After the critical and commercial failure of Moby Dick and Pierre, Herman Melville, who was then supporting his wife and children, his mother, and his four sisters, was desperate for money. So when he received an invitation from Putnam’s Monthly Magazine to contribute short stories at the rate of five dollars a page, he accepted. He also sold short stories to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Both magazines, however, had very strict editorial policies banning any material which might conceivably offend even the most sensitive reader on moral, social, ethical, political, or religious grounds. This was a shattering limitation to Melville, whose deepest personal and artistic convictions were bound up in the defiant heroes and themes of highly unconventional metaphysical speculation of Mardi and a Voyage Thither, Moby Dick, and Pierre. He genuinely questioned many of the ideas which, although they came to be freely debated, were sacrosanct in the nineteenth century. These included the existence of a personal God outside the human spirit, the importance of material goods, the existence of absolute good and absolute evil, and the right of established civil and religious authorities to impose sanctions against those who expressed ideas that differed from the ideas of the majority. Obviously, neither Putnam’s Monthly Magazine nor Harper’s New Monthly Magazine would publish stories which dealt openly with opinions that would be objectionable to many of their readers. This left Melville in an apparently unresolvable dilemma: ignore his own strongest beliefs, or allow those dependent on him to live in poverty.
Not only did Melville find a solution, but he also found one which, while not ideal from an artistic standpoint, gave him a great deal of rather diabolical satisfaction. Melville’s short stories—all of which were written during this period and under these conditions—present bland and apparently harmless surfaces under which boil the same rebellion and the same questioning of established ideas that characterize his most controversial novels. Furthermore, these stories reflect, in allegorical terms, the same dilemma that produced them. Beneath apparently innocuous surface plots, Melville’s short stories center on the image of an anguished human being who is cursed with the ability to see more than the world sees; faced with the hostility that results from his challenge to the established beliefs of a complacent majority, his protagonist either fights against, withdraws from, or surrenders to the world.
Bartleby the Scrivener
One of the most effective devices that allowed Melville to achieve his artistic purpose was his use of reassuringly respectable elderly gentlemen as narrators. In the very act of allowing them to tell their own stories, Melville injected a subtle but savage mockery which both expressed and concealed his own attitudes. For example, the narrator of Melville’s best-known short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1856), which was collected in The Piazza Tales, is an elderly lawyer reminiscing about an incident which had occurred some time earlier. The lawyer’s own blindness to the deeper meanings of life is suggested in the first paragraph of the story, when Melville describes Bartleby as “one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable.” As the reader discovers, it is primarily the physical, external facts of Bartleby’s life that are unknown; but to the materialistic lawyer, these are everything. He sees only surface reality, never inner truth, a point which is underlined in the narrator’s next sentence: “What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.”
The lawyer begins his story by describing the office on Wall Street which he occupied at the time of Bartleby’s appearance. The significance of “Wall Street” becomes apparent immediately; the lawyer has surrounded himself with walls, and his windows command no other view. When the lawyer hires Bartleby as a scrivener, or copier of law documents, he assigns Bartleby a desk near a window which faces a wall only three feet away. On one side of Bartleby’s desk is a ground glass door separating him from the other two copyists, and on the other side, the lawyer places a folding screen. Having imposed upon Bartleby his own claustrophobic setting, the lawyer gives him law documents to copy. For a while all goes well; Bartleby copies documents neatly and efficiently. On the third day, however, the lawyer asks Bartleby to examine his writing.
In ordering him to examine his writing, the lawyer means that Bartleby should read through the copy he has made while someone else reads aloud from the original. This is an extremely boring task, but an accepted part of every scrivener’s work. Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer reacts with characteristic indecision: He feels impelled to expel Bartleby from his office, but does nothing because he is unnerved by Bartleby’s total lack of expression, by the absence of “anything ordinarily human about him.”
Several days later, when Bartleby again refuses to examine his copy, the lawyer appeals to him in the name of two ideals which are of great importance to the lawyer himself: common usage and common sense. Bartleby is unmoved. Instead of asserting his own authority, the lawyer appeals not only to his other two scriveners but also to his office boy. All these uphold the lawyer’s view. He then calls upon Bartleby in the name of “duty”; again, Bartleby fails to respond to the verbal cue.
The lawyer’s inability to cope with Bartleby is anticipated in the story by his tolerance of the Dickensian eccentricities of his other two scriveners. The older one, Turkey, works well in the morning, but after a lunch which is implied to be mostly liquid, he becomes reckless, irascible, and messy. The younger copyist, Nippers, is dyspeptic. His irritability takes place in the morning, while the afternoons find him comparatively calm. Thus, the lawyer gets only one good day’s work between them. Nevertheless, he always finds some rationalization for his lack of decisiveness.
The first rationalization he applies to his indecision regarding Bartleby is the difficulty of coping effectively with passive resistance. The lawyer feels that Bartleby’s unaccountable displays of perversity must be the result of some involuntary aberration, and he reflects that tolerating Bartleby “will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” Even on the comparatively rare occasions when he is sufficiently irritated to confront Bartleby with a direct order to do something which Bartleby “would prefer not to,” the lawyer always retires with dire resolutions, but no action.
One Sunday morning, as the lawyer walks toward Trinity Church “to hear a celebrated preacher,” he decides to stop at his office. There he finds Bartleby in his shirt sleeves, together with evidence that he has been using the office as his home. The lawyer feels at first a sense of melancholy and pity at Bartleby’s loneliness; but as the full realization of Bartleby’s isolation dawns on the lawyer, his feelings turn to fear and revulsion. He reflects that Bartleby never reads, never converses, but only works and stands for long periods staring out at the dead walls. Bartleby’s presence in the office at night and on Sunday, when the usually bustling Wall Street is silent and uninhabited, reminds the lawyer of Bartleby’s essential difference from his own concept of humanity, which revolves around surface society. The lawyer rationalizes his unsympathetic response to these circumstances by reflecting that such depths of soul-sickness as Bartleby’s repel the human heart because common sense rejects the idea of pity where there is no realistic hope of offering aid.
The lawyer makes an attempt, on Monday morning, to bring Bartleby inside the narrow circle of external reality which is all the lawyer is capable of comprehending. He asks Bartleby for details of his life: place of birth, family, and the like. Bartleby refuses with his usual “I prefer not.” The lawyer notices that he and his other copyists have begun to use that expression, and he fears that the influence of Bartleby will spread throughout the office. Bartleby further irritates the lawyer the next day by refusing to do even the one task he had, until then, been willing to do: copying law documents. When the lawyer asks the reason, Bartleby replies, “Do you not see the reason for yourself?” The lawyer does not see; and ironically, he attributes Bartleby’s refusal to copy to trouble with his eyes. When Bartleby finally makes it clear, some days later, that his refusal is final, the lawyer decides to order him to leave. Yet he feels a sense of pity for the scrivener because “he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe.”
The lawyer gives Bartleby six days in which to get ready to leave; at the end of that time, Bartleby is still there. The lawyer gives him money, and, ordering Bartleby to be gone by the next day, leaves the office assuming that he will obey. The lawyer’s selfcongratulations on his masterly application of the doctrine of assumption end abruptly the next day when the lawyer discovers the scrivener still in the office. Then the lawyer rationalizes that it is his predestined fate to harbor Bartleby, and that his charity will be amply repaid in the next world. The gibes of his friends and professional associates, however, undermine his resolve, and again he orders Bartleby to depart. When he does not, the lawyer finally takes decisive action. He packs up his own belongings and moves to a new office, leaving Bartleby alone in an empty room.
The lawyer soon finds, however, that he is not yet free of Bartleby. The landlord of the lawyer’s former office, unable to move Bartleby from the building even after the new tenant has expelled him from the office itself, applies to the lawyer for help. The lawyer offers Bartleby several different jobs, and even suggests that he make his home with the lawyer for a time. Bartleby, however, replies that he “would prefer not to make any change at all.” The lawyer flees the building and stays incommunicado for several days. When he cautiously returns to his office, he finds that Bartleby has been removed to the Tombs, a prison in New York City. The lawyer visits the Tombs to offer comfort, but Bartleby will not speak to him. He adjures Bartleby to look at the blue sky and the green grass, but Bartleby replies, “I know where I am,” and refuses to speak again. The lawyer leaves Bartleby in the prison yard, and on his way out arranges for him to be well fed, but Bartleby refuses to eat. When the lawyer visits Bartleby again, several days later, he finds the scrivener curled up in a ball with his head against the prison wall, dead.
The narrator concludes the story by relating a rumor he has heard to the effect that Bartleby was once employed in a Dead Letter Office. He reflects on the melancholy nature of such work, handling letters containing messages of charity and hope which arrived too late to relieve those to whom they had been sent. “On errands of life,” reflects the lawyer, “these letters speed to death.” The story ends with the line, “Ah Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”
Although the lawyer seems to be an honest and humane man, he is actually guilty of what Melville considers society’s most prevailing sin: self-deception. He labels his pusillanimity prudence, his indecisiveness tolerance, his curiosity concern, as if by doing so he can create a reality which corresponds to his own illusions. He goes to a fashionable church not to worship the God in whom he professes to believe, but “to hear a famous preacher.” When he is upset by Bartleby’s presence in his office on a Sunday, he does not turn to God for help. Rather, he stays away from church because his perturbation makes him unfit for the only function of church-going that he is aware of: the social function. He constantly thinks in terms of material entities, particularly money and food. Yet the lawyer is not an evil man. By the standards of the world, he is exceptionally charitable and forbearing. He feels for Bartleby’s suffering, even if he never understands it; and if the help he offers his scrivener is not what Bartleby needs, still it is all the lawyer has to give. That is Melville’s point: Even the best of those who think conventional thoughts, order their lives by conventional rules, and never question conventional commonplaces like “common sense” and “common usage,” are incapable of understanding a man like Bartleby.
Bartleby is the only character in the story who makes a point of looking at the walls, who is actually aware of the limitations with which society, represented by the lawyer, has boxed him in. Bartleby’s refusal to value meaningless tasks simply because they are important to a shallow and materialistic society reflects Melville’s own rage at being ordered to produce literary pabulum by a society which will not even try to understand his ideas. Bartleby is placed in the same economic dilemma which produced the story in which he appears: Produce what society values, regardless of individual needs and beliefs, or die. The solitary Bartleby died; and Melville, equally oppressed by being tied down to a family of dependent women and children, wrote “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
Not all the protagonists of Melville’s short stories withdraw from the world. The narrator-protagonist of “The Fiddler,” for example, responds to the world’s contempt for his poetry by abandoning his art and attempting to become a happy failure. The story opens as the young poet, Helmstone, storms out of doors after reading an unfavorable review of his recently published work. He meets a friend, Standard, who introduces him to Hautboy. The three attend a circus, where Helmstone rages at seeing the applause which the world has denied to his poetry being awarded to the antics of a clown. He marvels at the evident enjoyment of Hautboy, whom Helmstone identifies as a man of taste and judgment. Helmstone and Standard later visit Hautboy’s home, where he entertains them by playing common tunes on a fiddle. Despite the simplicity of the tunes, Helmstone is struck by Hautboy’s style; and Standard finally explains that Hautboy is actually a musical genius who has given up the fame he once had and retired to happy obscurity. The poet, resolved to imitate him, tears up his manuscripts, buys a fiddle, and goes to take lessons from Hautboy.
In “The Fiddler,” Hautboy serves as a lesson in the worthlessness of fame because, having had it and rejected it, he is so outstandingly happy. This allows the poet to rationalize his own failure into a deliberate choice to turn his back on the world’s opinion of his poetry. In this story, however, as in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator’s conformity to the standards of the world (in this case, by ceasing to produce poetry which the world does not appreciate) is an act of self-deception. Either Helmstone’s poetry is meritorious but misunderstood by a world whose applause is reserved for clowns, in which case he has betrayed his art by abandoning it, or his poetry is genuinely inferior, in which case he has renounced nothing because he has had nothing, and his attitude of choice is a sham. This reflects another aspect of the situation that produced “The Fiddler.” If the kind of literature Melville would have preferred to write was in fact the truth, then in ceasing to write it he was betraying himself; if it was not the truth, he was deceiving himself.
These two examples illustrate the complexity and depth which underlie the surface smoothness of Melville’s short tales. His stories are allegorical in nature, expressing his ideas as parables rather than as expositions. Melville often makes his points by means of emblematic symbols, such as the walls in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and the clown in “The Fiddler.” In his short stories, as in his novels, Melville emphasizes subjectivity, relativity, and ambiguity. Different characters see the same situation from different perspectives, and there is no omniscient force within the story which can resolve the resulting conflict. Reality is not static and absolute, but shifting and relative; ultimate truth, if it exists at all, is unattainable.
Novels: Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, 1846; Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, 1847; Mardi, and a Voyage Thither, 1849; Redburn: His First Voyage, 1849; White-Jacket: Or, The World in a Man-of-War, 1850; Moby Dick: Or, The Whale, 1851; Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities, 1852; Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile, 1855; The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, 1857; Billy Budd, Foretopman, 1924.
Miscellaneous: Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, 2001 (John Bryant, editor).
Nonfiction: Journal up the Straits, 1935; Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent, 1948; The Letters of Herman Melville, 1960 (Merrill R. Davis and William H. Gilman, editors).
Poetry: Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866; Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, 1876; John Marr, and Other Sailors, 1888; Timoleon, 1891; The Works of Herman Melville, 1922-1924 (volumes 15 and 16); The Poems of Herman Melville, 1976 (revised, 2000).
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Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Fisher, Marvin. Going Under: Melville’s Short Fiction and the American 1850’s. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking Press, 2000.
Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1996.
Rollyson, Carl E., and Lisa Paddock. Herman Melville A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001.
Rosenblum, Joseph. “Benito Cereno.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 1. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Updike, John. “The Appetite for Truth: On Melville’s Shorter Fiction.” The Yale Review 85 (October, 1997): 24-47.