Monday, August 5, 2013

Bartleby's dead-wall revery

I saw something new in “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853).  New to me, of course; old news to previous re-readers.  Maybe not even new to me.  Maybe I had read about it somewhere.  Who knows.

With a story like “Bartleby” – with a reader like me – I am unsure of the point of seeing new things.  In theory, I need as complete a picture of a work as possible to develop an interpretation, and thus any new observation should lead to a new interpretation.

But I have already concluded that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a radically ambiguous work that supports multiple interpretations, not all of them exclusive.  In a more puzzle-like text, I can use clues to limit interpretation.  Everything in “Bartleby” just leads to more.  Bartleby, the clerk who would prefer not to work, is an example of white collar Marxist alienation.  Bartleby, the man who would prefer not to eat, move, or, eventually, live, symbolizes a crisis of purpose or meaning.  Or perhaps his fate is positive, if, say, he is abandoning material things and embracing the Schopenhauerian Will.  Or perhaps I am supposed to be wondering about Bartleby’s employer, the lawyer who narrates the story, more than Bartleby.  His sympathy for his clerk may be more mysterious than Bartleby’s refusals.

All of the above, I guess.

What did I see?  The wall.  It was right there in the title, which, in full, is “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.”  Before introducing Bartleby, the narrator describes his office, including the view from a particular window:

In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes.  Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.

The jokey tone deflects any meaning from the wall at this point.  It’s just part of a cramped Manhattan office.

When Bartleby joins the form as a clerk – he is strange but not completely passive from the beginning – he is put in a cubicle by this window.  Or is it the same window?  No, “[w]ithin three feet of the panes was a wall,” so worse, but not in everlasting shade – “the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome.”  When not working Bartleby “would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall.”

Eventually the narrator decides he “must get rid of a demented man,” but he is stymied by his sympathy combined with an error:

The next day I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery.   Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing.

"Why, how now? what next?" exclaimed I, "do no more writing?"

"No more."

"And what is the reason?"

"Do you not see the reason for yourself," he indifferently replied.

I looked steadfastly at him, and perceived that his eyes looked dull and glazed.

The error is that the lawyer concludes that Bartleby’s vision has been harmed by his work.  But the visionary Bartleby is not referring to his eyes, but to the wall.  The reason is in the wall.  He can see it, whatever it is, even if the lawyer cannot.

I won’t take trace the idea all the way through, except to note that at the end of the story we see Bartleby with his “his face towards a high wall,” and he dies “[s]trangely huddled at the base of the wall.”  The narrator is the one telling me all of this, but he does not seem to grasp the significance, which is fair enough, since neither do I.  I am turning “Bartleby” into a puzzle despite my certainty that it is no such thing, with no solution, just clues.


  1. I'd been studying management theory the last time I read this, and it's surprising how much management theory is in it: how to motivate your staff / deal with underperformance etc. The narrator tries his best.

  2. Oh good - that is how it seemed to me, more intuitively. The narrator's only real mistake is the one I mention here, and it is a completely understandable mistake of interpretation.

  3. The wall is good. There are lots of walls/barriers in "Bartleby." The wall is really good, a great angle. I'll have to read it again soon.

  4. I don't want to say how long it took me, poking at the walls, to realize that the story takes place on Wall Street, and Melville put it in the title.

    But it was the scene I quote that is the clincher. Even recounting the story, telling me about the wall, telling me that Bartleby is looking at the wall, the narrator does not see that he does not see what Bartleby sees.

    That was elegant.

  5. Though the wall(s) in Bartleby serve obviously symbolic functions, I too had never paid much attention the wall right there under my nose in the title. And while Bartleby's demise seems a martyrdom of sorts, I'd also never really noticed the near religiosity of that narrow shaft of light coming from perhaps heavenly dome above Bartleby's window. But maybe the most enjoyable of these revelations from the passages you've excerpted is noting Bartleby's emphasis on writing - that in essence he has writer's block. One could imagine a contemporary update of this story, a creative mind in a functionary position, sitting at a computer trying to write his or her novel (or blog) in stolen snatches of time at the office, and finally just being defeated by the effort that dual existence requires. One has to wonder what creative scribbling Bartleby might have been hiding under all those boring copies he was obliged to write out.

    1. This is good, really good. Especially when you consider all the trouble that other scrivener (I forget his name, the younger of the other two in the office) has with his writing desk.

  6. I know, the shaft of light, I know. Is that what Bartleby is actually looking at?

    At least one other story in The Piazza Tales is about a writer (maybe) who is interrupted by a fool. I am just saying.

  7. Fascinating. The wall is obviously a presence in the story, but I hadn't realised till reading this how pervasive a presence it is - invading even the title.

    I'd guess that, as with the white whale, Melville himself did not know what the wall represents, and to try to pin such things down is to diminish. Enough that it is a barrier (to what?) and that it restricts what light we receive from the sky. Whatever that light, in turn, may symbolise.

  8. Many meanings. The risk is that "many" quickly slides into "none". A gesture towards meaning.

  9. Ah, Tom, it is always so pleasurable to capture a new nuance from a literary text we love! I haven't read Bartleby in a few years, I need to take an hour to do so. I first read at the University and a few more times since. Although I'm not crazy about Melville like you, I have to say this is the greatest short-story I've ever read, better even than Borges', and that right there is the highest praise I can give to any writer.

  10. "Greatest" - a contender, surely. And for Melville, not so baroque.