Essay, Research Paper: Bartleby The Scrivener

Literature: Herman Melville

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In democratic ages men rarely sacrifice themselves for another, but they show a
general compassion for all the human race. One never sees them inflict pointless
suffering, and they are glad to relieve the sorrows of others when they can do
so without much trouble to themselves. They are not disinterested, but they are
gentle. - Alexis De Tocqueville ( Compassion is an innate
quality that is found within human nature, and is expressed to those in the form
of a helping hand to people who are financially and emotionally troubled.
However, each individual may have a different limit towards the amount of
compassion that one can show to another being. In Herman Melville’s story,
“Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Melville is showing the reader that each
individual does have a limit, when it comes to expressing compassion towards
other beings. Melville also shows that this limit is different for each
individual, when he talks about how each of the characters interact with
Bartleby. The story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” begins with the narrator
identifying himself as a man who is “filled with a profound conviction that
the easiest way of life is best”. This very attitude towards life in general,
suggests that the narrator cannot be too compassionate towards other beings
because showing compassion and providing support is hard work emotionally and
physically. To be compassionate, one must be able to understand the inner
workings of the unfortunate soul, so that one can help fix the problem. Thus,
the narrator does not have the experience or the spontaneity to help others
because all who know him, consider him to be “an eminently safe man” (2330).
However, one must note that as the story progresses, the narrator does push his
boundaries towards helping Bartleby, but ultimately fails because he does not
take the time to understand Bartleby. There is no doubt that the narrator is a
compassionate person because he puts up with the antics of his employees. One of
his employees is an old man named Turkey, who handles himself well in the
morning, but in the afternoon becomes insolent. Any other person would have
fired Turkey, when he becomes insolent towards his fellow workers and clients,
but the narrator generally leaves him alone. One can conclude that the narrator
is weak, and being a ‘safe’ man, he decides to let things be the same in
order to prevent a conflict, but this is an incorrect conclusion. The narrator
could have fired Turkey, which would have prevented a conflict as well as
resolving the issue regarding Turkey’s attitude, but the narrator chooses to
keep Turkey. Although one can say that the narrator is compassionate, one must
also take into account the extent of his compassion. In the scene where Bartleby
refuses to help examine the paper, the narrator backs away from a confrontation.
He says, “I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray
eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled in him” (2336). The
narrator does not know how to handle the situation because he could not find any
human qualities within Bartleby. Therefore, he plays it safe and avoids the
confrontation by proceeding to other matters. This scene helps show the
narrator’s limits because by playing it safe, he is not helping Bartleby, but
instead delays the inevitable confrontation. Thus, one can argue incorrectly
that the narrator has a weak character, when in reality he is looking at the
world with a different perspective, and therefore is not able to understand the
needs of Bartleby. It is easy to see that the narrator is a compassionate man,
although many would argue that he is weak. He allows his employees to be
themselves, and tries to reign them in when they go too far. Thus, when Bartleby
refuses to help him and the others examine the documents, he avoids a
confrontation. However, the others are quick to judge Bartleby. This is seen
when Nippers says, “I think I should kick him out of the office” (2337)
while Turkey says, “shall I go and black his eyes?” (2339). Neither of these
characters attempt to understand Bartleby, and if they had their way, they would
have fired him immediately. This shows that the limit of their compassion
towards Bartleby is very short, and it also allows the reader to come to the
conclusion that the narrator is indeed an extraordinary man, whose limit towards
helping Bartleby exceeds that of many people. A compassionate person is a person
who understands the strengths and weaknesses of other people. With a better
understanding of the person, one can help sort out the other person’s
problems. The narrator’s perspective of life, along with how he lives his
life, makes him incapable of showing more compassion towards Bartleby. John
Seelye says that the narrator’s “orderliness of his world is suggested by
the design of his office: two adjoining apartments, with antipodal windows
looking out upon opposing white and black walls, suggesting the cleanly defined
ethics of their inhabitant” (97). Thus, due to his “commitment to balance,
order, and rational processes, his office is not equipped to handle a case like
the mysterious scrivener, the ‘motionless young man’ whose gravity nearly
destroys the balanced movements” of the narrator’s life. Bartleby “demands
love that passes all understanding”, but the narrator is incapable of
understanding Bartleby’s needs, and the “most he can give is [limited
compassion]” (97). However, the narrator does make a connection with Bartleby
in the scene where he realizes that Bartleby has been living in the office. He
says, “for the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging
melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing
sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A
fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (2341). This
is an important scene because now that he has made a connection with Bartleby,
he goes beyond his ‘safe’ zone and becomes more compassionate towards the
needs of Bartleby. By attempting to understand Bartleby, the narrator becomes
more compassionate, and thus leaves his ‘safe’ zone. This is evident when he
tries to find information about Bartleby’s personal life. However, Bartleby
refuses to talk about his life, and the narrator finds that he can’t break
through the wall that Bartleby has erected. One can say that the narrator’s
attempt to understand Bartleby is half-hearted because he already feels that he
will never be able to fully understand Bartleby, and thus cannot help overcome
Bartleby’s problems. He says, “what I saw that morning persuaded me that the
scrivener [,Bartleby,] was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. 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” (2342). Thus, the narrator has given
up trying to understand Bartleby, which in effect leads to Bartleby’s death.
When the narrator concludes that he could not connect to Bartleby, it seems he
has reached the limit of his compassion towards Bartleby. He devises a plan to
get rid of Bartleby, rationalizing that he is helping the scrivener, when in
truth he is bribing him. He says, “I told Bartleby that in six days time he
must unconditionally leave the office. I offered to assist him in this endeavor,
if he himself would but take the first step towards a removal” (2345). This
indicates that the narrator has reached his limit, when it comes to helping
Bartleby. However, it also shows that the narrator is still being compassionate
towards Bartleby because he is giving him advance notice, along with money, when
other people would have simply had Bartleby removed from the premises. It can be
argued that the narrator is giving money to Bartleby in order to ease his guilty
conscience, but the fact remains that many people would have fired Bartleby the
day he quit working, and they would not have given him extra pay. Therefore, the
narrator is still trying to be compassionate, although he himself admits later
on that he was trying to bribe Bartleby. Furthermore, when Bartleby refuses to
leave the premises, the narrator packs his things and moves to another area.
This is humorous because he is the one who is moving, since Bartleby refuses to
leave. The narrator could have had Bartleby thrown into jail, or he could have
kicked him out, but chose not to. Many people would think that the narrator is
weak because he does not throw Bartleby out, but instead moves his office to
another location to accommodate Bartleby, and avoid a confrontation. The
narrator says to himself, “you will not thrust him, the poor, pale, passive
mortal – you will not thrust such a helpless creature out of your door?” The
narrator realizes that he would rather let Bartleby “live and die” in the
office, instead of throwing him out. In the same line of reasoning, the narrator
says to himself, “you will not have him collared by a constable, and commit
his innocent pallor to the common jail” (2349). Therefore, he still remains
compassionate towards Bartleby, while at the same time he leaves Bartleby,
thinking that he is no longer responsible for Bartleby’s welfare. This act
shows that the narrator is still a prisoner towards his own rational thinking,
and thus is still incapable of helping Bartleby. However, the narrator’s
compassion towards Bartleby has extended further, when he offers to give
Bartleby a new job. He says, “would you like to travel through the country
collecting bills for the merchants? That would improve your health”. Bartleby
refuses to accept any of the jobs that the narrator offers him, which in turn
angers the narrator. The narrator is at his wit’s end because he is trying to
help Bartleby, but his help is always rejected. Finally, the narrator offers to
take Bartleby to his home. He says, “[Bartleby,] will you go home with me now
– not to my office, but my dwelling – and remain there till we can conclude
upon some convenient arrangement for your leisure?” (2352). The spontaneity of
the narrator’s action shows that the narrator has again moved further away
from his ‘safe’ zone, in his need to help Bartleby. This also shows that the
limit of his compassion has increased significantly, as he again tries to relate
to Bartleby. The narrator’s ‘safe’ zone is again challenged, when he
learns that the landlord had called the police to take away Bartleby. The
narrator, who for most of his life was considered to be an “eminently safe
man” (2330), goes to the Tombs to see Bartleby. This shows that he is again
pushing the limit of his compassion in order to provide comfort to a man that he
hardly knows. The narrator is again going out of his way to ensure that Bartleby
is properly taken care off. He says, “I narrated all I knew [about Bartleby to
the functionary], and closed by suggesting the idea of letting him remain in as
indulged confinement as possible till something less harsh might be done”
(2353). This act goes beyond what many people would do for someone in need, and
therefore one should respect and admire the type of person that the narrator has
become. When the narrator goes to see Bartleby in the Tombs, Bartleby says, “I
know you . . . and I want nothing to say to you” (2353). This suggests that
everything that the narrator had done was not enough, and therefore this
response would anger many people if they had to endure what the narrator went
through in helping Bartleby. However, the narrator only felt pain, and again
tried to reach out by trying to ensure that Bartleby’s stay would be as
comfortable as possible. This is seen when he gives money to the grub man, and
asks the man to take care of Bartleby. He says, “I want you to give particular
attention to my friend there; let him have the best dinner you can get. And you
must be polite to him as possible” (2353). This again shows that the narrator
is a compassionate man, who does a lot to help give physical comfort to
Bartleby, but cannot reach out to Bartleby’s soul, because he is still
incapable of understanding Bartleby. Thus, Melville shows in “Bartleby, the
Scrivener” that there is a limit to compassion, which differs for each
individual, when one tries to help another individual. True compassion is when
one gives freely, love that surpasses all understanding. However, this is a
quality only seen in very few people (i.e. Mother Teresa). Although the narrator
tries to understand Bartleby, he ultimately fails because they are worlds apart.
The narrator is rational and practical, while Bartleby is withdrawing from life.
In order to relate to Bartleby, one cannot rationalize the situation, as it will
not benefit Bartleby. Instead, the narrator should have given him unconditional
love, which would have brought Bartleby back into the social world.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of
American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.,
1998. 2330-2355. Seelye, John. Melville: The Ironic Diagram. Evanston:
NorthWestern University Press, 1970.
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