“Happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none”
Herman Melville is pretty much a household name in modern America due to his creation of the literary giant Moby Dick. It's time to fess up here: I've never read Moby Dick and probably never will do (I get the whole symbolism behind the concept part, but the idea of reading such a long book about a fisherman and a whale just seems so tedious to me).
Anyhow, back to the book in question. Written in 1853, Bartleby the Scrivener is heralded as one of the best short stories America has to offer. Having said that, when I found this out after reading the book my first question was "why?". As I read it, I was aware that there must be some underlying meaning behind this story as the plot line seemed meaningless (and not in a postmodernist manner either, more in a why-did-you-bother-writing manner). So, feeling ashamed of my lack of guile as an English Lit student, I researched it and found some interesting theories as to what Melville was getting at through the narrative.
However, before I discuss these I want to briefly describe the plot of the book itself. The narrator has two copyists, or scriveners, working for him to help with legal documents. He feels the need to hire a third - this is where Bartleby comes in. The narrator is at once enamoured with Bartleby's elusiveness. He wants to know who this man is and why his behaviour is so off. But, one of the greatest lessons to take from this book is that no one can really understand another person - and that's what the narrator learns from Bartleby.
So now for the theories. Some critics believe that Bartleby is a symbol for people suffering from clinical depression. His sleep and food deprivation are hyperbolic examples of the negative side effects which this disease can have on people. He is incredibly apathetic in all manner of things and cannot seem to find any enjoyment in life. Not only this, but he has closed himself off from all forms of human contact, preferring to live alone and avoiding engaging in any form of social contact. His choice to work behind a makeshift screen reflects the manner in which people suffering from depression often psychically screen themselves off from others in order to lessen anxiety and deal with their issues privately.
However, there are other theories. Perhaps Melville simply wanted us to know that everyone has a story, even if it isn't the most dramatic. Or perhaps Bartleby was simply a figure who offers readers a way to get to know the narrator. What did you think of the figure of Bartleby?