Willing Those Who Won’t: A Short Study of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener

Herman Melville’s, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, is the first person narration of a man who struggles to understand an unknown force and/or lack of force behind the actions of his employee. The lawyer goes through great analytic lengths to justify the actions of his employees and successfully avoids confrontation by defining their characters. As the narrator attempts to hide himself away from confrontation, one employee systematically breaks down his ability to analyze and the lawyer can’t make him fit in society. As the lawyer struggles to define Bartleby, the reader commands a bird’s eye view and is meant to contemplate the question of a man’s freedom in society and  the effects of society on an indefinable will. Melville conjures predestination and modernizes the longstanding question of will by taking it out of the hands of the church and placing it in a secular center. The events in the story suggest that modern civilization enforces restraints on those whose will is incompatible with the system. The story encourages reflection on the ideology of freedom of will and the implausibility of escaping a will imposed, religiously predestined or not.

Although he gives the names and nicknames of all his employees, the lawyer never gives his own name. Throughout Bartleby the Scrivener, the lawyer insists the reader must know who he is in order to better understand the story: “It is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers and general surroundings” (2364). His personal character is elaborated on through his identity in relation to society, but in a story that is so heavily concerned with names and nicknames, it is relatively peculiar that the reader never is  given his name. Its absence therefore denotes some significance. Not giving the main character a name implies that it could be any lawyer on Wall-Street; thus, this establishes a generality of experience. Anyone who is like the lawyer could be having this experience, the name doesn’t matter. In doing so, Melville establishes a present tense relationship with the reader and allows for a sense of involvement or at least a sense that these events could have happened yesterday. Establishing a broad relationship to the present and the real is a useful tool because it encourages one to reflect on the events around them as relatable.

The lawyer operates as a typical person trying to make sense of the actions of others. Both Nipper’s and Turkey’s names are “expressive of their respective persons or characters: (2365). Turkey “seemed to set with [the sun], to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with like regularity and undiminished glory” (2365). Nipper’s character traits are reasoned by “two evil powers–ambition and indigestion” (2366). However, Bartleby has no such description. He has no history and his actions remain indefinable to the lawyer: “Will you tell me any thing about yourself? ‘I would prefer not to'” (2376). The lawyer can’t understand Bartleby and this is an unpleasant experience to him and the idea of not understanding one’s peers is frightening. If one can know another’s place in society, life is defined. By demonstrating an understood or known cause and effect in the characters of Nippers and Turkey compared to the unknown causes of Bartleby’s character, Melville suggests that Bartleby’s actions remain undefined and therefore his will is free. If his will is free from definition, Bartleby may have no reasoning to his actions at all and that is a clear demonstration of chaos; a stark contrast to predestination.

The debate over the existence of free will in society is outlined by Bartleby’s indefinable character when predestination is explored. As the lawyer struggles with his confusion amid Bartleby’s actions, the question of will is deliberately cited: “I looked a little into ‘Edwards on the Will,’ and ‘Priestly on Necessity.’ Under the circumstances, those books induced a salutary feeling” (2382). It’s not surprising that the lawyer found comfort in these two works that establish “will is not free” (2382), because it appeals to his motto of living easily. At the beginning of the story the lawyer believes that the “easiest way of life is the best” (2364). Since he believes the easiest life is best and that the easiest manner with which to handle free will is to let someone else be responsible for it is predestination, it seems peculiar that he does not settle the issue there. The lawyer wants to escape the turmoil of dealing with an undefined action and the idea of a predestined will does not satisfy him for long because his own will is pressured by those around him: “I believe that this wise and blessed frame of mind would have continued with me, had it not been for the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks obtruded upon me by my professional friends” (2382). Therefore, Melville is relating that just because one can believe in predestination doesn’t mean that man has no impact on events. One still has to deal with causation, even if will is predetermined, man still takes action and cannot comprehend whether he is simply going through the motions of a destined fate.

Bartleby has an odd relationship with walls. He works in the lawyer’s office on Wall-Street “My chambers were up stairs at No.-Wall-street” (2364), he stares at a wall through a window “For long periods of time he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall” (2375), and finally remains staring at a wall while in prison “And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietist of the yards, his face towards a high wall” (2386). Bartleby’s repeated obsession with walls alerts the reader to their significance and can work in two ways. First, it foreshadows his ultimate confinement in prison and secondly, it reveals that he is never unconfined. He is continuously walled in. His physical confinement is imposed on him by society, it is all his will can do but be subject to others at times, but he can still maintain power of mind and choose death, the ultimate statement on society’s limits.

What Bartleby’s confinement means in the story can be partially gleaned through his other defining characteristics. He has no history other than a peculiar relation to dead letters, “Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration” (2388). He worked with messages that never reach their intended audience. Words that are never read have no impact, they are intended, but never accomplish their goal. As a copyist, he simply rewrites language that has already met its intended audience and had its effect. He even refuses to listen to the copies read aloud. Ultimately, he refuses to even copy anymore “I have given up copying” (2378). Bartleby has a relation to messages that are either never heeded to or are redundant. Like the association with walls, the words seem to be a sort of confinement for him, the dead letters were discarded and the copied words are only superfluous to his existence. In so much as Bartleby works with dead letters and then goes on to work copying, there is a bleakness in his work. When one can’t get his message across or when there are no new ways of expression, language has died in a sense. Melville seems to be suggesting that his own written message (the story) is not a new argument for will, but a rehash of what is experienced every day. Dead letters symbolize that the message has been intended over and over again and copying means all that one can do is restate what has already played out. Melville is copying what is occurring in the world to elaborate on a statement of will.

By demonstrating predestination, chaos, reason, and confinement in the modern and secular present, Melville suggests that will exists in both forms: free will and the imposing will of predestination. As long as Bartleby rejects society and prefers to not follow the social rules, he is exhibiting a freedom of will, but society imposes itself on the individual and therefore restricts the power of man’s will. It operates as a slant fate. If one breaks the law, one will go to prison. Predestination in religion can be defined in this way too, follow the rules or face various consequences. The walls, the basic structure and foundation of society are meant to curb freedom of will and this operates as a form of secular predestination. If one believes in society, that society will have an answer for actions. One is  partaking in the “easiest way of living.” If one throws all to chaos while attempting to remain in society, the only power left to him is death. Melville has created a setting where humanity has predestined itself through the evolution of modern society. As the lawyer struggles to understand Bartleby, he cannot look past his own societal pressures and compares Bartleby to humanity: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (2389). This comparison is meant to alert the reader to their own imposing on each other, either by holding up the rules of society or by refusing to deal with the indefinable or chaotic. The lawyer operates as a test subject who comes to the realization that something is wrong in the way society handles the undefined. Melville calls on the reader to observe the mechanics of society and the impositions of will.