Bartleby, the Thoreauvian Hero

Throughout my studies of English literature I have been introduced to many different characters, but there has been no character more infuriating, more bewildering than Melville’s Bartleby.  Bartleby’s total apathy towards life was simply something I could neither relate to nor understand.  A man who “would prefer not to” do anything and was idle appeared to be a character of no redeeming value.  However, I came to consider the scrivener in a different light after considering Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience.  I came to consider Bartleby as less of an emotionless automaton that had given up on life, and began to entertain the thought that he could be a “Thoreauvian hero” practicing a form of civil protest.

The character of Bartleby is initially simple.  Melville presents Bartleby as a hard-working man who works diligently for his boss, often by candlelight, and does excellent work.  These qualities are not uncommon in ideal American society.  In fact, the very model for American excellence is a person who comes from nothing, works hard, and succeeds in making a good life for his or herself.  Such is our first impression of Bartleby.  However, the façade of “Bartleby, American Hero” quickly fades and we are left with the apathetic Bartleby.  The iconic phrase, or the refrain, of the story quickly becomes “I would prefer not to” and the Bartleby most students loathe takes precedence for the remainder of the story.

What we are lacking is the catalyst for Bartleby’s decent into acute indifference.  The Lawyer tells us that one day, in a mild yet firm voice, Bartleby refused a request to examine a small paper with a simple “I would prefer not to.”  We are not given any background or reason why the scrivener has refused his boss, all we are shown is the surprise of the Lawyer after hearing this well-mannered refusal.  What we can discern from this first offence is that there are no social regulations in place to handle such defiance.  Bartleby creates chaos in what would otherwise be a routine request and, through noncompliance, has protested.

Thus, we have the first defiant act of Bartleby.  The surprise of the Lawyer suggests just how egregious the act is against the social structure.  The man is left stupefied and unable to deal with the matter.  Ultimately, the Lawyer resolves to forget the matter altogether and carry on with his other employees.  However, Bartleby increasingly becomes more disobedient and apathetic which causes more tension in the office.  The scrivener scribes less and less with each passing day which incite the Lawyer to turn to his employees for help in the matter.

Each time Bartleby is asked to do something he more frequently restates the refrain “I would prefer not to.”  We also see that the disobedience displayed increasingly affects the other workers in the office.  After Bartleby refuses to proof read his own documents, the Lawyer turns to Turkey and asks what he thinks of it.  Turkey’s reply is quite violent, stating the he would like to “step behind his screen, and black his eyes for him!”  Nipper sees Bartleby’s defiance as “a passing whim” and hopes it will just pass.  Neither gentleman pursues a reason or justification for the behavior; they seek to find a way to get Bartleby only to comply.

The reaction to either assault or ignore disobedient behavior can easily be seen in history, and more recently in the responses to Occupy Wall Street movement.  In the beginning of the movement, America treated the Occupiers as Nipper advocated:  just ignore it and they’ll go away.  As time went on, the protestors preferred not to go away and their defiance became more disruptive.  Once America could no longer ignore the people protesting, occupying a park, and refusing to observe with the status quo we began to see the “Turkeys” of the nation try their solution: physical intervention.  In the case of the Occupy UC protests we see a beautifully illustrated picture of how Turkey would have responded to the disobedient.  Instead of blacking the eyes of the protestors refusing to vacate a walkway, the police pepper sprayed and arrested the defiant citizens.

The similarities between the response of Bartleby’s colleagues and those who opposed the Occupy movement were quite striking.  The result of protesting against the financial institutions had the same affects as Bartleby’s noncompliance in his social institution.  Additionally, the Lawyer’s practice is on Wall Street and the retort from critics of the movement was to get a job, i.e. do your work.  It is through these mounting coincidences that I began to consider that there may be more to the man than nonsensical apathy.  Bartleby could actually be a one man protest refusing to participate in a social fabrication that he finds objectionable.

Since Melville does not give the reader a definitive reason for Bartleby’s defiance, we are entreated to understand it in our own way.  Considering Bartleby as a protestor of a social institution or other societal norm, we can find some reasoning that provides tangible insight into his bewildering behavior.  Thoreau argues in Civil Disobedience that a man must “wash his hands of injustice and not be associated with something that is wrong.”  This “at the very least” prescription quite elegantly mirrors Bartleby’s refusal to comply.  Bartleby does not crusade or instigate change in others, in fact Bartleby initially continues with his regular duties, but he removes himself from the machine that is in some way contrary to his person.  It is in this first case that Bartleby has done exactly what Thoreau has prescribed one do in such a case: he disassociated with that which he disagreed.

Thoreau continues in Civil Disobedience that working through the apparatus that is the source of contention takes too long and leads to a wasted life.  While Thoreau was speaking specifically about the government, the sentiment is easily carried from one institution to another.  The disassociation between Bartleby and his work perfectly demonstrates a man rejecting the social construct and working outside of the system.  Bartleby, through noncompliance and civil disobedience, disrupts the social order of the office which encourages the Lawyer to relocate his business.

The ending of Melville’s story also invites us to consider Bartleby as a “Thoreauvian hero.”  Thoreau wrote that “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”  Bartleby’s life once again imitates the ideal portrayed in Civil Disobedience as he is imprisoned for vagrancy.  If you consider Bartleby to be a protestor against an American Moloch as opposed to an apathetic derelict, you can make the case that the government has thus imprisoned a just man unjustly.  The crime committed against society is the refusal to conform to its norms, not to be a man without a home or regular employment.  Bartleby’s incarceration for what can be seen as a protest is a violation of his constitutional rights and would define the government as unjust.

Through careful reading of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience we find many correlations between the apathetic anti-hero and an ideal protestor.  While most of us easily identify with Thoreau’s protest through noncompliance, we often fail to identify other instances of noncompliance as protest.  The perception that Bartleby was protesting instead of being idle yields an entirely new understanding of the man whose actions most have do not comprehend.  By using the model of civil disobedience, we can recognize Bartleby’s inaction as civil objection, thus making the case for our “Thoreauvian hero.”


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