The Narrator's Dilemma in "Bartleby the Scrivener": The Excellently Illustrated Re-Statement of a Problem

By Davis, Todd F. | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Narrator's Dilemma in "Bartleby the Scrivener": The Excellently Illustrated Re-Statement of a Problem


Davis, Todd F., Studies in Short Fiction


For to me it seems more the excellently illustrated re-statement of a problem, than the solution of the problem itself. But as such mere illustrations are almost universally taken for solutions (and perhaps they are the only possible human solutions), therefore it may help to the temporary quiet of some inquiring mind; and so not be wholly without use. (Pierre 210)

After the critical and financial ruin of Pierre in 1852, Herman Melville, according to Frederick Busch, was most certainly concerned with the financial support of his family. As Busch puts it: "This support was threatened, and since money is a letter from the world to an author about his work, Melville had to face up to the prospect of not getting across his doubting dark vision" (vii). But, even with these very worldly concerns troubling him, Melville would not compromise his work. When Putnam's magazine invited him to contribute, he in return gave them a story that continued to work out themes that had been misunderstood in Pierre. These ambiguous themes have led to a deluge of interpretations that too often present themselves as moralistic judgments either for or against Bartleby and the narrator of his story. As Walter E. Anderson has pointed out: "The story's interpretation crucially depends upon the attitudes taken towards both the lawyer and Bartleby" (384). The very structure of the story, its narrative technique, leads the reader toward this kind of interpretation, and, most certainly, we have been given a wealth of criticism that has taken this path. I think the greater challenge, however, is to examine what the story itself tells us about Bartleby and the narrator, to resist the damning judgments toward which Melville seems to coerce. I agree with Liane Norman's contention that the story "insists on the reader's implication in a puzzling, disturbing, and even accusing experience," that the reader is both participant and judge (22). Yet this kind of participation and the judgments that inevitably follow seem to tell readers more about their own individual struggles than the struggles of the lawyer in "Bartleby."

The reader is always an accomplice in the creation of literary character. Jonathan Culler, in Structuralist Poetics, explains that the writer of a story gives the reader "a variety of descriptions of some posited individual, together with descriptions--implicit or explicit--of that individual's actions and reactions" (230). These normally suffice to lead most readers "to conceive of a person of whom these references and insights are just glimpses" (230). With "Bartleby," our task to decipher and, along with Melville, create character is made more difficult because every word in the story is told to us by the lawyer. If we are to understand Bartleby or Nippers or Turkey or Ginger Nut or even the lawyer himself, we may do so only through the words of the lawyer. All actions, all dialogue, all statements, all interpretations come to the reader through the report of the lawyer. Therefore, if we contend we know anything of Bartleby, it is only what the narrator knows of Bartleby, and if we are to have any insight into the narrator, it must be through the examination of his own words.

Thus, critics look to the authenticity of the lawyer's speech: What does he unknowingly reveal about himself?. This question presupposes that the lawyer is somehow knowingly duplicitous, that in the course of the story we might be able to catch him in a compromising statement. But I would contend that any information that we garner that might blemish the character of the lawyer is given knowingly by the lawyer himself. In The Silence of Bartleby, Dan McCall has argued persuasively that most critics "do not so much interpret the story as oppose the narrator's version to their idea of the `truth'" (103). He explains, "It is as if `Bartleby, The Scrivener' is not a story, it is a lie, and we should examine that lie, to find inconsistencies and contradictions in it" (102-03).

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