Law in Contemporary Society
The first paragraph here seems pretty uncharitable to the narrator. If he'd exercised legal authority early on to expel Bartleby, he'd be accused of heartlessness. Trying to give Bartleby the benefit of the doubt and even offering his own resources, he's called weak. I think the narrator does a good job of presenting the problem in pages 15-16. How can we help someone who refuses to participate in the system? The narrator, quite understandably, weighs emotional (possibly mystic) values against rational values.

The narrator gets a profound feeling from Bartleby: "For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me"; "not-unpleasing sadness"; "bond of a common humanity"; "fraternal melancholy." He feels moved, and through Bartleby's "strange mysteries" has "presentiments of strange discoveries." But, in the light of day, how much value and resource can/should he assign to these possibilities? "[Bartleby] would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall." The narrator calls it a "dead-wall reverie", seemingly an oxymoron. Reverie has a few shades of meaning, the most obviously pertinent being “a state of dreamy meditation.” The problem is that Bartleby achieves this while staring at a dead wall; how can that be interpreted, what could the meaning be? Find reverie in anything? In an absent mind? In death? Another pertinent meaning of reverie is “a fantastic but impractical idea.”

“A prudential feeling began to steal over me” – the narrator's rational commitment to life. “So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not.” Where “remedying excessive and organic ill” is hopeless, it is “common sense” rather than “selfishness” to disengage.

But I don’t think it’s right to say that Bartleby is simply miserable. He confronts death but also freedom, misery but also contentment, and it is difficult to say in what order. Is he ill? Certainly, in the sense of approaching death. But he would prefer to follow his free reverie even into death. The narrator’s own desire for free reverie explains his “profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”, his interest in the “cool tranquility of a snug retreat”, and his bond with Bartleby. Their life-choices exist on the same spectrum, with the narrator accepting available succor in exchange for a minimized cost of freedom and perhaps integrity.

The primary problem is with the physical world. Life is limited by scarcity – you have to work to make a living. We can’t really live freely until we solve this problem, and the first purpose of ‘the system’ is to address it. Generally, the system enhances freedom, though in the process it supplants a slave-driving state of nature with oppressive bureaucracy.

After suffering the “errands of life” for a long while, Bartleby goes his own way, against the system but also against life. What is there to do but let him go? A dead letter, terrible but true. The narrator at least does what he can to deliver the message with humor, empathy, and a perplexed balance of self-indictment and self-justification.

-- GregOrr - 08 Apr 2009


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r2 - 07 Jan 2010 - 21:35:21 - IanSullivan
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