‘”Ginger Nut,” said I, willing to enlist the smallest suffrage on my behalf, “what do you think of it?”
“I think, sir, he’s a little luny,” replied Ginger Nut with a grin.” -Melville
As I was completing the reading for this week, this particular quote stood out to me because I felt it captured not only the opinions towards neurodiversity expressed by the characters in Bartleby, but also could be used as a representation of the attitudes toward neurodiversity as a whole in this particular time period.
Bartleby was published in 1853, predating the modern era of medicine and psychology. With one of our essential questions for this class being, “How has neurodiversity been represented in works of fiction that predate modern medicine and psychology?” I felt that this piece was a perfect example that could be used to answer this question.
We are introduced to Bartleby when he applies for a position as a scrivener at the narrator’s law office. Bartleby is described as being mild-mannered and respectful, with an almost superhuman work ethic. The work as a scrivener was very monotonous and tedious, yet Bartleby never complained and could work hours without rest.
The other members of the office find his work habits a bit odd, but do not begin to really ask questions about Bartleby until he refuses to cooperate with the other members of the office. He is never rude to them, but simply refuses to do it. This continues to create conflict within the office, eventually escalating to the point where Bartleby refuses to do any work at all, yet will not leave the office. Even after the workers pack up and move to a new location, Bartelby refuses to leave and is arrested, where he eventually starves to death in prison.
I felt that the actions of the characters in this novella provide us insight into how neurodivergent individuals were viewed and treated in times that predated modern medicine. In an article on the website for the historic London Asylum, insanity, or lunacy, was defined as being, “Any behavior that was outside of the accepted social norms of middle class society. Unconventional ideas and actions or lack of contribution and productivity were reasons to be labeled mentally ill.” (London Asylum Archives) This definition shows the ignorance that surrounded mental illness due to the lack of research on mental illness at the time.
Bartleby is the mentally ill character in this piece, and the way he is treated throughout the novella reflect the attitudes of ignorance towards mental illness that were prevalent in the Victorian era. For example, when Bartleby refuses to cooperate with the other members of the office, he is met with great confusion but no real solution to the issue. The narrator confronts Bartleby, but when he simply refuses, the narrator gives up and allows Bartleby to do what he wants. The avoidance of the issue grows to the point where the narrator would rather pack up and leave his office entirely, rather than try to get to the root of Bartleby’s issues.
The ignorance of this time period is also shown when Bartleby is eventually imprisoned. After failed attempts to get Bartleby to leave the office, the public gives up and just has him put in jail, where he later starves to death. Bartelby was clearly a neurodivergent man who needed to be in a specialized mental facility, but because of the ignorance of the public he did not receive the help he needed, which resulted in his death.
I think the answer to the question, “How has neurodiversity been represented in works of fiction that predate modern medicine and psychology?” is clear in this particular piece. Bartleby reflects the ignorance of this era toward neurodivergent individuals, and the consequences of their actions when these issues were not dealt with in a proper way.
“Class, Gender, and the Asylum.” Restoring Perspective: Life and Treatment at the London Asylum. University of Western Ontario, n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.