the government itself, rather than the employer, was becoming rogue (Sten 35). For instance, the government expected too much taxes from the workers, which meant that they had to work extra hard to earn a living. Therefore, he felt that his individual freedom was threatened.
Moreover, the demands of a modernized society were a problem for the workers at Wall Street. While employers were gaining hefty profits from their businesses, employees were supposed to take extra work to earn better lives, which was always difficult. Michelson’s description of the narrative points out that “Bartleby the Scrivener” was actually a dilemma of the perceptive mind amid the “demands of modern life”. This shows that the demands of the “modern life” were oppressive and often made employees work extra hard to fit in the modernized society that depended on money, the only way to obtain basic needs (Sten 32).
Bartleby may have also been in need of being self-reliant. It is likely that he did not want to take orders from the employer or his colleagues at the office. Else, it would have undermined his state of self-reliance. However, by sleeping in the office and feeding on the Nutcakes brought to him by the errand boy, Bartleby reveals that he was not self-reliant, even though he wanted some kind of freedom.
Ethical issues are also revealed in Melville’s narrative. For instance, it is unethical for Bartleby to resist work, yet he was hired to perform the specific tasks he tends to reject. Secondly, it is unethical for a person of his caliber to sleep at the office and depend on an errand boy as the chief supplier of his food, yet he earns higher wages than what the boy gets. One also wonders why Bartleby would be so unethical to the extent of refusing to take food while in jail, preferring to starve himself to death. On the other hand, the ethical aspects of the work and practices at Wall Street are questionable (Wells 36).
For example, it is unethical for Bartleby’s previous employer to sack his employees just because the business has changed its practices. This must have caused Bartleby some psychological problems after losing the job in which he had developed perfection and interest. Finally, it is unethical for the employers at Wall Street to hire employees and ensure that they work extra hard to obtain their basic needs, yet the profitability was extremely high (Schechter 56).
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The analysis reveals that Bartleby’s resistance is based on transcendental ideologies of individual freedom and self-reliance. The inability of the government and the business community to grant and protect individual freedom for their employees is not only unethical but also something prone to civil disobedience, as portrayed by Bartleby’s character in the narrative.
Schechter, Harold. Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
Sten, Christopher. “Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville’s Dead Letter to Emerson.” Modern Language Quarterly 35.2 (1994): 30–44. Print.
Stevenson, Martin K. Empirical Analysis of the American Transcendental movement. New York, NY: Penguin, 2012. Print.
Wells, Daniel. “”Bartleby the Scrivener,” Poe, and the Duyckinck Circle”. ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 21.3 (1995): 35–39. Print.
Zlogar, Richard. “’Body Politics in “Bartleby”: Leprosy, Healing, and Christ-ness in Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street”. Nineteenth Century Literature, 53.4 (1999): 505-529. Web.