December 5, 2006
Barrister and the Barricades
“The yard was entirely
quiet. It was not accessible to the common
prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all
sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed
upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew under foot.
The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange
magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.
Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying
on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby.”
— Herman Melville, Bartleby (45)
Many mysteries and unanswered questions seem to surround Herman Melville’s story of an unnamed barrister and his silent scrivener. The story, titled “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” is perhaps most ambiguous about its titular character and why he behaves as he does. Throughout the text, Bartleby is connected to the imagery of walls, and the physical walls that surround him symbolize the mental “entrapment” of his isolation. In looking at the tomb and the final image of the wall, one may see represented the last stage of Bartleby’s rejection of life. But in the same passage, another culmination is being reached, albeit a positive one: what can described as the narrator’s own emotional completion. Beginning with this passage, the narrator shows an indication of hope, an affirmation of life over death.
The passage evokes three major “components,” or ongoing developments, that have been occurring through the story, and that are interrelated: Bartleby’s gradual rejection of life, the lawyer’s “rebirth,” and the symbolic imagery of walls. In a way, the passage does more than just recall these themes; it brings some closure to them. Having seen Bartleby’s fate unfold, the narrator has been forced into a new awareness of the human condition. Finally, as he sees the jail and the lifeless Bartleby, he shows an awareness of both life and the inevitability of death—and he chooses to affirm life.
From the beginning of the story, the narrator gives some insight into his own character, particularly how he had been accustomed to living his life. The narrator admits that, “from his youth upwards,” he had believed that “the easiest way of life is the best” (3-4). He also says that in the “cool tranquility of a snug retreat” he ran his business (4), leading a life governed by the logical, the materialistic, the legal, the concrete. These descriptions, and his remark that others say he is an “eminently safe man,” help portray the lawyer as rather unemotional. Even in his dealings with his three employees, he is chiefly concerned with their productivity. Nothing suggests he had ever felt any connection with others. Even his office space, surrounded by walls, seems enjoyable to him for the safeness of their confines.
But Bartleby’s appearance one day proves to challenge the lawyer’s “snug retreat” into the secluded world of laws, logic and legal documents, a place where all that happens can be easily explained and dealt with. His new employee proves to defy definition. Because Bartleby cannot be explained or understood, this disrupts the lawyer’s way of life. The new scrivener strikes the lawyer as withdrawn, emotionless and even otherworldly. Bartleby’s behavior forces the lawyer into a recognition of and compassion toward another’s isolation, and the lawyer struggles with his inability to either understand or help his employee.
The lawyer does, eventually, come to know life, compassion and the human condition. His final visit to Bartleby, who has died in the Tombs, suggests just how much the lawyer has gradually been affected by his dealings with Bartleby. However, the road to the lawyer’s emotional awakening is full of twists and turns as he struggles with his conflicted mind. At first, Bartleby’s refusals leave the lawyer simply stunned, “strangely disarmed” and “touched and disconcerted” (14-15). (Even at the story’s end, he is still unable to understand Bartleby, as the silence of the Tombs will suggest.) Later, as he sees the extent of his employee’s isolation, the lawyer comes to pity Bartleby, and this culminates in a newfound sense of compassion and realization that he seems never to have felt before: “Immediately the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness here are revealed! … His solitude, how horrible!” (22) Yet there are times when he is not sure whether to pity Bartleby or tolerate him no more. The narrator’s thoughts fluctuate between compassion and anger, between pragmatism and charity. At one point, for example, he says that “as the forlornness of Bartleby grew … did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion” (24), and he also remarks, “And when … pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it” (25).
There is little to gain in attempting to completely chart the full course of the narrator’s changing feelings (regarding Bartleby) throughout the story. He constantly changes his mind and decides once again to try to help the scrivener, and then again he becomes frustrated, only to return yet again, never quite able to ignore his conscience. Actually, the very fact that the lawyer continues to be conflicted shows that he is undergoing an emotional awakening of sorts. Consider that at the beginning of the novel, he says outright that he rarely allowed anything to trouble him (4). And whereas he once tells himself that he can “cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval,” and that “to befriend Bartleby … will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience” (17), the lawyer later realizes that he now faces something far more complex than that. Even though he tries, at times, to absolve himself of any feelings of obligation to help Bartleby, the fact remains that the lawyer has been deeply affected. His continued frustration is best understood as an expression of his inability to either decipher Bartleby or help alleviate his suffering. The lawyer has become aware of the sad truth of what “being human” sometimes means.
His new awareness is not purely negative, though, as his recognition also awakens in him a compassion he can never finally deny. At one point, when he is angry with Bartleby’s passive nature, bitterness gives way to mercy: “When this old Adam of resentment rose in me and tempted me concerning Bartleby, I grappled him and threw him … simply by recalling the divine injunction: ‘A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another’” (34). This recalls his earlier observation that “both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (23). The lawyer resolves to do all he can to help Bartleby, and his willingness to do so gives the lawyer an inner peace, a “wise and blessed frame of mind” (35), but ultimately, this does not last, and Bartleby ends up jailed for refusal to leave the premises after the lawyer relocates his office. The decisions that lead to this do not show (as some feel) that the lawyer has grown insensitive; they show that his ability to help has its practical limits. In the penultimate passage of the dead Bartleby, the way in which the narrator describes the scene seems to obliquely suggest the glum reality of death and his inability to help, but it also evokes—and thus emphasizes—the uplifting nature of this newfound awareness and empathy. For the narrator, his new understanding shows him both the positive and negative aspects of life.
The passage where the narrator details his last visit to Bartleby in the Tombs—as well as the final passage of the narrator’s story—will be key to understanding how the narrator has truly changed, but first Bartleby and the wall imagery will be considered. Throughout the story, another process continues alongside the narrator’s awakening—Bartleby’s gradual submission to death as he rejects life in stages. This coincides with the third ongoing process in the story: the recurring wall imagery with which the scrivener is associated. To a large extent, he remains quite static, and neither the narrator nor the reader can claim any true explanation for Bartleby’s behavior.
The narrator is, like Bartleby, surrounded by the law office’s physical walls, but the former does not seem affected by them. After describing himself, the lawyer describes one side of his chambers as “[looking] upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft”; at the other end of the chambers, the “windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade” (5). Even the name Wall Street, of course, contains the suggestion of being enclosed within a wall. When Bartleby begins his employment, he works behind a “high green folding screen” (12). But none of this can be said to be what causes Bartleby’s isolation—he is quite forlorn before he is even hired, and there’s nothing known about his past. He is, in a way, already “dead.” At first, he works, albeit “silently, palely, mechanically” (12); he is likened to a “ghost” (18) and an “apparition” (21). This lends itself, somewhat, to an understanding of the full significance of Bartleby’s final association with silent walls when the lawyer finds his lifeless figure.
Bartleby’s first rejection is his refusal to verify his copy with the other workers (12-13). The narrator observes that his employee is “oblivious to everything” and stays constantly behind the screen like “a perpetual sentry in the corner” (16). Norman Springer, in the article “Bartleby and the Terror of Limitation,” describes the wall imagery (to about this point) as representing that Bartleby is “barricaded first by Wall Street literally” (414). As time goes on, the scrivener’s isolation intensifies, and he refuses any and all efforts to help alleviate the pain of his solitude. He barely speaks a word. The narrator realizes Bartleby’s “entrapment” within his self-created “walls of silent despair,” as Thomas Mitchell describes it, in the article “Dead Letters and Dead Men” (332).
One of the most significant changes for the lawyer takes place when he says, “The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (23), and this is also significant because the narrator is realizing that Bartleby does not share this sense of connection with others, this realization about suffering. And one of the “turning points” of the wall symbolism becomes clear shortly thereafter, when the lawyer’s description of the brick wall has now changed to a “dead brick wall,” and he speaks of Bartleby’s “dead-brick reveries” (24). If Wall Street first represented literal barriers, says Springer, then Wall Street has now come to stand for “a sign of his internal state” (414), that is, the emotional barriers he puts up. The indirect likening of Bartleby to his walls suggests that even the lawyer, at least to some extent, understands (or perceives) how the walls that surround Bartleby become full of meaning.
The lawyer describes Bartleby as “the victim of innate and incurable disorder,” and he glumly reflects on his inability to help: “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach” (25). Mitchell remarks that “[this] ‘disorder’ of the soul has left Bartleby as impenetrable and dead as the walls that surround him” (335). Nonetheless, the narrator continues to retain Bartleby in his service and tries to help Bartleby in his enigmatic solitude. But he continues to reject more and more of his life, and at one point he says he will copy no more (29). He continues to rebuff the lawyer’s best efforts to provide either pity or aid. Rejections become manifest in different, more serious forms, including his refusal to leave the office or to quit the job. The narrator offers Bartleby various options, including other jobs he might take (40-41) and even a place to live—at the lawyer’s home (41). But none of this will do for Bartleby, who prefers to remain in the confines of his walls and his solitude.
As it becomes more and more evident that nothing he can offer will be accepted by the scrivener, the narrator finds that his attempts at charity and compassion will never reach this man. Springer identifies this as the third and final meaning of walls, save perhaps for the imagery at the Tombs: Bartleby and Wall Street “merge to represent what is larger than either … the hopeless and incurable condition” of another (415). For the sake of practicality (and his law business), the lawyer is forced to abandon his fruitless efforts to help, and indirectly, the lawyer’s actions end up with Bartleby taken to jail. The lawyer learns of Bartleby’s refusal to eat while in jail (44-45), which will quickly become the final stage of his rejections: the rejection of life itself. The narrator speaks of Bartleby as “standing all alone in the quietest of yards, his face towards a high wall” (43).
Ultimately, of course, Bartleby dies in the prison after having rejected all. In the central passage, as Thomas so effectively explains, Bartleby is now the “human equivalent of his dead, blank walls,” and his “refusal to abandon the ‘walls’ of his solitude leads him … from the walls of the office to the walls of the Tombs to the eternal walls of his ‘snug retreat,’ the grave” (337). This description is particularly fitting, because it recalls how the lawyer has been awakened from his own “snug retreat,” whereas Bartleby now embraces it. Bartleby’s death, and this act of rejection, is—in a sense—meaningless. (Yet this notion of resisting "meaning" is quite interesting.) Through a complete unwillingness to either help himself or accept another person’s offer of aid and compassion, Bartleby passively yields to death.
When the lawyer speaks of “the surrounding walls” that “kept off all sounds behind them” (45), it suggests Bartleby’s own nature: In his impenetrable silence, Bartleby never allowed himself to be understood by anyone. And the mysterious, paradoxical image of grass growing despite being trapped may seem equally pessimistic and deathlike, at first glance, but truth be told, both of these can be better understood as a sort of positive, emotional completion for the narrator. Through Bartleby’s terrible isolation and the silent suffering, the narrator has experienced a great deal, including what it means to feel compassion for another. He is forced into an awareness of reality, both negative and positive. He knows he has not been able to reach Bartleby, and yet the image at the Tombs suggests a sort of peace. The narrator has affirmed his own life, his humanity, and now he affirms, in the imagery of “magic,” growing grass and “birds,” that there always exists the potential for life. Bartleby, unfortunately, never came to such a perspective—that there can always be hope—and he lies dead by the “cold stones” (45).
The narrator’s affirmation of life is confirmed in the end of the story, as Mitchell explains. The narrator has a final recognition of his inability to ever comprehend—or save—Bartleby, and he realizes that death is, in the end, inevitable. Yet he will not allow Bartleby’s withdrawal, his unknowable character, to be claimed by death once again as a second victory. The lawyer will not let Bartleby become a “dead letter” of an undeliverable message. Rather, the lawyer will tell Bartleby’s “message,” or story, and in that way, Bartleby lives on in the delivery of his message. The narrator prevents the ‘second death’ that is silence and oblivion from claiming its victory; death may be a permanent aspect of the human condition, but the loss of a message does not have to be (Mitchell 337). By communicating Bartleby’s story, perhaps the narrator will be able to awaken others to the tragedy of isolation, because it gradually leads to death. It is one person’s rebellion against, and attempted rejection of, death. Part of this is a refusal to simply and passively accept death—a far more meaningful act of rebellion than that of Bartleby’s. However, in the key passage of the Tombs, there is finally some understanding of all. The narrator’s greatest act in his awakening is his choice to see and affirm life where imprisonment and death seem to prevail; otherwise, he would not have described the scene as he did. Bartleby has died because he no longer saw hope, rejected life more and more until passively giving in to death. Perhaps Bartleby was unreachable, but having seen the tragedy of utter solitude and isolation, the lawyer now will do all that he can to tell of Bartleby’s terrible fate so others will not lose hope.
Works Consulted and Cited
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