Bartleby and the Human Conscience

The character of Bartleby is interesting on so many levels but, for me, many of the analyses are somehow incomplete. I prefer not to be convinced by them!

So, yes he is a psychological case moving towards the extreme end of the autistic spectrum. Sufferers with autism show many of the characteristics of Bartleby. They are not only non-social and highly withdrawn but the stock answer to the question is very characteristic of these patients, who are unable to organise their experience sufficiently to reply in context while finding that a stock answer is both reassuring and lets them off the hook of replying. I couldn’t help wondering as I re-read this short story whether Melville is actually describing a genuine acquaintance. Autism sufferers are now drawn to employment which involves simple repetitive tasks but are also capable of handling very fine detail so becoming a scrivener would have made good sense for anyone with that tendency. However, it is pretty clear that Melville is not simply writing a book about the sad history of a specific patient.

And, yes, the story has something to do with Wall Street and the emergent critique of Wall Street as soulless and simply focused on business and profit. It is, after all, the wall that Bartleby spends a lot of time looking at which must be significant and Bartleby appears to successfully avoid almost any involvement in what might be termed trade or exchange, or business.

Along the way, it is something to do with narration and deception and the notion that you can have a character who apparently says and does very little but still impacts on those around him and is created by their responses. It doesn’t surprise me that there have been so many adaptations of this story often leading into existential pathways or that the 20th century has liked to reinterpret it using psychological and psychoanalytical models. And, of course, the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator is clearly a complex one.

To make some sense of this relationship, my hypothesis is that Bartleby is the conscience of a narrator who personally understands not a lot about himself but is aware that he is something of a parasite, slightly exploitative, not very nice in terms of his deeds and inclined to self-justification while tending to gloss over these nastier aspects of his personality because he works in the context of an emerging business economy where these sort of things are acceptable.

What we then see in the novel is his relationship with his conscience. He recognises it, tries to placate it, even massages it occasionally as it sits in his own office as a witness to his working behaviour. His employees offer easy solutions but of course these won’t work for the narrator. All that he can do is try to distance it which he does, first emotionally and then spatially and geographically. In essence, he is seeking to compartmentalise his personality and put his conscience to one side. But that doesn’t altogether work and as he fights his conscience, it both diminishes as he tries to restrict or ignore its presence but also becomes more intense. Finally, he allows it to wither and die but he is not reassured because he knows that somehow that has made him an even worse person.

This extended metaphor, if that is what it is, explains some of the quirkiness of the novel like how the other employees respond to Bartleby and advise the narrator on how to deal with him. It explains how Bartleby kind of sticks to the narrator and moves into his office and how they are also frequently distanced and apart. It explains something of the problematic relationship between the narrator and Bartleby because, although they are aspects of the same person, they are not at peace with one another.

For me, it also explains the appeal of the story which is, at the realistic level, simply daft but continues to engage readers who have an uneasy need to read to the end. It might be best – even for you dear reader – to stay looking at the screen now because if you turn your back you might catch a glimpse of that dark huddle of rags in the corner reminding you of things you might rather pretend to yourself hadn’t happened and people who you might have treated better … Perhaps, we all have our Bartleby somewhere inside carefully writing down all we do and have done, the good but also the bad.

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