A Dead Letter in Reverse: Melville’s Bartleby

on Jan 9, 15 in Blog by with 1 Comment

Jeffrey R. Schrecongost

I was assembling my ENGL 112 course syllabus the other day, and, in reviewing Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I was reminded that an argument for Bartleby as antiestablishment hero is not indefensible. The harmless, if not initially loveable, chap is curiously comedic in his hell-bent defiance and awkward introversion and can ultimately be viewed as a martyr for individuality. Conversely, an interpretation of Bartleby as individual-to-a-fault can be successfully supported as well.

Bartleby’s refusal to exist productively within society is neither admirably rebellious nor practical. By ‘preferring’ to do nothing, Bartleby makes no statement of consequence, advances no cause, and effects no societal change. Indeed, Bartleby’s lone achievement is dying a disconsolate, friendless death on his own terms. Honor in that particular venture is elusive at best.

After close consideration of both possible interpretations, one must conclude that Bartleby’s efforts to live his life based on personal preference alone results not in hedonistic bliss and spiritual enlightenment, but, rather, aborted dreams and retarded potential.

The “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” Bartleby is the quintessential social outcast by choice. Aloof, with nothing “ordinarily human about him,” Bartleby charms the reader with his idiosyncrasies. His famously repeated response, “‘I would prefer not to,’” is an expression of personal freedom many readers wish they had the fortitude to express themselves.

This is why we cheer Bartleby on as he continues to refuse to work. He acts according to his choices. This is appealing, for most of us possess a deep psychological desire to be completely free and to live strictly by our personally defined norms and laws. By ignoring the norms of his society, by challenging the authority of ‘the man,’ Bartleby is an underdog, a radical, a martyr. But is his cause worth his sacrifice?

An opposing interpretation suggests Bartleby’s is a misguided conception of individual freedom that, when acted upon with zeal, results in “miserable friendlessness and loneliness […] [and] solitude” and a senselessly squandered capacity for personal growth. Bartleby’s image as proto-hippie hero tarnishes as his lack of self-discipline becomes more apparent. Initially pitiful, he becomes repulsive. His insistence upon alienating himself from would-be comrades leads both the narrator and the reader to accept Bartleby’s soul as one that cannot be reached.

Why is Bartleby’s soul unreachable? Because he has subscribed to the notion that being “a man of preferences [rather] than assumptions” is somehow desirable. He has, at some debatable point in his life, determined that egomania and self-imposed exile from society are ‘preferred’ conditions. His ‘conscientious’ decision to remain in the office building is absurd in its futility. When his death finally comes, it means nothing to anyone save for the narrator (though the narrator’s reliability can be challenged – itself a topic worthy of future exploration). Bartleby is not a champion of individuality. He is merely an “intolerable incubus” wallowing in a cesspool of effete self-pity. Bartleby says, “‘I know where I am.’” Indeed. I suppose one must at least acknowledge his honesty.

Thoreauvian philosophy holds that enlightenment and personal fulfillment can be achieved via the marriage of individual freedom and moral responsibility. Melville’s Bartleby, by denouncing sociocultural integration, by being an individual stubbornly defiant and self-destructive to the end, and, thus, ignoring his own moral responsibilities, is guilty of perhaps the greatest crime of all: a wasted life. Indeed, his is the fate of a dead letter in reverse: the flame of promise extinguished.


Jeffrey SchrecongostJeffrey R. Schrecongost received his M.F.A. from Converse College and currently teaches English at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana and Spartanburg Community College. His fiction has appeared in Blood Lotus, BlazeVOX, and Gadfly. He lives in Muncie, IN, with his loyal Golden Retriever, Molly.

Pin It

One Response to A Dead Letter in Reverse: Melville’s Bartleby

« »

Scroll to top