Joke’s on You, Interpreters of “Bartleby”

By Zeke SaberHumanities, Cycle 2, 2011



Some mysteries weren’t meant to be solved, but that doesn’t stop literary critics from trying to dissect Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Saber argues that Melville intentionally prevents concrete interpretation of his short story through complex linguistics and multiple layers of forgery. In doing so, Melville assured his own literary immortality and revealed the black hole that arises from the continued application of something as subjective as language.


Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” is the one of the greatest practical jokes ever pulled by a major American author. By creating this abundantly rich yet frustratingly ambiguous work, Melville achieved several notable things: he kept his name in the canon of literary prominence; he conned his publishers and readers; he initiated a practice of literary meta-interpretation. Because the short story itself is — in actuality — an account of Bartleby’s life copied down by an unreliable narrator, what we learn as readers about this man may be from something entirely false, i.e., something forged. The nature of the medium by which this man is presented is inherently subjective and made even less “original” every time an interpretation of the account of Bartleby is created. Such interpretation of the work has not only drowned the tale in a sea of critical thought; it has also pulled back the veil in which Melville shrouded it. Revealed is a tale forged by a man (Melville), about a gentleman forger (Bartleby), and seen through the eyes of a man (the narrator) vainly attempting to forge an opinion on that gentleman forger. Any further attempt to form a critical opinion on this muddled mess of forgery simply enters into the deep abyss Melville created. Through his cleverly constructed short story, Melville assured his own literary immortality and revealed the black hole that arises from the continued application of something as subjective as language.

Melville’s “Bartleby” simultaneously ignites discussion and exists as something impossible to see clearly under the simulacra. This idea of minimal explanation leading to greater interest and active reader participation predates Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory” by many years. However, within the minimal can be found hints at the underlying con Melville pulls. In fact, the character of Bartleby, like the short story that shares his name, also appears murky (through the forged lens of a desperate narrator) and ignites discussion among his surrounding characters. Perhaps, in this way, the character Bartleby and the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” directly parallel one another. Although not an entirely novel concept (Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick also can be interpreted using the concept), this theory of universal noun application enables Melville to play not only with language, but also with the concept of what is original, what is a forgery and why those two are so difficult to reconcile when it comes to interpretation. Hints at the similarities of Bartleby the character and “Bartleby” the short story suggest that Melville created a poignant tale constructed in ambiguity and meant to show the absurdity of subjective interpretation. Beyond that, these internal curiosities, in the context of this theory, appear to be purposefully placed, as we will explore later.

The very first page seems to indicate the impossibility of full explanation. Melville’s narrator points out that, “I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man” (3). He continues , “Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him” (3). This man, this short story, cannot be satisfactorily described by another person. Any “biography” or composition written about the story will not be worthy of the original. In this case, the original Bartleby and the original “Bartleby” become impossible to decipher through the interpretations forged by the narrator and critics, respectively. It is through the narrator’s copious interpretations of Bartleby that Melville offers an example for the reader to follow. This example begets a template of continued and wild reader interpretation, and ultimately assures Melville’s practical joke its permanence.

However, such interpretation is not limited only to readers of “Bartleby the Scrivener, but It also spreads to characters whom interact with Bartleby the man. Upon meeting the grubman at the prison where Bartleby is residing, the narrator encounters an impression of Bartleby he had never before entertained. The grubman believes that the strange fellow is a “gentleman forger” very similar to a man named “Monroe Edwards” (32). The actual Monroe Edwards was a forger from Texas whose claim to fame arose from the popularity of his trial and eventual imprisonment. His trial was a national news story because of the grand scale of his forgeries (Jones). Each day of the trial was covered extensively in newspapers. This reference to Edwards in “Bartleby” is a curious one because of the suggested comparison between Bartleby the man and Monroe Edwards the man. Continuing the Bartleby to “Bartleby the Scrivener” noun swap, the grubman appears to compare “Bartleby” the story to a man whose life was based on forgeries. We may even risk the interpretation that the grubman is able to see most clearly and objectively and can tell that Bartleby has all the markings of a forger who refused to copy. The narrator vehemently shoots down the grubman’s comparison. Here Melville self-consciously comments on the likelihood that the clear, objective association between “Bartleby” and a fake, linguistically empty forgery will be overlooked in favor of more fanciful associations or interpretations. In other words, Melville has inserted a potential nugget of forbidden knowledge in a cheeky reference to his own cleverness and the con he himself has forged.

To the narrator “nothing is ascertainable” from the life of this man, but from Melville’s point-of-view, “nothing is ascertainable” except from the content of this short story. Minimizing the possibility of legitimate second-hand documentation suggests a jab at critical theorizing on the content of the short story. However, the jab has a greater intent. At the same time, Melville understood that such critical theorizing is inevitable and that the more critics felt challenged to figure out his fiction, the more notoriety his work would command. What the reader or critic sees in “Bartleby” is not necessarily correct or incorrect. Quite simply, what he or she sees is engulfed by Melville’s trap of layered forgery. As the narrator points out, he only knows of what he saw of Bartleby , but hat does not necessarily predispose any underlying motive or reason in Bartleby’s actions. So, perhaps the short story is not as ripe for interpretation as its readers are hungry for motive or reason? Or, more likely, Melville has painted an even more subversive brushstroke — the short story begs for such interpretation in order to fill out and consolidate the black hole its author reveals.

Throughout the narrative, the narrator grapples with the seemingly motiveless man in his stead and tries to discern the motive behind his actions (or inaction). When it becomes apparent that there may not be any motive, he begins to assign it. Confused internal dialogues abound in the short story, and critics dig for clues to allegorical or other underlying meaning primarily in these passages. However, it is in these passages that the narrator, and thus Melville, tips his hand. At one point in a tirade on passive resistance he points out that “I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition – to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own” (13). Passive resistors seek to exploit such hell-bent desire to “elicit some angry spark” for their benefit; . however, it is mistake to simply mark this passage as a reference point for the psychology behind such political or social agenda. Perhaps something more can be cultivated from the narrator’s words.

One can discern that “Bartleby the Scrivener” acts as a passive entity, exploiting its own forged nature and the nature of those who forged opinions on the short story for its own benefit — that is, for its continued discussion and relevance. Without those who feel “strangely goaded on” to find a motive within its content equal to their motive — interpretive closure — the short story loses its allure, language loses its function, and Melville loses his notoriety. It is ironic that in their attempts to interpret the work critics actually further thrust the short story into a bottomless interpretive chasm…but Melville is no stranger to the pitfalls of irony and over-interpretation. He even directs an insult at those who “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory” in his masterpiece, Moby-Dick (223). Whether he means Moby Dick the whale or Moby-Dick the novel is unclear, and likely purposeful. Clearly fancying this interaction and potential indiscrimination between work and character, it is not altogether unbelievable that Melville would attempt to bring the reader (and himself) into this universal interaction process. As intended, “Bartleby” betrays little concrete emotion or sincerity yet “goad[s] on” others to use their own emotions to build constructions of the mind from the nothingness.

Herman Melville was a major writer familiar with the publishing business and he had, as Joseph Matthew Meyer points out in his critique of the short story, “a love of playing with language and allegory” (Meyer). These two attributes, possibly combined with the anger and resiliency brought about by the failure of his previous work Pierre,could blend into one substantial brew of trickster retaliation. As evidence of his resiliency and independence from his publishers, another Melville scholar mentions that “When Putnam’s magazine invited him to contribute, he in return gave them a story that continued to work out themes that had been misunderstood in Pierre” (Davis). Such themes as the writing process cropping up in the work suggests Melville’s attraction to the meta-thinking associated with interpreting his next work, “Bartleby.” Continuing on the path he laid with Pierre despite its massive failure, the author spun the tale of “Bartleby:”a joking lesson to the reader that he or she can become as involved with the writing process as the author if they choose to delve into the work and add their ideas to it.

This trickster retaliation applies to every reader of his short story and ultimately sheds some light on the brilliance of Melville’s work — his joke of a work was not done only out of spite, but it was an alarmingly perceptive and coy way to bring all of his readers together. Good or bad review, the reader would be forging an interpretation of another forged interpretation, thus securing the short story’s (and its author’s) immortality. Or, if Melville’s ship of acclaim was going down, he would make sure that his critics, publishers, and readers would go down with him, whether they were aware of it or not. One final interesting fact to note is that Pierre was originally supposed to be published without attribution – a proposition Melville may have made out of desire to distance himself from his work. Disappointed with his publishers for printing his name on a work meant to be published anonymously, Melville’s forging of “Bartleby,”a story ultimately assured of perpetuating its author’s name, can be construed as a particularly wily and long-lasting grin from the grave directed at his greedy publishers. ]Melville’s next publication after]“Bartleby,”The Confidence Man, is in many ways the final step in Melville’s escalating will to toy with the reader.

The narrator’s use of maddeningly assumptive terms throughout his retelling of eventsdiscredits his own theories. Using phrases such as, “suggestive interest,”“restless curiosity,” and “determining me to summary measures” when remarking on his infatuation with the strange copyist, the narrator betrays his incomplete knowledge (34, 16, 20). Because Bartleby refuses to betray his own motives so that the narrator may gain complete knowledge of the copyist’s motives, the narrator’s attempts to fill the gaps in the hull of his understanding become mere conjectures. Further, the narrator seems to subconsciously understand that his assumptions concerning Bartleby are arbitrary and possibly false. There is slight trepidation on his part before attributing constructs of his own consciousness to the man named Bartleby. Exclaiming “after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby’s” after again making a valiant effort to put his finger on the eccentric nature of his employee, the narrator concedes that all interpretations of Bartleby’s actions are trumped by the actual man’s effect on others (23). Likewise, interpretations of the short story are trumped by the actual effect it has on those who read it – a jarring sense of emptiness, a distressing and distrustful sense akin to entering into a black hole. Interpretations of “Bartleby” are essentially attempts to oversimplify the complex To summarize the unutterable, the narrator of the story finds himself unable to deny this.

The unnamed narrator has tremendous difficulty calming down his rational mind enough to pick the “illness” from which he feels Bartleby suffers. Internal dispute arises from constant friction of each of his theories rubbing together. Despite the slow, burning deterioration of his mind as a result of these theory-battles, the narrator always returns to the source of his obsession – his own personal “illness,” Bartleby the Scrivener. After deciding with gusto to kick the vagrant laborer out of the office, the narrator awakens one morning and once again begins a mind-struggle over whether kicking the man out will be the best plan of action. For almost two full pages this internal war proceeds, and by the end the narrator decides to “argue the matter with [Bartleby] again” (24). A hard-working, cerebral and generally generous man finds comfort in diagnosing an illness in another and in discovering reason behind symptoms, even though it pains him mentally. The readers are privy to his personal struggle, which the reflects the desire to detect where nothing seems to be detectable. To parallel, those who search for motive in “Bartleby” (in a cognitively dissonant manner) become unhappy with its absence and convince themselves of its necessity. The narrator’s case is a prime example of this cognitive dissonance that resonates through the readers of “Bartleby,” pushing them farther from Melville’s hidden scheme and closer to an interpretive maelstrom.

Previous scholars have noted that the impressionistic and incredible nature of the narrator’s thoughts and actions. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s critical essay on “Bartleby” also proposes that the narrator “behaves like a madman” (75). Deleuze believes that the confusion present in the short story stems more from the narrator’s growing madness than from Bartleby’s, and this same confusion pushes the narrator to launch “into strange propositions and even stranger behavior” (70). These strange propositions are not dissimilar to the propositions put forward by the legion of “Bartleby” interpreters. As the narrator makes futile attempts to grasp a meaning or motive in the short story, theorists do the same; only, when they make these “strange propositions,” they cannot hear Herman Melville chuckling in his grave. It is the “act of interpreting Bartleby” that lends him his power, and it is also true that the act of interpreting “Bartleby” lends the story its power (Davis). “The reader is always an accomplice in the creation of literary character” (Davis). Perhaps most mind-boggling of all is that Melville set a short-story trap that not only makes the reader an accomplice in the creation of Bartleby’s character, but also makes the reader an accomplice in Melville’s con-job every time they bring some new interpretation of his short story. Every time a new interpretation emerges or a new allegory crops up, the original “Bartleby” Melville created shrinks back into the shadows.

Melville hints that “Bartleby” cannot be interpreted because of its fundamental nature. At one point Melville, through the lens of his narrator, writes that Bartleby is of an “innate and incurable disorder” (18). The nature of “Bartleby” the short story confirms this to be true. Utilizing the subjectivity of language, forged by men and meant to appeal to more forgers, the short story cannot be “cured” by current methods. There is no way for an interpretation to fully address the tale because in essence the tale is an interpretation itself. Adding to the interpretation-levels only buries the original deeper under subjectivity and ensures the difficulty in remedying “Bartleby’s” disorder. Additionally, in the final paragraph, Melville (again through the narrator) mentions that only “imagination” can supply the full recital of Bartleby’s existence, and he is “wholly unable to gratify” his own curiosity with the man’s full story (33). Reliance on imagination and insatiable curiosity seeps not only into the narrator’s mind after dealing with Bartlebybut also into the reader’s mind after dealing with “Bartleby” the short story. By merging the thoughts of those who encounter Bartleby into one uniform sense of emptiness, Melville opens the floodgates and allows the waters of excited and far-reaching interpretation to flow forth. Riding this wave born of emptiness, carefully constructed and interactive, Melville glides forward into the forefront of literary discussion and ensures that his legacy will endure.

As Deleuze puts it, “‘Bartleby’ is neither a metaphor for the author nor the symbol of anything whatsoever” (p. 68). However, the philosopher is not among the majority. Interpretations of the short story range from American civil virtues to the value of prudence. In between come interpretations concerning Cicero, Cain and Abel, John Jacob Astor, passive resistance, and a slew of other even more fantastic themes (Dilworth, Matteson, Ryan). As the list grows, the risk of illegitimacy for each interpretation grows as well. Out of the abundance comes little more than gratuity. Every critical thinker who cultivates some new interpretation of this work becomes another peg in Melville’s machine of meaninglessness. They search laboriously through a text that “structures a desire for meaning that can never be fulfilled” (Weinstock). As mentioned earlier (and alluded to by Weinstock later in his paper), the original “Bartleby” short story is difficult to find under the layers and layers of second-hand documentation. While some, like Davis, have seen that Bartleby (the character) is nearly impossible to interpret fully because we must encounter Bartleby through the fractured lens of the narrator , the same concept as applied to the short story is less explored. Mitchell seems to scratch the surface of this idea, but he too relies on second-hand documentation from earlier essayists such as Lewis Leary and Milton R. Stern. In trying to make points, these critics simply enter their names into Melville’s guest list to his dinner for schmucks.

A curious parallel between the power of language and the interpretive black hole of “Bartleby” can be observed in Melville’s story as well. Although letters and words hold a gripping influence on those who observe them (34), they are still technically “dead letters” and dead words, markings without life or a conscience. In truth, they have no real power unless those who read them allow those very same “dead” letters and words to shape their own powers of thought. They have meaning, reason or motive only because we assign it to them. Melville’s “Bartleby” seems to be the perfect construct of entirely “dead” language being assigned objective power — even as that language adds more subjectivity to the affair of “Bartleby” and its many interpretations.

At one point the narrator exclaims that, “[Bartleby’s] unwonted wordiness inspirited me” (30). In keeping with the subtle change of “Bartleby’s” noun definition (from the man in the story to the story itself), that quote translates either as “the character of Bartleby’s not very customary wordiness inspirited me” or “the story’s not very customary wordiness inspirited me.” The quote may be read from the viewpoint of the narrator and from the viewpoint of the casual reader – both intricately linked and based in subjective language. The narrator has become impassioned as a result of a mixture of words he has rarely, if ever, seen before, and that passion drives the ‘action’ of the short story. The narrator also has become impassioned to detect reason, whether it exists or not, as we have discussed earlier in the paper. The casual reader or critic of the short story also strives to detect reason behind Bartleby’s inaction, whether it exists or not. Simply because of specific amalgam of words, Bartleby the character and “Bartleby” the short story impassion both the narrator and reader to seek rectification for the seeming nothingness of those very same words Bartleby (or “Bartleby”) uses. Because a rare formula of (at their essence, meaningless) letters and words is used , both narrator and reader feel that reason must be detectable. Melville uses the arcane language of his short story to mirror the arcane language Bartleby exhibits, and by doing so suggests the simultaneous absurdity and power both language and the short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” own.

Those who seek resolution in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” search through something not, in actuality, created to ever be resolved. In fact, its essential nature begs for such sought after resolution. With this short story, Melville proudly cons all who search for closure in his ambiguous creation, but he does so for the benefit of his readers by ensuring they play an active role in its fortification. He demonstrates his idea of a joke by fortifying of a character (and tale) utterly ripe with underlying motive, meant to provoke the natural tendencies of humans to find meaning in the frustratingly dark. With a minimalist yet unbearably complex tale, Melville joked his way to continued academic discussion. To borrow Deleuze’s terms, this author clearly had the “eye of a prophet” and understood that “lightning springs from immobility” (82, 83). Ambiguity gives rise to interpretation, interpretation to interest, and interest to popularity. Ultimately , Melville pulls the greatest joke not only on the overly-ambitious meaning-seeker, but also on those who try to minimize the short story’s allegorical or interpretive potential. Just like the overly-ambitious, every word we write concerning “Bartleby” is technically full of dead letters – the same dead letters Melville used before them. In our attempts to close the interpretive door with critical thought, every word we write about this black hole of a short story ironically lends purpose and permanence. Ah, Bartleby. Ha, humanity?



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Zeke Saber