"Bartleby, the Scrivener" is one of the most haunting tales of the nineteenth century. Criticism has centered on analysis of both the narrator and Bartleby himself, taking up the question of whether or not the narrator ultimately fulfills his moral obligations to Bartleby. I believe an approach to the story, however, which takes as its starting point a critique of the medical model of disability helps elucidate this issue. This approach makes it clear that given his situation in a world which values a medically inspired model of understanding difference, the narrator, benevolent as he may be, can never do enough for Bartleby, because, given this situation, he can never ask the right questions of Bartleby or posit appropriate solutions for him. I conclude my argument with a consideration of critical complicity in this issue as critics attempt to classify Bartleby, thereby following in the narrator's misguided footsteps.

When the nameless narrator of "Bartleby, The Scrivener" is first introduced to the eponymous copyist, he makes immediate note of the young man's "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn" aspect (9). However, it is not until the lawyer-narrator is met with the first of Bartleby's famously adamant preferences "not to" do any of the work for which he is hired that the befuddled narrator, dumbfounded by such an unexpected and unusual assertion of will, begins to grapple with the question of "what" one "had…best do" in such a situation (11). It is indeed this very question that has concerned critics of the text for decades. Critical discourse has rendered the ostensible benevolence or cruelty of the narrator's actions of central import in "Bartleby" criticism. Although critics have debated this issue for decades, little consensus seems to have been reached, and the same question of the narrator's moral rectitude continues to resound in scholarship on the story. I argue, alternatively, that discerning the ethical standing of the narrator in this tale is not truly the issue that Melville begs readers to consider. Rather, when a disability theory-inspired reading is taken to this text, it becomes clear that the narrator's actions, benevolent though they may at times be, are inevitably doomed to fail Bartleby given his situation in a society which values medical categorization and definition of human individuality rather than accepting and upholding the value of difference, indeterminacy, and inscrutability. Instead of embracing Bartleby's difference or attempting to understand Bartleby on his own terms, the narrator obsessively seeks explanations for Bartleby's behavior, using amalgamations of bits of laboriously discovered biographical data. From these personally constructed explanations, the lawyer defines solutions for Bartleby which exact conformity more than they seek to allow Bartleby to flourish on his own terms.

Thus, because he finds it impossible to embrace that which he cannot understand through rational scrutiny, the benevolent potential of the narrator can never be actualized in terms of positive effects on Bartleby's life. Moreover, because of the narrator's ultimate failure in his efforts to aid Bartleby, the tragic character literally curls up and dies at the story's conclusion, leaving readers witness to nothing more than an enigmatic tale which seems to defy concrete interpretation. This void of understanding that ultimately leaves us with little more than a seemingly inscrutably metaphor of a character is, for Melville, a warning about the consequences of the persistent human desire to see others as definable by medical categories and rational explanations. Melville's portrayal of Bartleby is meant to illustrate vividly the costs and casualties of a society that fails to embrace diversity in a never-ending quest to describe and define the world around it according to reductive, deterministic categories. Such categories, the text suggests, preclude full experience of the rich diversity of the human condition.

The Bartleby Industry

It has already been mentioned that criticism of "Bartleby, The Scrivener" tends to focus on the ethical implications of the narrator's actions towards Bartleby. Donald Craver and Patricia Plante acknowledge, in a broad sense, that "the most widely accepted contemporary interpretations of 'Bartleby' have centered upon the theme of the brotherhood of man or a variation thereof," but for their part, assert that the text asks "how human beings [ought to] best discharge their responsibility to themselves as well as to others," in the face of "man's essentially forlorn and often meaningless condition" (132). In further categorizing the manners in which the lawyer-narrator himself has been interpreted as the key to this aptly stated question, Robert Wilson accurately states that critics typically analyze the lawyer in two divergent fashions:

The first is with contempt: the lawyer is the model of all pettifoggers, obsessed with the banal mechanisms of order, law, and wealth. He profits from a power that allows him to turn such machinery to his own cause and is ultimately blinded by a self-interest that causes him to abandon Bartleby….The second is with kindness: the lawyer is the embodiment of human sympathy, endearingly tolerant of his employees' peculiar eccentricities. He himself is the victim of unfortunate political machinations and is ultimately frustrated by his genuine attempts at charity toward the despairing scrivener. In short, the reader views the narrator either as agent or subject of modern law and bureaucracy. (25)

Walter E. Anderson breaks down this summative bifurcation even further, claiming that critical assessments of the lawyer range from classifying him as everything from "'clinical rat' to fraud to perfect Christian," acknowledging as well the "unquestionably broad" nature of such assessments and noting that "moral estimate[s] of Bartleby are equally perplexed" (385). Critical analyses which purport to have discovered the smoking gun of a source for the character of Bartleby are of similarly popular appeal, a fact which Dan McCall notes in his discussion of what he calls "the Bartleby Industry" (1-32).

I believe the popularity of both of these topics stands as evidence of the persistent critical desire, as deep-seated as the narrator's own, to discover a motive for Bartleby's incomprehensible behaviors. The implicit logic behind such critical inquiries goes something like this: 1) determine whether the narrator fulfills his duties to Bartleby, and one can therefore 2) make an implicit, retroactive judgment about the nature of Bartleby's needs, and in doing so one can 3) determine exactly what was "wrong" with him in the first place. Or, alternatively: 1) determine exactly upon whom Melville modeled Bartleby, and, via a bit of detective work and biographical summary, one can 2) pinpoint the precise nature and source of Bartleby's deviant behavior. While many of these arguments are indeed compelling, it occurs to me that such hypotheses are misdirected from the beginning. These paths of inquiry certainly lead to some interesting discoveries (that Melville read a similar story in a newspaper prior to writing "Bartleby," for example), but while the scenery down these paths may be picturesque, they were nevertheless mistaken trails of exploration to begin with (McCall 1-3). Rather, the very point for Melville is that we ought to avoid groping for bits of data and rational explanations that allow us to satisfy our desire for easily definable classifications of other human beings. The very core of story, therefore, works against the ideology that the easily definable and the most comprehensible is the best, and a reading of the story aided by disability theory makes this abundantly clear.

The Race for a Cure

Rosemarie Garland-Thompson has aptly noted that "ability and disability are not so much a matter of the capacities and limitations of bodies but more about what we expect from a body at a particular moment and place" ("Disability" 524). Violation of such expectations, she adds, often leads to a fetishized and feverish search for cures for abnormality such that "the ideology of cure and the mandate for normalcy intertwine, crowding out any possible narrative of accommodating rather than eliminating disability" (Garland-Thompson, "Disability" 525). Searches for curative solutions to disability, then, are often rooted in a quest to annihilate difference and deviance. Therefore, the question one ought to ask in approaching "Bartleby, The Scrivener" is not so much whether or not the narrator ought to have done more for Bartleby, but rather, why the options he comes up with in an effort to help him fail so miserably, leaving both men worse off than they were before. Garland-Thompson's recognition that races for cures are often also demands for conformity is crucial to answering this question. In attempting to find the most appropriate solution for Bartleby, the narrator simultaneously demands his conformity to the status quo. Simi Linton has helpfully described the entire field of disability studies as that which brings to light the constructed nature of the concept of disability itself (and therefore normativity, as well), critiquing the classical medical model of examining disability as that which "focus[es]…on the individual" who becomes thereby "an object…of study" which in all propriety ought to be "chang[ed] to fit more comfortably in the existing" order of society" (Linton 518, emphasis original). In this view, "disabled people are to be acted on, shaped, and turned out as best as can be done to fit into the existing social structure" (Linton 518). True to form, throughout the story, Bartleby is for the narrator "the object of study" that Linton notes—an object for which the narrator's gaze is legitimized by a medical understanding of difference as that which much be classified, categorized, treated, cured, and thereby, above all, controlled.

The fact that there are numerous other "deviant" individuals under the lawyer's employment lends further credence to a reading of Bartleby as that which the narrator attempts to wrangle into conformity with normative standards through ostensibly charitable acts. One of the narrator's other employees, affectionately nicknamed Turkey by his co-workers, routinely exhibits a flushed countenance which "blaze[s] like a grate full of Christmas coals" each day after lunch, after which point the lawyer finds his "business capacities…seriously disturbed for the remainder" of the work day (5). Nippers, the lawyer's other adult employee, exhibits his own aberrant behavior at precisely the opposite times as Turkey. In the mornings especially, Nippers is afflicted with a "nervous testiness and grinning irritability" which often causes him to "rise from his seat, and stooping over his table, spread his arms wide apart, seize the whole desk, and move it, and jerk it, with a grim grinding motion of the floor, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent" (7-8). Why, then, does the narrator purposefully "waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby," whom he calls "the strangest" scrivener he has "ever [seen] or heard" (4)? Simply put, the lawyer is able to explain and find appropriate solutions that control the behavior of both Turkey and Nippers. Turkey, he determines, spends most of his money during the lunch hour on "red ink" (wine), and Nippers, he concludes, was simply born with a naturally "irritable, brandy-like disposition" (8). As a solution, the narrator no longer allows Turkey to copy important papers in the afternoon after he's become inebriated. Nippers's behavior is tolerated only because Turkey's counterbalances it, allowing the narrator to ignore his deviance. Indeed, the lawyer narrates with pride his deftly determined prescriptions of management for each of them. Intriguingly, neither of these capricious characters is deemed "deranged" or "luny," while the ever-consistent Bartleby is immediately dubbed both after his communication of his decided and unchanging preferences (32; 12). Control of deviance is everything in determining the different attitudes with which these three characters are treated—because they can be quickly codified and dealt with easily, Nippers and Turkey are hardly considered behavioral anomalies in the realm of human experience. But since Bartley consistently defies the narrator's nigh-obsessive desire to "understand" him (a euphemism here used to signify diagnosis and classification), he is deemed abnormal.

The narrator assumes that Bartleby's violation of the existing order of things renders him categorically abnormal in some way or another. He refuses to work with the "cheerful industrious[ness]" the narrator demands, and he refuses to answer questions or converse "normally" (10). Thus, though Bartleby is indeed different from those around him, it is ultimately his violation of the status quo that catalyzes his classification as "luny," "deranged," or otherwise categorically abnormal (12; 32). The narrator sets off, therefore, in a quest to pinpoint any biographical data which will help him determine the ultimate cause of Bartleby's deviance from social norms, attempting to help him only insofar as he can force Bartleby back into a stultifying box of socially defined normalcy. In doing so, he equips himself for this quest only with tools that emerge from this strategy—that is, methods of understanding the determinate causes for Bartleby's deviance which might allow him to modify said deviance thereby. Thus, the narrator seeks not to truly understand Bartleby and what he needs to flourish, but rather to enforce a transmogrification of what he (the narrator) sees to be Bartleby's deviance from an externally determined code of behavior.

The Search for a Cause

Thus, much like critics who retroactively attempt to determine the nature of Bartleby's malady via determination of the narrator's morality or Melville's source material, the narrator, in his pursuit of the best solutions for Bartleby's problem, doggedly pursues any and all possible explanations for Bartleby's behavior. He wonders, for example, upon consideration of Bartleby's diet, what "the probable effects upon the human constitution" would be "of living entirely on ginger-nuts" (13). The preposterous assumption that Bartleby's preferences are due to dietary anomalies constitutes one of Melville's most direct illustrations of the true absurdity and complete futility of a search for biographical data by which to categorize and later cure Bartleby's abnormalities. Similarly, in examining Bartleby's desk one morning, the narrator determines loneliness to be the cause of Bartleby's behavior. He then launches into an extended reflection upon what he assumes must be Bartleby's "miserable friendlessness and loneliness," a narrative that he constructs solely in examining the contents of Bartleby's desk (17).1 The narrator's narrow-minded search for the cause of Bartleby's behavior foregrounds his self-interested solutions for Bartleby—both are doomed to constitute nothing more than absurd futility. In one of his longer conversations with Bartleby, the narrator questions him persistently on his personal history in an attempt to pinpoint precisely the cause of his behavior. He asks his birthplace, and pushes Bartleby to provide him with further biographical information about himself. Bartleby, of course, prefers not to, although it is notable that at the conclusion of their conversation, Bartleby's mouth evinces the "faintest conceivable tremor" (20). This description is one of the few instances in which Melville describes a reactionary state in Bartleby. In fact, this instance is the closest Melville comes to portraying any hint of Bartleby's interiority. Occurring as it does after an intense bout of personal questioning on behalf of the narrator, it is clear that Bartleby finds the narrator's approach off-putting. This depiction of his resistance to the narrator's method of approaching him also implicitly indicates that Bartleby might be more communicative if approached differently.

Bartleby's Silences

Thus, in continually approaching Bartleby with an eye to diagnose and classify him, the narrator never allows Bartleby to articulate his needs for himself. Intriguingly, though one might at first assume that Bartleby would simply "prefer not to" communicate his needs for accommodation, there are in fact several moments in the text wherein it becomes clear that Bartleby would in fact, be inclined to communicate such information, given an approach to his difference that avoids pressure for conformity. Less famous, for example, than Bartleby's insistent preferences "not to" do various things, are Bartleby's determined silences in the novel. In fact, though his famous preferences are uttered twenty-four times in the novel, twelve times Bartleby simply remains silent, provisioning no response to the narrator's demands and questions. Nearly every one of these silences is represented textually as a single sentence ("No answer") which stands alone as an entire paragraph. Certainly, Melville desired readers to attend as much to Bartleby's silences, then, as his preferences. Importantly, Bartleby's silences are almost always responses to the narrator's sharp commands for his attention, the narrator's misguided solutions for his "problem," or the narrator's confounded assertions of exasperation in response to Bartleby's persistent deviance. "Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary" of preferring not to do things, the narrator peevishly asserts at one point (14). He is met with silence. He is also met with silence when he repeatedly offers Bartleby money as a facile solution—for his part, Bartleby has by this point made it clear that he will not be paid to go away for the narrator's convenience. The narrator's insistence on conformity and his refusal to accept Bartleby's difference unless he can understand it and prescribe his own solution for it, choke out any potential for the reticent Bartleby to begin to communicate his needs. Clouded as his vision is by a socially constructed idea of difference and deviance as disability, the narrator cannot see Bartleby's personally determined needs, and he never fully allows Bartleby to speak for himself. These persistent refusals to respond to the narrator are often more telling than Bartleby's ambiguous preferences. Driven as he is to pursue rational explanations for Bartleby's behavior, the narrator continues to speak for Bartleby, obsessively pursuing the reasons, causes, and categorical nature of his difference, rather than embracing Bartleby's inscrutability.

Indeed, more than simply stifled potential communication, Bartleby's silences also constitute a potentially threatening transgression of hegemonic social behavior in Bartleby's stubborn insistence on maintaining this transgression, whatever the price. Thus, while Bartleby's reticence appears in many ways to be an inability to express himself in the terms the narrator demands, his silence simultaneously constitutes a bare refusal to speak to the narrator on these terms. In one conversation, during which the narrator unsuccessfully attempts to discern the cause of Bartleby's difference by means of biographical data, he begins by calling Bartleby forth from the screen which he has erected in his office. This screen renders Bartleby "entirely isolate[d] from" the narrator's "sight, though not from…[his] voice" (10). The lawyer has in fact erected this screen so that he can ignore Bartleby until he requires his presence.2 He requests Bartleby's presence in this instance in his typical fashion, by calling his name from across the room. Bartleby remains silent. Afterwards, the narrator comes closer than he ever does again in the story to approaching Bartleby on his own terms. He calls to Bartleby again, saying, "come here; I am not going to ask you to do anything you would prefer not to do I simply wish to speak to you" (19). Upon hearing this statement, Bartleby "noiselessly slid[es] into view" (19). Assured that he will be approached on his own terms rather than with the narrator's self-interested attempts at charity, Bartleby complies with the request and appears in front of the narrator's desk. He finds, of course, that in spite of the narrator's momentarily agreeable nature, his obsessive need to categorize Bartleby promptly resurfaces. Bartleby quickly sees that the narrator has only called him forth to ask him questions about himself so that he might better know the nature of his malady—Bartleby retreats into silence and negative preferences accordingly. Thus, Bartleby's silences represent an intriguing dualism of an apparent innate difference as well as a stubborn insistence upon speaking and being spoken to according to his preferences, rather than according to the demands of the majority. In this insistence, Bartleby's silences become powerful acts of assertion. Indeed, as Duncan McColl Chesney notes in "The Ethics of Silence:"

Bartleby's minimal formula should be understood as a form of silence. But the quiet of the 'silent man,' as Bartleby's fellow inmates dub him, cannot simply be understood as reticence. It is an indeterminate suspension of response that has the metalinguistic consequence of drawing attention to the discourse and to its practical as well as ethico-political presuppositions, one might say a (mute) 'speech act' of passivity, whose illocutionary effect is a radical suspension of the conditions of response. (308)

By powerfully resisting the assumptions of the majority, therefore, Bartleby "threatens to drag from behind the walls and into the open all the worst fears of the narrator" (Dillingham 26). These fears, of course, are fears of abnormality, deviance, and difference. By resisting conformity and insisting on his aberrant behavior, Bartleby highlights the arbitrary nature of so-called normality. In refusing "normal" discursive means, Bartleby "draw[s] attention" to the essentially constructed nature of "normal" discourse itself (Chesney 308). In persistently underscoring, then, the constructed nature of socially acceptable discourse and behavior, Bartleby indeed exposes the hidden fears and anxieties of the narrator and society. Unmasking the constructed nature of normalcy threatens the standing order upon which the majority have constructed their power—it is this fear which Bartleby so blatantly exposes in the narrator and which catalyzes the narrator's persistent efforts to normalize him. In this context, then, the narrator's false "armor of benevolence" reveals itself to be nothing if not "self-interest[ed]" and "does nothing permanently protective against Bartleby, who silently attacks the lawyer's shaky authority" (Dillingham 28). Indeed, William Dillingham asserts that Bartleby's decision not to continue copying is really a decision that "he will not ape ordinary man but will be different" (34). In refusing to speak and to copy, then, Bartleby is not simply saying nothing; rather, he is insisting that he will have nothing said for him, or, to put it another way, that he will be a letter and not a copy.

An Irreparable Loss to Literature

In spite of Bartleby's efforts, however, the lawyer continues to build narratives around his presumptions of Bartleby's mental state. In fact, he often moves himself nearly to tears by the stories he builds by way of circumstantial evidence that, like a detective or perplexed medical practitioner, he pieces together in a nigh-obsessive effort to determine the cause of Bartleby's deviant behavior. In pawing through Bartleby's desk and medically considering Bartleby's diet and personal habits, the narrator attempts to build a story about Bartleby that satisfactorily explains his aberrant behavior. Even after Bartleby's tragic death, the narrator does not learn to change his approach, provisioning for the curious reader his new theory regarding Bartleby's work in a dead letter office, which he believes catalyzed Bartleby's behavior, given that he was (according to the narrator) "by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness" (34). David Bosworth underscores the absurdity of the narrator's inclusion of the dead-letter office reference, noting that the narrator is "so desperate for a deeper biographical explanation of his scrivener's suicidal melancholy that he supplies a conjectural one at the story's end" (863). Indeed, making up a rational reason for Bartleby's behavior certainly seems to suit the narrator better than accepting the fact that there may be none. Furthermore, in beginning his retrospectively reflective narrative, the narrator opens by stating that Bartleby represents nothing short of "an irreparable loss to literature," because "no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of [the man]," about "whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources," which "in his case…are very small" (4). Even the story's title, consisting of Bartleby's name, followed by a comma which introduces the only categorical classification which the narrator can definitively ascribe to him, evinces the undying desire of the narrator to make rational sense of Bartleby's difference through whatever classifications and definitions he can. However, his frustrated efforts with Bartleby emerge from this very insistence on imposing his own narratives and solutions upon Bartleby. In short, his own misguided attempts to aid Bartleby have stalemated any possibility for his success in this avenue.

The description of Bartleby as "an irreparable loss to literature" appears in only the seventh sentence of the story (4). In situating this statement at the opening of Bartleby's story, Melville makes an important point in this regard. While the narrator, as aforementioned, terms Bartleby "a loss to literature," he does so because he is never able to fully determine the nature of Bartleby's malady. A disability-theory inspired reading of the text, however, illuminates the irony of this statement. Rather, Melville asserts that full appreciation of the enigmatic nature of Bartleby's difference is actually what has been lost. In a monomaniacal desire to classify and rationally explain the parts of the world that do not conform to socially conditioned expectations, the richness and diversity of the human experience is lost. Dogged pursuit of answers and explanations leave by the wayside experience, interaction, and fruitful relationships with that which falls outside the norm of human experience—relationships, which, if nurtured, might ultimately be more enlightening and enriching than the answers originally sought. Thus, the ever-enigmatic character of Bartleby can never be anything more than a lack of comprehension which haunts the reader after the conclusion of the story. Experience of his character can never be more than the experience of a yawning void of non-information, non-comprehension. This painful sense of nothingness, the uncertainty that most readers experience at the close of Bartleby, is precisely that which Melville asserts is the very tragedy of Bartleby. Indeed, in addition to the lack of learning more about Bartleby, the overly curious reader fails, along with the narrator, to learn from Bartleby. Even in the face of Bartleby's tragic end, the narrator does not learn from his failed attempts to forcibly categorize and cure Bartleby's deviance according to his own definitions of normality. This is truly what drives the tragedy of the story:

for while the scrivener would prefer not to work or live in such dehumanizing conditions, his boss would prefer not to recognize these conditions, political and spiritual, for what they really are. Beneath the passive glaze of his geniality, the narrator aggressively resists acknowledging what the facts of the story relentlessly if tacitly convey. (Bosworth 860)

Furthermore, he fails to learn the valuable lessons Bartleby might have taught him. The very lesson Bartleby had to teach was that there is more to life than the socially constructed normativity and that there is value in difference. Feverish pursuit of objective, definable truths about those around us often leads to less comprehension, not more. The tragedy of Bartleby is that knowledge of his subjective experience is a casualty of the cold, scientific desire to understand and control human experience. The narrator's inability to accept Bartleby on his own terms leads him to "flee [from] Bartleby," ultimately choosing the "'all-too-human law'" of "meaning…[and] reason," which leaves Bartleby alone to die (Karnicky 60-1). Thus, part and parcel of this tragedy is that we as readers have lost the ability to experience a more deeply enriching comprehension of Bartleby. Bartleby is not "an irreparable loss to literature" because we have insufficient biographical data about him, but because we have insufficient information about his inner, subjective experience and his personally defined and articulated needs. Since no one in the story approaches Bartleby with an attitude that accepts and embraces difference, one in which "the real priority is to accept impairment and to remove disability," we as readers can never determine with certainty what might have ultimately helped Bartleby thrive, nor can we benefit from what his unique perspective might have had to offer (Shakespeare 268).3 Indeed, "Bartleby dies curled up in front of the wall in the Tombs having affirmed nothing but his lack of affirmation" (Haberstroh 113). Bartleby's message, in light of the narrator's and society's failure to allow him to speak in his own way about his own needs is ultimately a lesson in nothingness—a lesson about the void of meaning which is opened up via obsessive desires to categorize and apply rationality to everything around us.

Critical Complicity

The narrator even goes so far as to invite the reader's complicity in his assumptions about Bartleby. As Dan McCall points out, "the Lawyer [is] a kind of stand-in for [readers], a figure [one]…identif[ies] with as [one] struggle[s] to understand Bartleby" (100). Similarly, Todd F. Davis quotes Liane Norman's notion that the story "insists on the reader's implication in a puzzling, disturbing, and even accusing experience" (183). To what extent, Melville seems to ask, are we as readers willing to assume that all that matters about Bartleby is his deviant behavior? The story itself probes the depths to which readers are willing to give vent to their frustrations, along with the narrator, that Bartleby defies explanation. For instance, one inevitably wonders in reading the tale, why Bartleby won't simply accept the narrator's obviously well-intended attempts to help him and to understand him. Additionally, the text indeed invites the reader to sympathize with the narrator in many places, such as his candid moments of expressing a desire to help Bartleby. "What reasonable objection can you have to speak to me?," the narrator asks Bartleby (19). "I feel friendly towards you," he concludes (19). Even the inevitable Bartleby jokes one faces when mentioning the story (indeed, one will almost certainly hear "I'd prefer not to," in response to a statement along the lines of "let's discuss 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'"), are a testament to the widespread reader complicity with the narrator's errors. Readers focus on Bartleby's aberrant preferences much more than his profound and often meaningful silences, evincing a fetish-like fascination with deviance, difference, and its markers. "Bartleby, The Scrivener" is a textual test, in many ways, of the reader's willingness to tread in the narrator's misguided footsteps. Such willingness leads textually to Bartleby's death and critically to a plethora of dead-ending attempts to discern the "true meaning" of Bartleby.

It is here, of course, that I find fault with much of the extant criticism on the text. In determining over and over whether the narrator did his duty to Bartleby, the implicit question asked again and again is what might have been more efficacious for Bartleby. This question is foregrounded by an implicit determination about what was wrong with him to begin with (e.g., was it his position in a corporate machine that ultimately caused his downfall, was it his sense of isolation in the modern world, etc.?). So what do we, as critics, do with Bartleby? As Elizabeth Donaldson makes clear in her article "The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness," mental and behavioral disorders should not be reduced entirely to metaphor, even in literature. To do so, her argument suggests, denies the true embodied experience of those with mental disorders and perhaps even undermines original artistic intention. Since it is Bartleby's unusual behavior which propels the entirety of the plot of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," it would be senseless to deny that Melville intended the character to embody a form of difference from the socially constructed norm. Indeed, certain portions of the text make it clear that Bartleby is not just the haunting entity we tend to take away and remember, but also that he is imbued with a number of very clearly human characteristics above and beyond his preferences and silences. The narrator discovers, for instance, a stash of money secreted away in a pigeon-hole in Bartleby's desk. This money, hidden deep in "the recesses" of his desk, clearly indicates Bartleby's very human desire to rightfully retain ownership of his property and protect it from theft (18). Additionally, when both the narrator and Turkey crowd into the space allotted to Bartleby within the narrator's office, Bartleby reacts with a typically human aversion to being crowded into a tight space with other bodies, particularly within a space that he feels is specifically set aside for his use. This, too, is an embodied experience with which one easily empathizes. Furthermore, the narrator states that Bartleby frequently returns misplaced money to the narrator, evincing a sort of moral code with which most humans are possessed of in some form or another. Bartleby is also described as "eminently decorous," indicating a sense of dignity, as well an ability to feel shame (17). Melville takes pains, then, to imbue Bartleby with an undeniable humanity that precludes his translation into pure metaphor and situates him firmly in an embodied experience. Nevertheless, Bartleby haunts readers. It is his elision of definition that remains with the reader and perhaps leads to his unwarranted translation into a metaphoric representative of the evils of capitalism, object of Christian charity, and the like. The inability to make pure rational sense of him is as frustrating to casual reader and critic alike as it was to the ineffectual narrator himself. It is this translation into mere metaphor—that easily-digestible mnemonic of figurative language—that is most telling about readers and critics of this text. Bartleby's resistance to attempts to define and categorize him is haunting—his inscrutability niggles, and in this frustration, readers fail Melville's test. The narrator of Bartleby's story witnesses the tragic failure of his attempts to aid Bartleby brought about by his well-intended but misdirected attempts to comprehend Bartleby's deviance through objective, clinical categorization. In spite of his confrontation with the utter failure of his efforts as ultimately illustrated by Bartleby's death, the narrator nevertheless begins his tale of Bartleby, told after the fact, by lamenting only the "loss to literature" that the paucity of biographical data relating to Bartleby represents. We, as critics and readers, then experience the tragic failure of Bartleby's story during our reading of the text. And we, too, fail tragically, when we do not learn from the narrator's mistakes and continue on in attempts to fit Bartleby and "Bartleby" into narrow conjectures regarding how the narrator might have improved his technique, how the narrator might have better served Bartleby, or what Bartleby figuratively represents. Instead of hearkening to Melville's ultimate claims about the value of purely accepting and embracing diversity and inscrutability, we struggle instead to make the inscrutable the comprehensible, and the strange a mere amalgamation of the familiar. However, in Bartleby's tragic demise, Melville urges the reader to avoid such explanations. Indeed, just as Jeffrey Karnicky ultimately asserts in Contemporary fiction and the Ethics of Modern Culture, "an ethical reading of 'Bartleby' does not reduce the story to an articulable meaning or understanding," I assert that a reading of the story which falls in line with its thematic message does not reduce Bartleby the character to an articulable meaning (171). To do so only reenacts the tragedy of Bartleby's death, leaving us with explanations which, while palatable and easily digestible, do not embrace the full complexity of the ethical and social dilemmas Melville begs readers to consider.


The valuable insights of disability theory in reading "Bartleby, the Scrivener," then, enable criticism to move beyond simply asking what the narrator could have or ought to have done for Bartleby in order to circumvent his tragic end. Questions such as this are inevitably preceded by assumptions of or questions about the cause of Bartleby's deviance. Though the text indeed encourages the reader's complicity with the narrator's search for deterministic answers in regards to Bartleby, ultimately, fruitful interpretations of the text must move beyond complicit engagement with the narrator's misguided search for information. As the text makes abundantly clear, the narrator's strategy, situated in a stance which searches for clear answers and determined categories of human behavior, only leads to tragic failure and great losses to understanding rather than insightful comprehension. True understanding of subjective human experience and difference comes not from quests for data and forensic evidence, but rather from an acceptance of diversity. The narrator's failure to embrace this concept indeed leaves only a half-history in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," a sense of never knowing what might have ultimately aided Bartleby. However, this half-story serves as a metonymic reminder of the dangers of reductively classifying the irrational world around us to serve our needs for rationalism, conformity, and order.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, Walter. "Form and Meaning in 'Bartleby, The Scrivener.' Studies in Short Fiction 18.4 (1981): 383-93. EBSCOHost.
  • Bosworth, David. "Two Sides of a Tortoise: Melville, Dickens, and the Eclipse of the West's Moral Imagination." Georgia Review 58 (2004):855-83. Print.
  • Chesney, Duncan McColl. "Toward an Ethics of Silence: Michael K." Criticism 49.3 (2007): 307-35. EBSCOHost.
  • Craver, Donald and Patricia Plante. "Bartleby or, The Ambiguities." Studies in Short Fiction 20.2/3 (1983): 132-7. EBSCOHost.
  • Dillingham, William. Melville's Short Fiction: 1853-1856. Athens: Georgia UP, 1977. Print.
  • Donaldson, Elizabeth J. "The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness." Feminist Disability Studies. 14.3 (2002): 99-119. JSTOR.
  • Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. "Disability and Representation." PMLA 120.2 (2005): 522-527. Print.
  • Haberstroh, Charles J. Melville and Male Identity. Cranbury: Associated UP, 1908. Print.
  • Karnicky, Jeffrey. Contemporary Fiction and the Ethics of Modern Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
  • Linton, Simi. "What is Disability Studies?" PMLA 120.2 (2005): 518-22. Print.
  • McCall, Dan. The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989. Print.
  • Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, The Scrivener." Melville's Short Novels. 1853. Ed. Dan McCall. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
  • Shakespeare, Paul. "The Social Model of Disability." The Disability Studies Reader, 3rd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2010. 266-73. Print.
  • Wilson, Robert. "Sympathy for the Lawyer: A Source for 'Bartleby' and Nineteenth-Century Prison Reform." ANQ 21.4 (2008): 24-30. EBSCOHost.


  1. The results of his examination lead him to this conclusion because he realizes, based on the contents of Bartleby's desk, that Bartleby is living in the office. However, the fact remains that the narrator has constructed this narrative without any recourse to Bartleby and based only on an invasion of his private space.
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  2. David Bosworth interestingly critiques the narrator's very assumption that Bartleby is "tempermentally 'aloof,'" noting that "the narrator conveniently forgets here that, as soon as Bartleby was hired, he was the one who concealed his new employee behind a folding screen—a work station from which the man could be summoned by voice at will but where his uncheerful countenance and inhumane duties would otherwise remain hidden from view" (865).
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  3. Shakespeare here importantly defines "disability" as that which afflicts an impaired individual because of society's inability to accept and embrace diversity (267-8).
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Copyright (c) 2015 Kari Nixon

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