Mary Condela Reading Blog # 5
Brooding about Bartleby
In Herman Melville’s Bartleby much of what we learn from the narrator in his characterization of Bartleby is ambiguous and perpetually shifting. The narrator seems to reveal more about himself than any other character that he attempts to accurately and minutely describe. The beginning, comprised of describing the environment in which the story takes place is exhaustive. However, throughout the story it changes from “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’” (Melville 1484) to “week-days hums with industry and life” (Melville 1495) in contrast to the empty building Bartleby occupies on the weekend. His descriptions seem to alter conveniently with his mood and every new situation. He speaks in a positive tone about the view of a dank wall, but then when expressing his sadness he views the office as full of livelihood. This work-day vivacity is also in contrast to his description of his job as dull.
Even when elucidating his own character the narrator inadvertently varies throughout the story. He says of himself that he would “much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation” (Mellville 1484). However, as the story progresses he is overcome with indignation which, instead of taking out on others (mostly), he obsesses over how to unavailingly remove. Although the narrator states he has “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (Mellville 1484) he continually makes life harder for himself by striving to act honorably and appease his own conscience and vanity. The chief cause of this obsession is Bartleby’s queer behavior. The only constant that the narrator maintains of this character is his honesty, which the reader has no way of proving. He shifts from “pitiably respectful” (Mellville 1488) to his “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance” (Mellville 1494) to his “austere reserve” (Mellville 1496) to his “calm disdain” and “perverseness” (Mellville 1497). When all the narrator’s honorable actions are done to no effect he regards Bartleby in an even higher light. He even excuses his fear of confrontation as his “predestinated purpose” of life (Mellville 1502). He continually puts Bartleby’s comfort over his own. Maybe because Bartleby is performing in his sense the best life, which is the easiest. Bartleby ends up being employed for doing nothing. The narrator returns to pity when Bartleby dies, but seems to reflect, in intervals, that until that point, Bartleby has done exactly what he wants. Actually, the narrator may be unaware of this revelation, focusing more on his interpretation of Bartleby’s assumed forlorn manner; but the reader is led to realize this truth.
The narrator’s sense of sympathy often stems from his pride. Whenever he thinks of a new plan to rid himself of Bartleby in a respectable manner he applauds his own genius, which is found to be faulty. Despite the narrator’s curiosity, he fails at discovering a sturdy explanation of Bartleby’s character. This may be because he can not extricate his own “infallible” ideas and feelings from what he knows nothing of. The objective style of writing masks the completely subjective understanding of Bartleby. This use of pedantic diction reveals that even the most careful story teller is still unreliable.