Narrator of "Bartleby": The Christian-Humanist Acquaintance of John Jacob Astor

By Dilworth, Thomas | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Narrator of "Bartleby": The Christian-Humanist Acquaintance of John Jacob Astor


Dilworth, Thomas, Papers on Language & Literature


Despite half a century of modern criticism, the intriguing constellation of images, actions, and choices in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" remains inadequately charted, owing largely to the title of the story, which is misleading. What the narrator calls the "chief character" (635) is not Bartleby but the anonymous lawyer who is the narrator.[1] Aspects of the story that require further interpretation in relation to one another are the narrator's repeated references to Cicero, his biblical evocations, his references to Trinity Church, his pride of association with John Jacob Astor, his reading of works by Edwards and Priestly, his supposed (by the prison grub-man) acquaintanceship with a forger, the physical layout of his office, and his ultimate determination not to expel Bartleby from that office. All of these have as their primary focus the lawyer's relationship with Bartleby, but one element--the lawyer's having been "not unemployed . . . by the late John Jacob Astor"(636)--makes this a story like that described by Joseph Conrad, in which "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze" (7). The inner story--the lawyer's relationship with Bartleby and perhaps even Bartleby's famous 'preferring not to' work --can only be fully understood in relation to the outer story, which involves the lawyer's "snug business among rich men's bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds" (635) and his holding--before, during, and after his acquaintanceship with Bartleby--the office of Master in Chancery.

An important key to interpreting "Bartleby the Scrivener" is the guilt the lawyer feels, which may explain his wish for anonymity. In his narration, he is conducting his own defense, and, as with any defense, it is a response to accusation of guilt.[2] A similar impulse motivates his summoning the other two scriveners in his office, Turkey and Nippers, to judge his request that Bartleby assist in verifying accuracy of copy--a task that scriveners are obliged, although not strictly speaking paid, to do. "What do you think," the lawyer asks them, "am I right?" Implicitly the same question underlies his extended narrative: "am I right?" The imputation of guilt, to which he responds, comes from within himself--as when, while moving to a new office, he looked back at Bartleby: "something from within me upbraided me" (664). His feeling of guilt is doubtless aggravated by Bartleby in prison telling him, "I know you . . . and I want nothing to say to you" (669). There may be no sure way to determine whether this rejection is based on accurate intuition or mental derangement in Bartleby--we shall see how and why it may express a moral judgment. But that begs the more important, though related, question: why might the narrator feel guilty?

This question is not, I think, an invitation to moralist criticism, which has too often blunted interpretation of the story. Blaming the narrator or defending him precludes analytical penetration.[3] If his guilt is moral, it is also psychological, and in that respect a matter for understanding rather than blame. Whether moral or psychological, however, the question 'why does the narrator feel guilty' is difficult to answer, which is precisely why it must be asked with some rigor.

As many interpreters have noted, the lawyer goes to extreme lengths to accommodate Bartleby.[4] Repeatedly the clerk "prefers not to" carry out the lawyer's orders to verify accuracy of copy and to perform simple errands. Verbally this is not outright refusal, but it amounts to that, and, after receiving clarification from Bartleby, the lawyer understands it as such.[5] After discovering Bartleby living night and day in his (the lawyer's) office, and after hearing his decision to give up copying for good, the lawyer dismisses him, offering him, in addition to salary owed, twenty dollars--at that time a large amount.

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