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Themes Of Hopelessness In Herman Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener

1231 words - 5 pages

We can never be one hundred percent certain of the validity of our literary analyses. This is especially the case with Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”. Critics have been trying for decades to make sense of the text and most will describe it as “inscrutable”. I don’t claim to know better than the critics, but instead offer my own interpretation of the work. Based on my observations and analysis, Melville’s use of many elements in his story—first and foremost the character of Bartleby, but also the dead letters, the many walls of Wall Street, and the state of Wall Street itself—works well to develop a sense of hopelessness, whether intentional or not, in the story as well as the narrator and consequently the reader. This hopelessness could stem from a number of influences, such as a certain “incurable disorder” which some critics would argue is schizophrenia (Wilson), the quality of human futility in general, or the capitalist society in which Melville’s characters’ lives play out.

In order to understand Bartleby’s influence on the hopeless atmosphere of the story, we must first understand the character of Bartleby and how he differs greatly from the others. Bartleby is described as having a “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance” (1096) and being solitary, friendless and lonely; “like a very ghost” (1095). Mitchell, in his critical essay, also observes that “Bartleby seems incapable of recognizing the possibility of hope.” (Mitchell) Finally, Bartleby is apathetic and whenever something is requested of him he simply replies “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer, on the other hand is intensely focused on the values of Wall Street such as money, productivity and usefulness. Bartleby proves a great frustration to the lawyer as he differs from the office norm of. Wilson describes this office dynamic well when he explains that,
“Turkey and Nippers, the two [other] scriveners, have both demonstrated their usefulness to him [the lawyer] in spite of their idiosyncrasies. He [the lawyer] refers to Turkey as a "most valuable person to me" (p. 22) and to Nippers as "a very useful man to me" (p. 25). Even Ginger Nut, the office boy, is useful in that "his duty as cake and apple purveyor" (p. 27) pacifies Turkey and Nippers and thus keeps them working. In other words, the lawyer considers his employees useful insofar as he can exploit them and make money from their labor. (Wilson)
Bartleby, however, who “prefers not to” do any work after a short period of working in the office, greatly discourages the lawyer because he does not prove useful in any way.

As a further character development, Melville “encourages the reader to consider Bartleby himself as a type of ‘dead letter’” (Weinstock). Bartleby doesn’t serve the purpose he intended to when he refuses to do work, in the same way the “dead letters” (1111) that Bartleby used to work with did not serve the function they were intended for. It is important to note that in a dead letter office,...

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