Bartleby, The Scrivener: Defiance Against Capitalism
Rebellion has been shown in many ways in literary history, and has been craftily used to show anger for the state of whatever society the characters are rebelling against. Defiance has been a theme in our society for decades, including today as movements such as feminism and bands such as Green Day encourage one another to avoid conforming to societal expectations as a form of subtle mutiny. The story is from the perspective of a lawyer, who views and describes the people who work for him. He comes across a very interesting character, Bartleby, who at first seems to be a very productive worker, but over time loses all interest in performing at all in his career. In the 1853 story, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the author, Herman Melville, makes incredible use of depression and mental illness to symbolize angst against the ever-growing capitalistic society that we live in. An analysis of this story proves how the main character’s depression and apathy towards his occupation as a lawyer as well as his relationship with food is used to exemplify rebellion against the greediness of industrialization and capitalism.
The first step to understanding how depression symbolizes rebellion is to understand how Bartleby seems to portray the depressive symptoms and how that all-in-all affects his work performance. Although Melville never explicitly states that Bartleby has any mental illness, there are clues throughout the story that give us an idea that he lives in an excessive state of melancholia. One of the first indications we see is when the narrator explains to us Bartleby’s physical appearance. After Bartleby defiantly says to his boss, “I would prefer not to” (141) when told to complete a task necessary for his work, the narrator says that “his grey eye [was] dimly calm” (137). Depression is often represented as “colorless”, and Bartleby’s grey eyes and the calmness he shows can be interpreted as symbolism of depression. Bartleby’s behavior in the office after this encounter with his boss shows tell-tale signs of chronic depression such as his direct apathy about his work towards his boss and how his excitement towards his work changes abruptly. “At first, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing”, and then suddenly he stops and stares at the wall for hours, and when confronted about this, he says that “he had decided upon no more writing” (140). Loss of interest in pleasures or daily tasks is one of the main signs of depression, and Bartleby clearly shows this more and more as the story progresses. Not to mention, Bartleby literally stops eating because he just does not care enough which ultimately leads to his death.
We can tell that his depression is genuine and not his own stance against capitalism after looking at actual symptoms of the mental illness, and because usually during a rebellion people fall subject to deindivuation, where their individuality is lost to the excitement of the crowd. Bartleby throughout the story seems too apathetic to everyone around him and the situations he invests himself in to seem like he is vulnerable to this phenomenon. Not only this, but Bartleby is described to just stare at walls instead of doing his work, which does not seem like someone who is angry against his work. It just seems like he has lost all motivation in daily activities. Clearly though Bartleby’s emotional issues are not in vain as Melville seems to really invest the story into the symbolism of anger and rebellion, because although the meaning behind his mental illness may seem superficial, there is much more to it.
Another pivotal detail to understand this theme is how the author uses the element of food in his story. It starts after the narrator has finished describing himself and begins describing the other characters in the story, “First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut” (134). Although he never describes the significance behind Turkey’s name, he explains that Ginger Nut’s nickname is due to his coworkers sending him on errands to get these cookies. Food is what ultimately leads to Bartleby’s downfall, in which he stops eating it. His behaviors most likely symbolize something much bigger than what’s on the outside of the story. Food in relation to the seven deadly sins is equal to gluttony, and Melville probably used that idea to represent the greed that our free enterprise culture invests itself in.
After getting a feel of the true sadness of our main character as well as how Melville uses the element of food throughout the story, the major theme begins to really reveal itself. Bartleby may seem as though he is too depressed to perform his work, and perhaps that is truly the case, but Melville’s intentions for the story was clearly deeper than that. To think that the author’s intent was less cosmetic is evident in Bartleby’s occupation. Everyone in the story is a lawyer, a very critical career and certainly one of the highest paying jobs in our country. Of course, everyone in America plays a significant role in keeping up with everything, but lawyers are a key component because they help run the judicial system. They help keep America as safe of a place as possible. Not only this, but because of Bartleby’s apathy caused by his depression, he does not perform his obligatory work. He may not have the energy or motivation, but the author was likely using this to explain rebellion against capitalism and the state of our society that is obsessed with money.
Food is key, it represents gluttony and in capitalistic America, ‘gluttony’ is what keeps everyone alive. Without money there is really no way to survive, and without greed and heartlessness, there is no effortless way to make money. Bartleby’s behavior towards food as a result of his mental illnesses is the author’s way of expressing anger towards how greedy people in our mess of a society are, and as evident in Bartleby’s job, one of the most important jobs in America, he is making a point against the capitalism that is also key in the survival of our country.
To comprehend the main theme of the story, we need to understand the depth of the sadness of the main character, Bartleby, and how Melville uses food throughout the story. Both the apathy and rebellion of Bartleby’s character as represented by his depression and the gluttony and greed illustrated by the element of food represent an artful revolution against capitalism and greed in our society that is slowly turning cold and heartless as people are forced into societal roles that they do not want to be part of and ‘food’ is turning us all against each other.