Herman Melville is one of the most famous American novelist, poet and short story writer who existed during the American Renaissance. He was born in 1819 as a third born to a merchant in French dry goods and died in 1891. Melville became a schoolteacher for a brief time before he took to the sea where he acquired most of the experiences that he has written about in his works. His legendary arts include Typee-1846 (a personal life account in Polynesian) and Moby-Dick 1851 (the whaling novel). Most of his works drew from his life experiences and view of the American society that was undergoing rapid change at the time. Melville developed a baroque style in his writing that utilized original vocabulary that enhanced rhythmic words that elaborated the sentences. Moreover, the author utilizes styles such as irony, imagery, allusion, and humor to extend his philosophical literature (Melville 1). Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Wall Street Story produced in November-December 1853 is one of the most significant art that focuses on the American life at the time. Melville`s motivation to write the story was to advertise the book, The Lawyer`s Story, that was printed in February 1853 (Melville 1). Melville employs first-person narration in telling the story which enhances the touch of the story. In the art, Melville focus on various themes such as isolation and charity. The present essay will discuss the Melville`s unique perspective of the American society in relation to his actual character by addressing the theme of charity in the short story.
Bartleby, the Scrivener is a narration of a lawyer who was running law practices on the Wall Street. Narrating in the first person and being an elderly man, the lawyer accounts for his life and most of the people that he has met in his career (Melville 3). In his experience, the lawyer has come across numerous set of extra ordinary men such as the scriveners or the law-copyists. Although, the lawyer is familiar with many stories pertaining such individuals, he assumes them for Bartleby, whom he considers to be the most amazing scriveners. According to the narrator nothing is ascertainable to Bartleby except issues from original sources that were rather minimal. However, before the lawyer starts to narrate the Bartleby story, he first focuses on other scriveners such as Turkey, Nippers, and an errand boy-Ginger. Turkey is productive in the morning but poor in the afternoon while Nippers is the direct opposite (Melville 4). Bartleby is a fine law-copyist who writes day and night. Therefore, he accomplishes a lot of material which impresses the lawyer. One day the lawyer call in Bartleby to have a look at a short case that he required to be examined but receives an unusual answer, “I would prefer not to.” The calmness in the answer does not necessitate scolding from the lawyer as he takes it lightly. Later on, we learn that the habit persist as Bartleby refuses to handle any task and is left to gaze through the windows (Melville 50). In fact, the lawyer moves his office to run away from the odd Bartleby. The lawyers description and charity towards Bartleby brings out Melville`s character and assumption of the American society which will be discussed in the present theme.
As mentioned earlier, charity is one of the most important themes in the narration. Many analysts and critics are puzzled by the lawyer`s character of tolerating Bartleby`s traits to the point of inviting him to live with the lawyer in his own house despite Bartleby`s awkward nature. In the end, readers are left to wonder whether the lawyers does well by Bartleby or contributes to the scriveners ruin and eventual death. At first, we would admit that the lawyer surprises everyone by his nature of accepting Bartleby despite receiving an adamant response; “I would prefer not to.” Although the answers seemed polite to the lawyer it sounds somewhat rude especially after a deep analysis. The terms “I would prefer not to” means that the individual is actually in a position to accomplish the task but chooses to refuse for no reason. The response also suggests finality which insinuates that the individual does not want to be disturbed further regarding the subject matter. The fact that the lawyer is Bartleby`s boss amazes every reader when he decides to assign the work to another scrivener; thus, leaving Bartleby alone (Melville 20). From the outcome, one might insinuate that the lawyer does not possess the necessary managerial skills to control his subordinates. It is odder that the lawyer thinks himself as the insane person when Bartleby reuses to do the assigned work.
In narrating the point, Melville focused on the nature of the American society at the time and their quick judgmental nature. Typically, people are quick to make decisions when they are angered by others without giving them a chance to explain themselves or even enough time to understand their awkward behavior. For instance, Turkey and Nippers are quick to pass judgement on Bartleby and are willing to beat him up to remove his laziness and stupidity (Melville 42). By introducing the two individuals, Melville was reflecting on the character of most Americans. However, as a lawyer he has the responsibility to understand others to be in a position to represent them better. The lawyer`s first focus should not be making more income. but rather helping their clients. The story was written during a time when the Wall Street was booming with business. Therefore, the lawyer was going to make losses because of Bartleby`s reduced performance. In fact, he had to pay Turkey and Nippers to examine the small work that Bartleby managed to handle. Despite that, the lawyer decided to keep the scrivener as a charity individual despite his zero contribution to the firm. Although the lawyer did not find a reason why the law-copyist was acting so weird, at least he had the willingness to understand the individual which should be the character of true lawyers (Melville 55).
Focusing on the society further, Melville insinuated that the society would change because of the developing economy such as the financial boom that was occurring at the Wall Street. Typically, the lawyers represent law and justice, and a change in their character would mean that the social beliefs and moral values of the Americans will be compromised. As the lawyer narrates, Bartleby never left the premise. Rather, he sent Ginger for snacks and other food stuffs which is a clear sign of distress that his colleagues could not see (Melville 37). Like most of the Americans at the time, they were too obsessed with making money than caring for their colleague’s farewell. The increasing money was blinding the individuals from perceiving their surrounding and what was happening to their friends. Later on, the lawyer discovers that Bartleby used to live in the office and none of his workmates ever discovered the anomaly. Melville insinuated that everyone was too busy caring for their own life and how to develop financially that they forgot about the social responsibilities. Although it took long for the lawyer to understand the Bartleby`s needs, he showed charitable signs which is a main theme in Melville`s discussion (Melville 62).
Although the lawyer does his best to understand Bartleby, he eventually abandons him by moving his office to a different location; thus abandoning the morose man. Most of the readers have often passed over the humorous event. However, the lawyer weighs decisions and decides that Bartleby creates a bad image to the clients as a number of customer raise concerns pertaining the odd individual. Therefore, out of charity, the lawyer decides to relocate rather than have Bartleby removed. Although most of Melville`s humor is often lost in other themes, several critics and readers have interpreted the act as an act of charity. The lawyer extends his acts of charity when Bartleby is faced with a possible imprisonment. The lawyer offers to stay with the scrivener to which he refuses. After the occurrence, the lawyer is left to wonder whether Bartleby is actually haunted by the office or himself. The fact that the lawyer conducts a self-reflection shows an act of charity (Melville 71). What may be the problem? Is it me? However, the scrivener`s withdrawnness and tendency to remain immobile for unknown reasons is what actually haunts Bartleby.
Melville`s idea in discussing the awkwardness of the issues surrounding Bartleby shows the true nature of the American society. He insinuated that the American people had transformed and developed an ego. People no longer accepted help from others nor did they offer to help others. For this reason, Bartleby is not willing to be open to his employer because he does not want to be helped. He turns down the lawyers request when he is offered a place to stay. He would rather sleep on the staircases than accept help from anyone. In fact he even dies with his secret without telling anyone his problems. On the other hand, no one is willing to offer help to Bartleby except the lawyer. In fact, the tenants report him to the police for sleeping on the staircases rather than help him. Apparently, financial stability had made think that they could manage themselves. In their assumptions, most people thought that they no longer required other people`s help. However, this was a false assumption because of the Bartley`s demise in prison. Melville showed that being lonely and lacking to confide in other leads to oneself downfall. Financial stability should not deceive the society to abandon the social cohesion that existed in the past. In that light, people need to be charitable like the lawyer which emphasizes the theme of charity that Melville brings up in his narration. I everyone was to be charitable like the lawyer, then everyone will know about their colleagues and friends whereabouts which will increase the social cohesion.
Another scenario of charity that Melville involves the act of assigning jobs to both Turkey and Nippers. The lawyer understands both of his employees and knows when the work best. For instance, Turkey works best in the morning but is poor in the afternoon. Similarly, Nippers is active in the afternoon as opposed to the morning hours. The variation in performance affects the overall income of the firm. However, despite his employees` deficiency, the lawyer is willing to understand them and assign to them less work during their poor working hours. This is an act of charity as many employers would not tolerate such incompetence. Although the point is not brought out as strongly as those pertaining Bartley, it still makes a significant contribution to the theme of charity. In focus of the American society, Melville insinuated that people require to understand one another to have a good social co-existence. The point that the author stresses is that money is not important than a healthy social co-existence between colleagues. The lawyer is charitable when he sacrifices such financial gain for a good social environment thus developing further on the theme of charity.
In a nutshell, Melville story Bartleby, the Scrivener is a broad reflection and depiction of the changing social values in the American society. By using the first-person voice, the author narrates the story like a personal experience. Therefore, he compares his beliefs of charity that existed in his early age and the way in which it was deteriorating in the current society due to financial boom. Two major acts of narration manifest in his narration that show how the society has changed. One is tolerating a clear refusal to work; “I would prefer not to.” Rather than make a rush decision. The author suggests understanding the individuals first before taking an action. The second act is displayed by the lawyer`s willingness to accommodate Bartley after discovering he has nowhere to live. In this section, Melville suggests that people should learn to help others rather than abandon their social duties. In understanding others, the author also utilizes the act of tolerating the different workability of Turkey and Nippers as an act of charity.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street. ReadHowYouWant.com, 2006.