“A Sense of Guilt” an analysis of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

By Trudy A. Martinez

In the year 1853, Herman Melville writes “Bartleby, the Scrivener”; he subtitles it “A Story of Wall Street”. This is an interesting subtitle, considering he writes the story just prior to the Civil War and the great boom of the industrial era in America.

The story depicts a man, Bartleby, whose earnings are meager, a man who slowly loses hope of bettering himself or his position in life. On Wall Street, where Bartleby works, riches abound; but Bartleby “prefers not to” strife in what he believes is a hopeless situation.

Bartleby’s employer, the lawyer (the narrator of the story), brings insight to the situation through his concern (and feeling of responsibility) for Bartleby by failing to respond to Bartleby’s continual reply “I prefer not to”. In this way, the lawyer acknowledges responsibility for Bartleby’s hopelessness; the lawyer’s sense of guilt centers on the work arrangement. Thus in part, the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, by Melville gives an answer to the question: Why did America wait nearly one hundred years after Europe before industrializing?

When considering the impact of “hopelessness” upon France, the answer is apparent. The resulting corruption of the French Industrialization and the French Revolution is still fresh in the minds of the greedy, the social elite, and the entrepreneurs in the western world. America’s elite wants to prevent revolution, to prevent the slightest threat of repetition of the “French” example.

In France and England industrialization is a revolution, unplanned, uncalculated. If America is to follow suit and progress, her entrance into industrialization requires planning, predetermination, and thinking-out and most of all control. Therefore, not only do the salves need to be freed and given “hope” but also all the people need “hope”, and token justice. Education needs to be mandatory, thus allowing for the conditioning of an “American Dream” through the compulsory school systems and behaviorism.

When industrialization hits America, the common people are prepared; they have “hope” for a better tomorrow; they are willing to work hard to get ahead, to build a better future, if not for themselves for their children.

The social elite take a step backwards, allowing the rising money elite to manifest control of the industrialization, providing hope. The social elites spend more and more time on Wall Street at the Stock Market investing in the new enterprises and the new corporations that emerge; they effectively transfer their sense of guilt for the hopelessness of the struggling to the rising middle-class, while at the same time they give the magic ingredient, “hope”.

A symbol of hopelessness is apparent in the story about Bartleby; the symbol of hopelessness is also a fear of the social elite, because hopelessness could mean revolution and the demise of the rich. Thus, Wall Street is the perfect setting for the lawyer’s story about Bartleby. Perhaps, the story itself fuels the changes that alleviate a sense of guilt, giving reason and justification for the unjust practices of business.

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BA degree in English with a single subject certification 1994 I enjoy writing, art (all forms), especially drawing/multi-media , quilting, sewing, embroidery, photography (still and video), and most of all, my grandchildren and great-grand-children.

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