Idols of the Narrator – Bartelby and Novum Organum

Francis Bacon was a 16th century philosopher who argued for scientific knowledge based upon inductive reasoning and careful observation. In his work Novum Organum he speaks about the Four Idols, a set of ideas that impedes humanity’s ability to think with complete inductive and logical thought. These idols are very profound in Herman Melville’s 1853 Short Story “Bartelby the Scrivener.” The narrator of the short story recounts the decay of one of the greatest workers he has had from a studious Scrivener, to a hollow corpse, all the while investigating this strange man as to understand him. At the end of the story the narrator never truly understands Bartelby, nor is he meant to as Melville himself never gave a definitive answer to the true meaning of his Scrivener. However, applying Bacon’s Four Idols to the narrator’s investigation reveals that the narrator himself exhibits all of these idols, explaining why he could never understand Bartelby. In the end the narrator could not analyze his scrivener properly because of the Four Idols.  

At the very beginning of “Bartelby the Scrivener” it is apparent that the narrator is heavily influenced by the four idols, yet they do not help the narrator understand Bartelby.  The Idols of the Tribe are arguably the idols that affect the narrator the most. To Bacon, the Idols of the Tribe were the aspects of human nature that affects and clouds our understanding of things. In Novum Organum he wrote “the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it” (Bacon 326). He goes on to elaborate that humanity seeks to understand things it does not understand by comparing it to things that it does understand. “And though there be many things in nature which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist” (Bacon 327). Humanity is in a constant search for patterns so it can understand the world. In the first paragraphs of Bartelby the Scrivener the narrator makes it clear that he lives his life trying to find patterns in what he does. A primary example of this is the employees whom he keeps in his wall street office. Melville writes, “I had two persons as copyists in my employment, and a promising lad as an office-boy. First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut. These may seem names, the like of which are not usually found in the Directory. In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks, and were deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters” (Melville172). In the following paragraphs he explains the nature of each of these men, and how they fit their names, showing how prominent the Idols of the Tribe are at work in the narrator. He does not even call his own employees by their names, instead reducing them to food they are similar to. All except Bartelby; he is never given a nickname, and he is consistently a source of complicating thoughts for the narrator. “There was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me” (Melville 172). The more and more time Bartelby spends around the narrator the more and more he thinks about him. He thinks about Bartelby because he can’t understand him. His mind, which searches for patterns or things that he can equate other things to, fails him. The Idols of the Tribe fail him. He never nicknames Bartelby anything, which means he cannot equate him to food, nor can he liken him to any of his workers. Throughout the story when Bartelby refuses to do work he attempts to analyze Bartelby by getting the reactions of his other employees to what Bartelby is doing. Turkey, Ginger Nut, and Nippers, all have reactions according to narrator’s ideas of the mean, reactions that obey the idols of the narrator’s mind (Melville 178). However, this does not help the narrator in understanding Bartelby anymore. The Idols of the Tribe have failed him, and so he must turn to the Idols of the Cave.  

The next idols to impede the narrator’s investigation of Bartelby are the Idols of the Cave. According to Bacon the Idols of the Cave were the biases of men based on experience, environment, and education, rendering men incapable of objective reasoning (326). The narrator of “Bartelby the Scrivener” has a high opinion of himself and believes himself to be very adept when it comes to understanding people. In his introduction he likens himself to an authority on Scriveners “I have known very many of them and, if I pleased, could relate [diverse] histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep” (Melville 170). He has the mind of a collector and his collection is the scriveners whom he has employed throughout the years, Bartelby being the prize of the collection as he is the only story that has been written down by the narrator. The collector’s mind is the first of the Idols of the Cave that distorts the narrator’s vision. If he always looks to add interesting workers to his “collection” then his employees become little more than objects to him, little more than dolls on a shelf, to be categorized, arranged, and rearranged based on how they fit into the collection. It is clear that the narrator gives this object level of awareness to his employees. He doesn’t know their names and barely regards them as human. In the beginning, when Bartelby was working well the narrator takes notice of it, “In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, 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, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay” (Melville 176). The narrator only notices the work done by the men, another minor idol that prevents him from seeing who Bartelby is as a person.  

The other major Idol of the Cave that prevents the narrator’s understanding of Bartelby is his confidence in his own ideas. In Novum Organum Bacon makes the very valid point that in general people support their ideas because either they came up with them or because they have had those ideas and preconceptions for so long they are second nature. He wrote, “Men become attached to certain particular sciences and speculations, either because the fancy themselves the authors or inventors thereof, or because they have bestowed the greatest pains upon them and become the most habituated to them” (Bacon 329). The narrator is very guilty of having this idol. After he begins his investigation of his scrivener after he begins noticing Bartelby’s eating habits. Melville writes, “He lives, then, on ginger-nuts, thought I; never eats a dinner, properly speaking; he must be a vegetarian then; but no; he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but ginger-nuts. My mind then ran on in reveries concerning the probable effects upon the human constitution of living entirely on ginger-nuts. Gingernuts are so called because they contain ginger as one of their peculiar constituents, and the final flavoring one. Now what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then, had no effect upon Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none” (Melville 179).  This string of observations based solely on the one observation that Bartelby has Ginger Nut buy him some ginger nuts leads him to this string of deductions. The Idols of the Cave are very active in this process, leading him to some strange ideas about the man, but in the end the narrator is no farther in understanding Bartleby because he is looking through the rose tinted goggles of the Idols of the Cave and not using induction. Over and over the narrator analyzes Bartelby’s behavior this way. When he learns Bartelby is living in his office, when Bartelby refuses to work, and when Bartelby refuses to leave the offices, the narrator tries to put it in terms of things he and his idols can relate it to, but fails because he cannot observe objectively. 

Perhaps the most iconic line of “Bartleby the Scrivener” is when the title character says “I would prefer not to.” The narrator puzzles over this line throughout the book, always pushing Bartelby to give him a reason not to work, eventually giving up and allowing Bartelby to stop working, to live in his offices, and to die from starvation. When Bartelby says “I would prefer not to” the narrator takes this as him refusing to work, and that interpretation of the scrivener’s words is a fundamental example of the Idols of the Market. Bacon described the Idols of the Market as “the names of things which do not exist, or they are names of things which exists, but yet confused and ill-defined, and hastily and irregularly derived from realities” (Bacon 331). The idols of the market are the differences between the words we speak and what the words actually mean. The narrator interprets that Bartelby is refusing to work because that is what he understands the words to mean. Perhaps if he did not have the idols he possessed things would have gone differently between Bartelby and the narrator. Perhaps he would have told Bartelby that he didn’t care what he preferred, or that it didn’t matter what he preferred, but because the idols of the market give the words a certain meaning to the narrator, he and Bartelby are forever at a stalemate.  

The last set of idols, the Idols of the Theatre, lead the narrator to act the way he does after Bartelby refuses to work, and explains why he is so benevolent to his once prized worker. “There are idols which have immigrated from various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration” (Bacon 326). Bacon described the idols of the theater as the philosophies of the current day and age and the philosophies of the philosophers of the past. In terms of the narrator, his philosophies are represented by Cicero, whom he keeps a bust of in his office, as well of the philosophies of kindness and benevolence which can be seen by his sense of charity and goodwill toward Bartelby. Cicero represents how the narrator runs his business; like the ideal lawyer. His philosophy of kindness can be seen when he offers Bartelby money, a place to live, and his help when he needs it. The narrator’s idols of the theatre lead him to pity Bartelby and see him as a cause to throw money at, not a person. And in that way he is drawn even farther away from seeing who Bartelby is as a person. 

The narrator’s telling and investigation of Bartelby the Scrivener is about as far from induction as can be. He is filled to the brim with the idols of the tribe, cave, market and theatre, and cannot help but see through their rose tinted goggles. It is no wonder he could not make an inductive analysis of Bartelby. Idols of the Tribe cause him to compare Bartelby to the other workers he has known. That fails. Then he tries to compare Bartelby to the experiences he has had and what he has personally known. That fails as well. Even with words he is stopped because he cannot let go of his Idols of the Market to see what Bartelby is saying. And finally, all the wisdom of the philosophers and ideals of the world he lives in cannot even help him. In academia, Bartelby the scrivener is analyzed to death. There are always new papers, and new theories on what the story means and yet nothing definitive can ever be brought from them. That is absolutely in part to there being no correct answer, but it may have something to do with these four idols. Every person who writes about Bartelby becomes their own version of the narrator, infusing their own emotional and moral ideas into the narrator, trying to understand him. Bacon argued for an epistemological approach, and perhaps that is the type of investigation Bartelby deserves.   

Works Cited 

Bacon, Francis “The Four Idols.” 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. 

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.