Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Bartleby is about charity, dammit.

Many people think Bartleby the Scrivener is about capitalism, but I would prefer not to.

At first glance, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville is a simple story.  A lawyer describes his employee, Bartleby, and his idiosyncrasies. Bartleby proves to be more trouble than he’s worth, so the lawyer washes his hands of him and moves on. Bartleby as a consequence, dies in jail. However, a closer look can gives us a chilling picture of charity gone wrong.

Melville’s story starts with a quick statement of intent to tell of Bartleby followed by an overview of the status quo for his office. He gives quite a bit of detail about his employees Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, but he does not give their true names. I find it worth noting that the lawyer is more concerned about their superficial appearance and the way their behavior affects their work (and thus him as their employer) than he is with their personal lives. Perhaps he is more concerned about telling Bartleby’s story and glosses over the other characters to get to Bartleby’s tale more quickly. However, this notion is belied by the fact that he spends almost three whole pages on these characters, almost to the point of causing the descriptions drag on, with absolutely no mention of family or aspirations. His focus on superficial details speaks to the lawyer's self-interest.

Bartleby does well at first, but before long he begins to ignore the lawyer’s instructions and does not comply with what would seem like the simplest requests. This catches the lawyer’s attention, not only because it is an affront to his authority, but because it causes him hardship. He does little to explore why Bartleby behaves in this eccentric manner, instead focusing on how it made him feel. Anger and frustration are a recurrent theme.

While it is easy to say the lawyer is a push-over who easily backs down, the actions he ultimately takes (moving his office to be rid of Bartleby and allowing the police to take over) shows something more. This is a man who wants to feel good, to feel like he did the right thing with as little effort as possible. Instead of helping Bartleby in a meaningful way, which would require time, effort, and money on the lawyer’s part, he would rather take the fast and easy solution, one that pushes the responsibility of Bartleby onto other people, but one that also allows him to avoid criticism.  After all he could argue, he offered to pay Bartleby extra, to help him find another job, even went so far as to make the empty offer of opening his home.  These offers are empty because the lawyer knows that what troubles Bartleby is more than simple material needs as evidenced by his thought: “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.” (Norton,1496)

Adding another layer to the falseness of the lawyer’s offers to help Bartleby is the fact that these offers came only after he wished to be rid of the problems Bartleby created. The lawyer was willing to allow Bartleby to remain in his office until his peers began to take notice and gossip. He also did not go back to visit Bartleby until his old landlord came to him to tell him he was responsible. The lawyer goes to the jail to visit, but again pushes the care of Bartleby onto others by paying the cook to attend to him. In the eyes of the lawyer, it is preferable to part with money than it is spend time with Bartleby-- hence my assertion that the lawyer’s ‘charity’ is self-serving. The lawyer gets to go home guilt-free with little real effort on his part.

While I can understand the theory that this story is a tale of the American workforce and the role capitalism plays with Bartleby standing in for civil disobedience, I think this is a study in the nature of charity. The lawyer falls into the trap of false charity, one that is best described as a two way street. He expected Bartleby to do something for him; to improve himself, to work, to go away… he never once practiced true charity by giving without expecting anything in return. The lawyer’s view of charity is understandable and one that we all are vulnerable to subscribing to, but Melville shows us that such charity can end up doing more harm than good with Bartleby’s death in the end. While it is incumbent upon us all to be responsible for ourselves, and to recognize that there are people who no matter how much we might do for them cannot be helped, we must also be careful to examine our own motives and reasoning when offering help. The easy thing would be to say, ‘don’t be selfish’ but as Melville shows us, sometimes such selfishness is not easily recognized. I’m sure if the lawyer could speak directly on the subject he would be indignant at the accusation and make all kinds of excuses.  The ending of Melville’s story tells as much. The lawyer blames Bartleby’s problems on his time spent in ‘dead letters’ and takes no responsibility for his part. 

I believe the story of Bartleby is Melville's way showing us how to give purely and with good intentions. A simple story at first glance, yes, but one that reveals a heart of gold upon closer examination.


Goldfarb, Nancy D. "Charity as Purchase: Buying Self-Approval in Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'." Nineteenth-Century Literature  (2014 Sept): 233-261.
Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.

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