Herman Melville’s short story “Bartelby the Scrivener” was published in 1853 at the end of his writing career. At first glance the story is often seen as dull and boring with slow pacing and bland characters. However, when examined in the context of who Herman Melville was and how he developed as an author the story of Bartelby, the scrivener who prefers not to work, can be seen as an allegorical representation of Melville and his career. The scrivener’s deterioration from the narrator’s favorite and most praised employee to a starved shadow of a man who feebly subsists mirrors Melville’s literary career in the eyes of the public. When Bartelby arrives he works diligently and does exceptional work; Melville’s first works were hit successes. But as time goes on his work slackens; his works become less popular and increasingly unorthodox. Finally, Bartelby dies in a jail called The Tombs; Melville is forgotten by the generations he wrote for. If the story of Bartelby the Scrivener is viewed this way, then it is possible to gain greater insight into the struggle Herman Melville underwent between writing for himself and writing for the public as well as understand how Melville was able to craft a timeless character using his struggle as the template.
Herman Melville’s career begins akin to Bartelby’s career working for the narrator. He worked a variety of jobs; he went to sea serving on a merchant vessel, a whaler, and a naval frigate. (Herman 170). Melville took his experiences and turned them into adventure stories that the public enjoyed and adored. These stories gave Melville a great deal of popularity, and earned him a fair bit of money doing so. Melville became known for turning experiences into bestselling Romances (170). Seemingly out of nowhere, Bartelby begins his career working for the narrator as a way for the narrator to balance out his other workers (Melville 176) He does his work, he does the work well, and shows that he is above his contemporaries. As a reward he is given a place working in the office of the narrator so that he can be kept close. Melville wrote, “I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartelby might snatch it up and proceed to business without the least delay” (Melville 176). He does an exceptional job, and the narrator gives him no real thought, Bartelby is simply a good worker doing good work. Melville was seen this way, a good writer, providing his audience with interesting stories, becoming popular, but not so memorable to give a second thought about the man behind the work that was done.
Nathaniel Hawthorne created an immense change in Melville’s life, causing him to reconsider why he wrote. Hawthorne was a Dark Romantic, who went against the standard of literature of the time. Melville admired Hawthorne and decided to follow Hawthorne’s example and not prostitute his art for financial gain. (Herman 170) The influence of Hawthorne can be seen as the black-with age-and-dirt brick wall that Bartelby Stares at from time to time. When Bartelby begins to stare at this wall, he also begins to say that he would prefer not to work. (180). The narrator of the story urges Bartelby to do the good work he used to do, which represents the public’s pressure for Melville to write the jaunty pirate adventure’s he was known for. Melville knew that he could easily turn out another story like Omoo or Typee, but he would prefer not to. He would prefer that he used his talents for something greater than “soap opera” books. He wanted to make art. Bartelby never admits that he cannot do the work or that he will not do the work, just that he would prefer not to do the work, just as Melville preferred to write in one way, and not the way the public pressured him to.
A letter than Melville wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne saying that he could no longer write the way that the public urged him to was the point where Bartelby refused to do any work, representing Melville’s conscious choice to write what he chose to write and not what was popular. He wrote “Dollars damn me; and the maliciousDevil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar…. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.This is when Bartelby altogether refuses to work anymore and he simply exists as an entity in the narrator’s world. The struggle within Melville ends with his decision to forego what he ought to write, just as the struggle between the narrator and the scrivener ends when Bartelby refuses once and for all not to work. The struggle in Bartelby and his real world counterpart may be over, but the struggle between the World and Melville was far from over. The narrator tries to convince Bartelby to do some work but all in all the efforts fail. Even when the narrator offers to give Bartelby charity, giving him alms so that he may survive how he likes, he refuses (Melville 188). This is analogous to the public expecting something from Melville, something from the writer that gave them great hits and then receiving Moby Dick, a book that was terribly unpopular during its day. This would be similar to Robert Downy Junior a fearsomely popular actor known for his portrayals of characters such as Tony Start the Iron man, and Sherlock Holmes the detective, deciding that he would no longer make superhero or detective movies and would now only make documentaries about the relevance of various forms of cameras and filmography. The public who had grown to adore RDJ’s performance would do their best to convince him otherwise, only to be greeted by “I prefer not to” eventually the public would move on, forget him and find new things and actors to make popular. This is what happened to Melville after Moby Dick and eventually the public left Melville behind as the narrator left Bartelby behind when he changed offices.
The last stage of Bartley’s life mirrors the last stage of the Melville’s career. They both fade into nonexistence. They stop the most basic functions, barely even surviving. At the end, Melville’s published few if any works, Bartelby the scrivener being one of them. It was his statement, his way of saying that he believes he was more, and that he would not bow to what society told him to do, told him to write and that he would rather starve, then to feed like a slave. The story closes out when Bartelby dies and the narrator learns of Bartley’s tenure at the dead letter office. He says that he now understands why Bartelby was who he was (199). The dead letter office was the sea of Melville’s desires, his wishes, his hopes, and his dreams of what literature should be. And as time went on he was forced to burn it. There was never a second Moby dick, there was never a second Bartelby. They were burned and gave just as bright a flame as every letter thrown into the fire of the dead letter office, leaving Bartelby and Melville alone and broken, starved to death because of what they preferred not to do. Always having the power to survive, yet choosing rather to die than to be subject to the whim of a master.
Melville was a Dark Romantic, and was part of a divergence from the norm and into a new larger school of thought. Melville posed the questions: Could books be more than stories? Could they be made to represent more than just a plot and some shallow characters? Can words be art? As Melville explored these ideas, he learned that he was ahead of the curve. Yet he kept his vision alive, and chose to maintain his straight course. He chose to do what he thought was right. Almost two centuries later, the stories that made him popular in his day are seldom read, yet college and high school students are left to interpret who Bartelby the scrivener is. He is the fulfillment of Melville’s dream. A character that can be made to represent anything and everything. The perfect allegory for every situation. The real meaning behind Bartelby the scrivener was never revealed, and so the answer will never be known. This makes Bartelby a uniquely alive piece of literature. A new interpretation is always there to be made, and it will be just as true as any other idea or theory. Though Melville’s career died as Bartelby did, it remains uniquely alive through a character as boring as the pages he was written into
Melville, Herman. “Bartelby the Scrivener.” In Knowledge, Nature, Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities and Social Sciences. Ed. Lisa M. Dolling, et al. 2nd Ed. Hoboken: Stevens Institute of Technology, 2014; pp. 170-199. Print.
“Herman Melville (1819-1891).” In Knowledge, Nature, Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities and Social Sciences. Ed. Lisa M. Dolling, et al. 2nd Ed. Hoboken: Stevens Institute of Technology, 2014; pp. 170. Print.
Melville, Herman. “Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In Melville’s Letters to Hawthorne. June 1851. Accessed http://www.melville.org/corresp.htm February 17, 2017. Web.