31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 14: “Bartleby” by Herman Melville

May 14, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

From Billy Budd and Other Stories

For Dani Couture

Although it is now widely considered the greatest American novel ever written, when it was first published in 1851, Moby-Dick was both a critical and commercial failure. The book’s enduring success would likely have astounded its author, who was himself so convinced of its greatness – “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers,” Melville wrote. “A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it” – that its early failure (the first American edition sold a mere 2,300 copies), combined with that of its successor, Pierre (1852), left him despondent and angry at a reading public that seemed unwilling to engage with his dark and unruly vision of America.

It is important not to put too much emphasis on parallels between an author’s life and his fiction, but certain critics have nevertheless suggested that “Bartleby” is, on one level at least, a response to the poor reaction his novels received. “And so we come to the exhausted Melville of 1852,” writes Frederick Busch in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd and Other Stories. “He begins to speak – it is nearly impossible, still, for him to be silent – of what obsesses him: the failure of crucial messages to get through.”

This is not, of course, the only reading of “Bartleby” – it is not even the most convincing. However, to the extent that psychologists have been able to locate in the story’s title character an early example of what has come to be understood as clinical depression, it is a reading that cannot entirely be dismissed. Other, more text-based readings see the story as an exercise in psychological doubling, of the kind frequently employed by Poe (and, indeed, by Melville himself in parts of Moby-Dick); a commentary on the dialectic between free will and determinism; and an examination of the alienating nature of modern life in the immediate aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. It is a measure of the story’s greatness that it allows for aspects of all these readings.

On its surface, “Bartleby” (the full title is “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”) could not be simpler: the first-person narrator, a New York lawyer, requires the help of a third scrivener, or copyist, to aid in the day-to-day business of his office. His two existing scriveners, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, are unable to handle the office workload, and are only efficient for opposing parts of the work day (Nippers suffers from indigestion, and is irritable in the mornings; Turkey is an alcoholic, and is drunk after lunch). The narrator hires Bartleby, whose single-minded dedication to his work is initially impressive, but who out of the blue refuses to proofread a document when his employer requests it. The formula Bartleby invokes in his refusal – “I would prefer not to” – becomes a refrain for the character, who gradually ceases to do anything, but also ignores any attempt to have him evicted from the law offices.

“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as passive resistance,” muses the narrator at one point, advancing at least a partial explanation for why he not only puts up with Bartleby’s refusals, but also goes out of his way to understand the man and eventually even offers to take him in at his own home (an offer that is, predictably, met with the polite deferral, “I would prefer not to”). The reason for the narrator’s persistent sufferance of his obstreperous scrivener is one of the story’s abiding questions; in part it can be explained by Bartleby’s diligence in remaining at his post at all hours, regardless of circumstances. “His late remarkable conduct,” the narrator states, “led me to regard his ways narrowly. I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere. As yet I had never, of my personal knowledge, known him to be outside of my office.” When the new scrivener first arrives, the lawyer erects a screen “which might isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” This area of the office, with a small window that looks out on the wall of another building, becomes Bartleby’s lonely “hermitage.”

The scrivener’s physical and social isolation within the office positions him as a kind of avatar for modern ennui, but his active disavowal of the daily workings of the business world indicates a greater degree of agency. The story’s setting is not incidental: imagine what would happen, Melville seems to be suggesting, if someone consciously and determinedly disassociated himself from the entire capitalist mechanism. How would others around him, who have wholeheartedly bought into the money-making endeavour, react to such an iconoclast? For his part, Bartleby’s employer reacts with a kind of bald astonishment; the two other scriveners become irate.

Bartleby, however, effects a not-so-subtle influence on his fellow workers, insinuating his peculiar turn of phrase, almost unwittingly, into their own interactions:

As Nippers, looking very sour and sulky, was departing, Turkey blandly and deferentially approached.

“With submission, sir,” said he, “yesterday I was thinking about Bartleby here, and I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his papers.”

“So you have got the word, too,” said I, slightly excited.

“With submission, what word, sir,” asked Turkey, respectfully crowding himself into the contracted space behind the screen, and by so doing, making me jostle the scrivener. “What word, sir?”

“I would prefer to be left alone here,” said Bartleby, as if offended at being mobbed in his privacy.

That’s the word, Turkey,” said I – “that’s it.”

“Oh, prefer? oh yes – queer word. I never use it myself. But, sir, as I was saying, if he would but prefer –”

“Turkey,” interrupted I, “you will please withdraw.”

“Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I would.”

This exchange underscores an aspect of the story that many critics avoid talking about: its humour. Critics tend to emphasize Melville’s coldness, and his focus on disaffection and anomie, but “Bartleby” is in many ways an absurdist piece, and the lawyer’s increasing bafflement at his employee’s abject refusals to participate in the day-to-day affairs of the office are fodder for some not insubstantial laughs.

This is not to deny the essential sadness at the story’s centre, a sadness born of the inimical nature of the modern world. It is notable that Bartleby is literally a figure without a history: nothing is know of him in the story – not his past, not his family – save one telling detail the narrator divulges at the very end. Before being hired on as a scrivener at the narrator’s law office, Bartleby worked in the Dead Letter Office of the U.S. Postal Service, a place where, in Melville’s conception, all hope for communication dies. “Sometimes from out the folded paper,” the narrator thinks, “the pale clerk takes a ring – the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life these letters speed to death.” Here we are reminded of Busch’s assertion that the story is about an author who felt he was finally unable to get his meaning across to a recalcitrant public. The final words of the story – “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” – are an anguished cri de couer to a world that wants to hear nothing of it.

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 1: “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

May 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hawthorne’s Short Stories

We begin with one of the fathers of the American short story. Hawthorne was not the first 19th century American to traffic in the short-story form – that was Washington Irving – but he was arguably the most experimental and the most influential. Among his literary admirers were Edgar Allan Poe and, especially, Herman Melville. Hawthorne’s own writing was neither as perverse as Poe’s nor as angry as Melville’s, but his particular brand of spiritually minded fable left an indelible mark on American letters.

In the introduction to Hawthorne’s Short Stories, Newton Arvin writes:

In any other period they might well have taken quite a different literary form – fabulous, visionary, legendary, poetic (in the limited sense), and even dramatic – and if they took the form of “short stories,” it was because, at the moment Hawthorne began to write, that mold was a natural and almost a handy one. This does not mean that it was long-established; on the contrary, it was in its primitive or experimental stage, especially in English, and if it was handy, it was only in the sense in which the history play was so for the young Shakespeare. The Italian novella, the French conte, the realistic-moral English tale – these were ancient types, but they were nothing to the purpose of Hawthorne or his contemporaries: they were not “inward,” they were not meditative or musing, they were not a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. It was only latterly that short pieces of prose fiction had begun to take on qualities such as these, and Hawthorne was as much the creator as he was the inheritor of a form.

“Rappaccini’s Daughter” has been referred to as an allegory about the Garden of Eden, and the Biblical garden is indeed referenced in Hawthorne’s tale. But the garden is a fallen one, and the cause of the fall, in the author’s conception, is the devil of science.

The story concerns a young academic named Giovanni Guasconti, who arrives in Padua to pursue his studies, and becomes enamoured with the figure of a woman he spies from his apartment window. The woman, Beatrice, inhabits a garden grown and tended by her father, the botanist Signor Giacomo Rappaccini. One of Hawthorne’s pervading concerns involved the way the rational – read: scientific – worldview encroached upon the transcendent world of God; he descended from Puritan ancestry (his grandfather was a judge at the Salem witch trials) and never entirely divested himself of this inheritance. Early in the story, Giovanni observes Rappaccini tending his garden and muses in explicitly Biblical terms about the way in which the older man’s scientific disposition places him in the position of a latter-day Adam, whose fall from divine grace tainted mankind with the scourge of original sin:

Nothing could exceed the intentness with which this scientific gardener examined every shrub which grew in his path: it seemed as if he was looking into their innermost nature, making observations in regard to their creative essence, and discovering why one leaf grew in this shape and another in that, and wherefore such and such flowers differed among themselves in hue and perfume. Nevertheless, in spite of this deep intelligence on his part, there was no approach to intimacy between himself and these vegetable existences. On the contrary, he avoided their actual touch or the direct inhaling of their odors with a caution that impressed Giovanni most disagreeably; for the man’s demeanor was that of one walking among the most malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits, which, should he allow them one moment of license, would wreak upon him some terrible fatality. It was strangely frightful to the young man’s imagination to see this air of insecurity in a person cultivating a garden, that most simple and innocent of human toils, and which had been alike the joy and labor of the unfallen parts of the human race. Was this garden, then, the Eden of the present world? And this man, with such a perception of harm in what his own hands caused to grow, – was he the Adam?

The language here is telling: the scientist appears as one walking among “deadly snakes” – a clear reference to the tempter in the Biblical garden – and the notion of tending to plants and flowers is “alike the joy and labor of the unfallen parts of the human race.” The fact that Giovanni imagines Rappaccini as “the Adam” of this particular garden is also telling: although the garden itself evinces a prelapsarian aspect, there is a definite indication in this description that the scientist is a sinful figure.

The inheritor of Rappaccini’s sin – the sin, as we come to understand, of pride in his intellectual rigour – is his daughter: a distaff inversion of the Biblical prophecy about the sins of the father. Rappaccini believes “that all medicinal virtues are comprised within those substances which we term vegetable poisons,” to which end he has cultivated a garden replete with plants of such malignancy that merely coming into physical contact with them will result in death. Rappaccini’s daughter, with whom Giovanni strikes up a friendship that cedes inevitably into romantic attachment, is immune to the malevolent effects of her father’s flora, but her breath and touch are toxic. (Pop culture enthusiasts may recognize echoes of Rappaccini’s daughter in the character of DC Comics’ Batman villain Poison Ivy.)

Contact with Beatrice – described by one character in the story as “poisonous as she is beautiful” – infects Giovanni: his breath becomes similarly toxic, and he rails against the “accursed” woman who has brought him to such a fate. This is Hawthorne in full Puritan mode: the temptations of lust and the blatant voyeurism in which Giovanni engages while spying on Beatrice from his window seal his earthly fate; although Rappaccini greets Giovanni’s affliction with delight (“My daughter … thou art no longer lonely in the world”), the affair must perforce remain unconsummated and Beatrice must die. Whether she dies as a result of tempting her young swain – in the manner of Eve in the Biblical garden – or whether she is more of a sacrificial lamb, perishing for the sin of her father and rescuing her beloved from a similar fate, is a matter of individual interpretation.