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.

1 comment:

  1. 20 points. Since we're continuing from the blogs last winter:


    MUCH madness is divinest sense
    To a discerning eye;
    Much sense the starkest madness.
    ’T is the majority
    In this, as all, prevails. 5
    Assent, and you are sane;
    Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
    And handled with a chain.