Last semester my College Composition 2 class at Palm Beach State College in Florida engaged in a provocative discussion. We considered an increasingly complex world in which many are disenfranchised. We discussed a developing American experience in which those at the top feel deeply entitled and fail to recognize their lack of sufficient action and responsibility on behalf of those who are less privileged. The focus on alienating, dehumanizing circumstances created by market forces seemed relevant to the group, and the students participated thoughtfully. Were we looking at current events and the Occupy Wall Street movement? Eventually, yes, but we got there through consideration of Herman Melville's 1853 short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener : A Story of Wall Street."
The commonalities between Bartleby, Melville's elusive character, and the Occupy protesters gave students entre to analyze the motives, methods, and symbolic value of those who take a stand against today's material and psychological circumstances. The story is set in the mid-1800s in New York City, an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and dehumanizing environment, and the title character says no to all that is around him through the repeated phrase that becomes his mantra: "I would prefer not to." The self-congratulatory narrator/lawyer initially tries to help his employee Bartleby. But he eventually moves his business out of the offices in response to the loner employee who will neither participate in the work nor vacate the premises. Bartleby has essentially squatted in--occupied--these Wall Street offices. As a result of his very passive resistance, Bartleby is taken to prison, where he dies.
Melville's story challenges the reader to reconsider humans' responsibilities to our fellow humans. Are there limits on what is required of us in the face of those who cannot or will not behave conventionally? The work ultimately pushes readers to reject the idea that we have done enough if we have done the expected, routine amount. And it suggests that the business establishment has responsibilities it does not acknowledge or live up to.
Bartleby can be been read in a number of complementary ways: the character can be seen as a representation of the mentally ill, of the Romantic individual, of the writer. As this scrivener suggests the role of the artist in a business milieu, central to an understanding of the story is that the self-satisfied businessman cannot fathom someone so different, someone so outside of his experience. …