Herman Melville’s Bartleby and Civil Disobedience?

bartleby-imageWhen I asked students what they thought of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, most expressed frustration with Bartleby because they did not know his motivations. Truthfully, we never really know for sure what drives Bartleby to continue to tell his employer, “I would prefer not to.” However, I would argue, as some have done, that we should read Melville’s story, as we do Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, as a commentary on transcendentalism and specifically on Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Emerson and Thoreau argue that resistance to authority should be carried out based on one’s own principles, and Bartleby appears to base his continuous refusal to do his job because of his principles. Bartleby never says what his principles are, but his “passive resistance” causes problems with the narrator, a man who continually threatens to reprimand Bartleby and the other employees but never does. On Bartleby’s actions, the narrator states,

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment. Even so, for the most part, I regarded Bartleby and his ways. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. (1073-1074)

The narrator notes that since Bartleby does not initially pose a threat to him or his office, then he can work with Bartleby because the scrivener “is useful to [him].” Here, we see thoughts that mirror those of Kirby in Davis’s novella. Hugh serves as nothing more than a cog for the iron mill, a cog that can easily be replaced when he becomes useless.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau argues, “All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer” (913). If Bartleby is a representation of civil disobedience, then what machine do his actions counter? Bartelby’s refusal to work counters the narrator’s drive to become akin to John Jacob Astor through his drive and work ethic. Bartleby initially shows the same type of drive as the narrator, but as time goes on, Bartleby refuses to work and eventually ends up in prison.

Read this way, Bartleby counteracts the narrator’s work ethic towards the American Drea; however, Bartleby is the one who ultimately suffers by dying, not the narrator. The narrator experiences frustration and becomes touched by Bartleby, but he maintains his life, as far as we can tell. Actually, Bartleby’s civil disobedience, while challenging the narrator’s drive, does not do anything to deter the gears of capitalism from continually grinding.

When the narrator comes to visit Bartleby in the Tombs at the end of the story, he comments on the oppressive atmosphere of the courtyard, calling attention to the artistic nature of the masonry and nature peeking through the concrete facade.

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. (1092)

The narrator’s description makes it sound like even within the confines of the jail life exists and one can find beauty, but this is not the case. Immediately after the description of the grass making its way into the jail, we see Bartleby dead on the courtyard floor.

bartlebyThis scene reminds me of Thoreau’s description of the night he spent in jail for not paying his taxes. Thoreau claims, “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar” (921-922). Thoreau feels freedom because he lies in a jail cell because of his principles, not because he felt like he did something wrong. Bartleby, it appears, goes to jail for the same reason, but instead of finding freedom in jail, he continues to grind against the gears of authority.

Ultimately, Bartleby’s resistance gets him death. He counters the authority of the narrator and also counters the authority of the law. However, his resistance does not change anything. The narrator continues to work, and the jail continues to house inmates. Passive resistance, at least in the case of Bartleby, does not enact change; it perpetuates the existing system(s).

Another way to think about Bartleby, in relation to Thoreau, is to think about Bartleby as a psychological extension of the narrator himself. In this way, the narrator confronts the fact that he tirelessly works to achieve the American Dream without really finding himself. This reading comes up notably in the film adaptation from the 1960s where Bartleby always appears in the same scenes with the narrator. As well, if we think about the set up of the office, Bartleby works behind a screen in the narrator’s office.

When discussing money in Civil Disobedience, Thoreau states, “But the rich man- not to make any invidious comparison- is always sold to the institution which makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects, and obtains them for him; and it was certainly no great virtue to obtain it” (920). Money comes between the narrator and those who work for him. As stated earlier, he continually talks about firing them for various reasons, but he never does because they he finds use with them. When Bartleby becomes a nuisance, and affects business relationships,  the narrator acts, moving his offices.

This, of course, is not everything that could be discussed in relation to Thoreau and Melville; however, it provides an extension of what I discussed in the previous post with Davis. Taken in unison, thinking about these texts in relation to another will help students come to a better understating of Bartleby, Life in the Iron Mills, and “Civil Disobedience.” What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.

Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener. American Literature Vol. 1 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 1064-1093.

Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience. American Literature Vol. 1 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 910-92.





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