Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Diamond in the Rough

Michael Fong
English 48A
Journal #2, Rebecca Harding Davis
September 30, 2009

"Do you remember rare moments when a sudden light flashed over yourself, your world, God? when you stood on a mountain-peak, seeing your life as it might have been, as it is? one quick instant, when custom lost its force and every-day usage? when your friend, wife, brother, stood in a new light? your soul was bared, and the grave,-a foretaste of the nakedness of the Judgment-Day? So it came before him, his life, that night...He griped the filthy red shirt that clung, stiff with soot, about him, and tore it savagely from his arm. The flesh beneath was muddy with grease and ashes,-and the heart beneath that! And the soul? God knows." (Davis 2613)

"Davis makes [Wolfe] an exemplary type of the man of feeling, whose feelings have been repressed by his environment." (Studies in Short Fiction, March 22, 1996)

The above quote is taken shortly after Kirby, Mitchell and the others left, leaving Wolfe behind at the mines. He was briefly shown the door to hope by Doctor May, who admired his artwork and praised him for it. He then surveys again his own appearance and openly expresses his disgust against his life, and was heartbroken.

I would say that throughout the story, Davis fashions Wolfe essentially as a diamond amongst the rough; or as the little lump of coal with a surprising gleam beneath the surface. It could be seen as an open lamentation of the brutal reality in which Wolfe, being caged in the lowly status prescribed to him literally upon birth, restricts his potential in reaching who he could possibly become. The stark contrast between the crude work of processing iron and the delicate finesse as well as mastery required in sculpting is, in my opinion, a subtle jab towards Kirby, Mitchell and the group of visitors in the story. With Wolfe being the talented sculptor working at a commonplace job, the unsaid implication is that Kirby and the rest of the group, with their comfortable jobs and relatively high social status, are superficial as well as simple-minded people.

The more compelling thing though in this story is Davis' treatment of art. Wolfe initially creates a sculpture of woman with intense, vivid energy; a woman longing for something. His repression is clearly reflected through his artwork. In the quote mentioned above, again he employs his hands in tearing apart his clothes, yet another action suggesting the release of repressed emotions. Perhaps Davis' ending for Wolfe with him cutting his own wrists is a grotesque yet ironic way of saying that this is Wolfe's last piece of artwork, which ultimately defines who he sees himself as and what he desires. A man, alone and desolate in his cell, with a blunt piece of tin between his fingers and with blood flowing freely on the floor; this is what I think Davis' message was, which is the tragic nature of life for those who were deemed to be low in social status from birth. Would it be too far of a stretch to say that, with all the biblical allusions in the story, that Wolfe's death at the end is, in some ways, reminscient to that of Christ? It could be seen that optimism is still within Davis' scope in this story as she ends with a hopeful tone: "While the room is yet steeped in heavy shadow, a cool, gray light suddenly touches its head like a blessing hand, and its groping arm points through the broken cloud to the far east, where, in the flickering, nebulous crimson, God has set the promise of the Dawn".

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fading into nothingness; resistance against conformity

Michael Fong
English 48A
Journal #1 Herman Melville
September 29, 2009

"Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused; then went close up to him; stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping...'Lives without dining,' said I, and closed the eyes. 'Eh!-He's asleep, aint he?' 'With kings and counsellors,' murmured I." (Herman Melville 2388)

"HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY...A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, 'Ambiguities,' between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman...We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink." (The New York Day Book on September 8, 1852 - Wikipedia)

The above quote is taken from the moment when the narrator goes to the Tombs, only to find Bartleby dead. The grub-man then comes in and, not knowing the situation, asks whether Bartleby is willing to dine. The narrator then replies with references to the Book of Job, and appears to be deeply in grief over Bartleby's death.

What appears to be the most simplistic of stories comes to a climatic end where themes of conformity, resistance, madness, and so many more meet at a single point of convergence. If the location of the story, Wall Street, suggests an overarching theme of industrialization and describes a world revolving around the axis of wealth, Bartleby would be the ultimate figure of resistance against such social change. He is the embodiment of past sentimental values, values of which Melville fears may be extinct if the path of progression of the society is continued at that period of time. Note the difference between the narrator and Bartleby: the narrator is a lawyer, while Bartleby is a copyist. It could be said that lawyers consist the subtle implication of the representation of rigid, social chains, while Bartleby resents such chains due to his attachment to the values of the past with his former post as a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office. The ideals, values, and beliefs he adopted were "dead letters", so to speak. Because of this, Bartleby is, in essence, isolated and eventually pushed towards the edge.

I would say that this is one of Melville's most striking ideas present in the story; that if one fails to conform to the expectations of the society, then one is condemned to isolation and deemed as mad or insane. Is this not a subtle parallel to Melville's own life as well? He and Bartleby certainly share similar paths, with both being eventually declared as crazy at some point during their lives. This may be Melville's lament and musing upon the matter, or rather, his disappointment and resentment against the society where monotonous congregations of clones were celebrated, while the unique nature of individuals striving to become a separate entity was discouraged. More so, the narrator's eventual sadness over Bartleby's may be Melville saying that it is a pity for such loss of traditional past values over present ones, and his prediction that when individuals who embrace and believe these values "die out", as a society we will be reduced to working cogs that serve similar function and cease to retain our unique nature as human beings.