Who is Bartleby? A chap of misfortune and mystery, for whom scrivener (or scribe) is a misnomer, as bit by bit in Melville’s short novel, he relinquishes responsibility for all duties pertaining to his profession.
Will he read through his redacted legal text to proof it for errors?
“I prefer not to,” Bartleby says.
Will he then continue to transcribe said documents?
“I prefer not to.”
Will he please then quit the premises, as he is no longer employed?
Bartleby prefers not to.
There is something so quietly triumphant and dignified about Bartleby’s refrain, and something in me that keeps rooting for him. There’s nothing political about his resistance, and no way to positively infer that he’s making any kind of statement about the Meaning of Life. In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that he is suicidal or otherwise mentally imbalanced.
So why do I like him so much? Why do I identify with his inexplicable obstreperousness? Does this mean I’m crazy, too?
In the back of my mind while reading Bartleby was the protagonist in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, similarly resolute and peculiar in his refusal to act on his own behalf. Like Bartleby, he lives an impoverished and isolated life in the midst of a prosperous society- Bartleby’s is Wall Street in the 1850s; the unnamed narrator of Hunger lives in late 19th century Norway, near Oslo. He is a writer who makes little money, having resolved to live only by his pen. A modicum of success (his article’s publication in the town newspaper) bolsters his sense of himself as a literary genius, and when on a whim he forgoes eating in order to procure pen, paper, and candle, he becomes addicted to the feverish mental state that results. Thus begins a slow downward spiral, in which he pawns his coat, spectacles, blanket and shoes; during which he loses all sense of meaning in a series of insignificant lies to friends and acquaintances; and which ultimately ends in derangement.
Bartleby also fares poorly, but I won’t spoil the end for you. (If you don’t find a copy at your library, you can read it for free on Project Gutenberg.)
Whereas Hunger‘s first-person narration gives us insight into the narrator’s mental world, circumscribed by a set of seemingly arbitrary and illogical morals and values, Bartleby is narrated by the scrivener’s baffled employer, and thus his inner workings remain closed both to him and to us.
What gives, Bartleby? Apparently this is the hot new question in literature.
[The] layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.
Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?
For our purposes, I’m more interested in what modern science would make of Bartleby, than in what it has to say about the existence of literature. Storytelling having been a part of human life for so long, and the pleasures of fiction being so much more pleasurable than studying the “underlying mental processes,” I’d just as soon pass that information along as incidental rather than central.
So back to Bartleby, then, and the “unexpected insights” cognitive psychology might afford us in comprehending his motivations. How is cognitive psychology different from the psychology of Hamsun and Melville’s lives?
Hunger has been described as a “premier example of the psychological novel,” and “a study of the effects of hunger on the psyche.” [The article linked above also examines how Hamsun's extreme focus on the interior world of a single character was a reaction against socially focused Scandinavian novels of the time.] The psychological novel is defined as “…a work of prose fiction which places more than the usual amount of emphasis on interior characterization and on the motives, circumstances, and internal action which springs from, and develops, external action.”
Bartleby gives us all the external action with none of the interior characterization, perhaps a reflection of the shifts occurring in the field of psychology during Melville’s time.
A brief sketch based on what I’ve read online so far: late 19th century shifting of classification and terminology, from mental philosophy to psychology; professionalization of neurophysiology; rise of psychological experimentation laboratories in Germany and the US; William James’ influential Principles of Psychology published in 1890, focusing on consciousness, emotion, and habit.
Cognitive psychology seems a more recent consolidation of theories, influenced by technological advances and particularly computers, comparing mental processing to information processing. Other movements (like Humanistic psychology, which is the only psych course I’ve taken) in the latter half of the 20th century would insist upon the spiritual component as essential.
(Which reminds me once again of Jill Bolte Taylor’s book sitting on the stack by our bed, which is the neuroscientist’s account of her stroke and spiritual experience.)
Oh dear, so many crossing threads and connections. Back to Melville.
The Confidence Man– published four years after Bartleby and included in the copy I picked up– leans more heavily toward psychological and philosophical analysis. It’s also a full-length novel, whereas Bartleby is a short novel, a novella. [Side note and word to the wise: the terrible "Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading" used paperback edition I found includes so many typos and errant commas I almost want to burn the thing rather than inflict it upon the next unassuming Powell's browser.] Here Melville spends more time evaluating the behavior and history of the mingling crowd aboard a ferry, and meditating on themes of confidence and charity.
Bartleby remains a mysterious and apparently popular figure, which assuages some of my suspicions as to the soundness of my own noggin. Some critics interpret Bartleby as Melville’s version of the writer in a capitalist society, forced to transcribe what is given to him by way of market appeal, a theory the Wall Street setting would corroborate. I’m less inclined to interpret Bartleby so literally and politically.
I’m even more hesitant to read his character through the lens of cognitive psychology, as one scholar already has, translating the “Bartleby complex” into a modern diagnosis of infantile autism, citing his “leading characteristics of extreme aloneness, preservation of sameness, and difficulty with communication.”
I prefer not to comment on that last statement, since I know so little about autism, and leave it to you, reader, to decide for yourself what to make of this scrivener who would not write.