No, there’s nothing very mysterious about Bartleby’s motivations. The narrator’s willingness to tolerate this work stoppage is what needs to be explained. Rather than beat him up or lock him out or have him arrested—the traditional ways of responding to striking workers in industrial America—the lawyer holds onto the scrivener. One of the best essays written on this subject is by the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, who insists that this story is more about the narrator than the narrated. As the story proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the lawyer identifies with his clerk. To be sure, it is an ambivalent identification, but that only makes it all the more powerful. “All that is left to the grieving narrator is a profound recognition and sense that something terribly needy, horribly isolated, ‘incurably forlorn,’ is lost forever.”
This sadness is as much political as existential. The narrator expresses his identification with Bartleby in the language of mid-nineteenth-century Christian socialism: “For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering, stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.” And yet the narrator cannot quite transform this identification into a proper sense of solidarity. The thing he and his copyist have most profoundly in common, paperwork, is also what drives them apart. The copying has to get done, whether Bartleby prefers to or not. The story’s famous last lines, “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” express the narrator’s bad conscience, which should also be ours. What our fellow paperworkers need isn’t pity, but patience.
“No time for reflection! Let’s copy! The page must be filled, the ‘monument’ completed. All things are equal: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, insignificant and characteristic. There is no truth in phenomena. End with a view of our two heroes leaning over their desk, copying.”
Thus concludes Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel Bouvard and Pécuchet. The great Flaubert scholar Enid Starkie notes that the author experimented with at least two other titles before settling on this one: The Two Copyists and The Two Woodlice. Like Melville, Flaubert drew inspiration from a number of popular and not so popular sources concerning the lives of white-collar workers. Among these sources was his own short story, one of the first things he ever published, at the age of fifteen, “A Lecture on Natural History—Genus: Clerk.”
You ought to see this interesting biped in the office, copying its register. It has removed its coat and collar, working in shirtsleeves and wearing its wool vest.
It is hunched over the desk, with its quill tucked above its left ear. It writes slowly, savors the smell of ink, and enjoys watching it cover a huge sheet of paper. It repeats to itself what it writes, with its mumbling giving off a constant nasal sound. But when it is in a hurry, it hastily scatters periods, commas, dashes, “The Ends,” and paragraphs. This is the height of talent.
The protagonists of Bouvard and Pécuchet meet one hot Paris Sunday. Bouvard works as a copyist for a firm that handles Alsatian textiles; his companion is a copyist in the Ministry of the Navy. They strike up a conversation, take a walk, share dinner, become fast friends. “What we call ‘love at first sight’ holds true for all sorts of passions,” Flaubert remarks. When Bouvard comes into an unexpected inheritance, he decides to invite his new best friend to take an early retirement with him. They will move to the countryside and devote their remaining days to something, anything, other than copying.
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