Category Archives: Bartleby

VanOrd, Analysis One

“Herman Melville was a truly great American writer. His Asperger’s syndrome helped him to be a great observer and to focus obsessively on his work. He had a highly fertile imagination; contrary to received wisdom, persons with Asperger’s syndrome are capable of this”.

Throughout Melville’s life, he displayed many common behaviors of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Mainly he was obsessive over his writing and over keeping his routines. He also was hyperactive, helping him be able to write for hours on end. It was discussed in Fitzgerald’s book that Melville’s daily routine often consisted of him shutting himself into his office in order to write the entire day, usually not emerging until late afternoon for his first meal. Melville didn’t always work so intensely but was insistent on having things done the way he liked. He would become enraged when his wife or staff didn’t do things the way he imagined them to be done. This was likely because he had trouble empathizing with others and imagining other’s thought processes. I was surprised that his lack of emotional connection with others stretched far enough to make him appear detached when his own son committed suicide. Melville’s social awkwardness and lack of emotional awareness is apparent enough that he was described as being a misogynistic bully towards his family and staff.

I think it’s interesting to see an unkind personality being represented in someone on the Autism Spectrum. Like we’ve talked about in class, when someone with ASD is being portrayed they are usually put in a light of innocence or thought of as being angelic. I think it’s refreshing that it is known that Melville wasn’t an innocent type of person and that people don’t really need to feel pity for. I further find it interesting that Melville writes about his autistic character, Bartleby, as if he is a charity case for the lawyer. Melville has Asperger’s himself yet portrays Bartleby with different behaviors from his own. This makes me think he doesn’t see himself in Bartleby or vice versa. As if he is denying a connection between himself and other people on the spectrum. This implores me to disagree with one of Brown’s statement: “[Bartleby] reveals how it’s author understood his own neurological difference and its impact on his work like and family life”. I completely disagree with this statement. From the descriptions of Melville, it doesn’t sound to me like he understood how his behaviors affected his relationships with people at all. I just don’t see how Melville addressed his own struggles through the character of Bartleby specifically…

However, I do see small similarities shared between Melville and each of the characters. The lawyer and Melville both have keen observational skills; Bartleby and Melville both refuse to do what is normal in additional to both being unapologetically particular people; Turkey and Melville both indulge in heavy, frequent drinking; and Nippers and Melville have unrepentant ambition. I don’t know if these traits were intentional by Melville but I think it’s cool to see how the different personalities mix. Almost like a glimpse of how Melville feels internally with these characteristics being juggled.



Brown, Julie. (2010). “Herman Melville.” Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary Writing. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. pp.81-94.

Desmarais, Jane (2001). “Preferring not to: The Paradox of Passive Resistance in Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’”. Journal of the Short Story in English. London: Presses universitaires d’Angers.

Fitzgerald, Michael. (2005). “Herman Melville (1819-91) (Chapter 3).” The Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger’s Syndrome and the Arts. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. pp.50-55.

Melville, Herman. (1963). “Bartleby.” Works of Herman Melville. New York, NY: Russel & Russel Inc.. pp.19-65.;view=2up;seq=60;size=200


Wagner, Analysis 2,

Like a few others, I have read Bartleby more than once in my school career. Not once had anyone ever taught it looking at Bartleby as a possible example of a character with autism. Reading it through this lens, a third/fourth time, the language used around Bartleby become indicators of what other people think of him.

I notice in literature that it is common to make characters eccentric or “weird” and very frequently those descriptions are not eccentricities, but rather the neurodiversity of one character against another. In the case of Bartleby, the characters around him make it know. Ginger Nut calls him “luny”. The Lawyer is perplexed by his behavior, so much so that he doesn’t treat him like he does other people if they were to give a similar response.

The story made me think of Flowers for Algernon. It’s been a while since I read it, but the character reactions and the representation of neurotypicality and neurodiversity is similar. Charlie (Flowers for Algernon), unlike Bartleby, is bullied and teased by the people surrounding him. While Bartleby isn’t necessarily bullied, he is still regarded as different and an outcast. Both say a lot about how neurotypical people view individuals with some form of autism. Both are treated by being distanced. Both are looked at as “eccentric” unequivocally different individuals. Bartleby is treated like a specimen, examined from afar, while Charlie is entertainment.

This made me think of the other reading — CH. 3 about Melville. The ways in which Melville’s own family talked about him, using words with negative connotations like “obsessive” and “lunatic”. His behaviors become open to discussion.

I too was perplexed by misogyny being a “common” symptom of Asbergers syndrome. Browsing the web, I was amazed by the amount of blogs and case studies that covered this topic. One blog suggested that ( it is easier to blame certain social behaviors on autism rather than looking at the root. “Autism does not preclude empathy.” There is a misconception that apathy, misogony, and the like, are directly correlated with autism rather than simply a “misunderstanding based on social cues” or a blatant understanding that is not a result of autism either.

I think this is important to remember. Misogyny was more than likely something learned and observed put into practice. Mellville’s views on women have no fool proof link to his Asbergers. I think this stems from a misunderstanding in what autism can and can’t do, as well as people looking for an excuse to “cure” autism and dismiss people with autism as incapable of learning social issues.

Week 3 Review


Our readings for last night included the 1853 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville and analytical chapters from recent collections on autistic authors.  We started class by reviewing our literature circle groups for the autism-themed young adult novels (must be completed by 11/21).  They groups are as follows:

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskin
Kaitlin Schweda
Rachel Trisch
Heather Fricke
Rachael Naylor-Tatterson

Half-Life of Planets by Brendan Halpine
Laura Thaxton
Uyen Nguyen
Haley Wagner

Colin Fischer by Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stenz
Tanner Kiessel
Katie Johnson
Rachel DeLeeuw
Sara VanOrd

Delightfully Different by D.S. Walker
Emi Marriage
Skye Grit
Ashleigh Fowler

Gone by Michael Grant
Erica Schiller
Trevor Sundelius
Daniel Bowen

Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern
Dianna Martin
John Tillman
Karina Ibarra

In the process of making these groups, we looked again at Autism in Young Adult Novels: An Annotated Bibliography, noting how the trend of autism-theme young adult novels has really emerged in the last five years.  The recent increase in these novels matches the growth in the diagnosis rate, itself a result, at least in part, of the broader diagnostic criteria established by the DSM-5.

Next, we were onto the main event: “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  A number of you noted in your posts that this was the second or even third time, though on these earlier reads, you did not think about Bartleby as a possibly autistic character.  We did take this route eventually, but we started by establishing some contrasts between Bartleby and the narrator.  We used a Google From (Writing Response 2) to draw out some of these distinctions.  Here are the results:screenshot-docs-google-com-2016-09-20-14-46-51

In small groups, we distilled our reactions to either the narrator or the main character by listing one noun, one adjective, and one verb + object to describe him.  Some examples for the narrator: boss (noun), conflicted (adjective) and craves control (verb + object).  For Bartleby: employee, isolated, makes quadruplicate copies.  From here, we launched into a fairly in-depth discussion of these two characters, with one verdict being that for his time and place, the narrator was actually quite compassionate.  The goal here was to get a better understanding of each before applying an “autistic” perspective.

After the break, we began thinking about Bartleby as an autistic character.  We reviewed the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria and applied them to Bartleby, noting his difficult in social communication (even lack of eye contact) and his limited interest (copying) especially.  We also pointed to some of the problems with the diagnosis, picking apart the pieces by Fitzgerald and Brown.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to apply a modern psychological diagnosis across history to a fictional character–and applying it to an author, as both Fitzgerald and Brown do with Melville, seems to involve a lot of guess work.

Still, there are some interesting connections.  We closed the class by talking about a more sophisticated kind of reading of the story–one that addresses issues of ND without necessarily pegging Bartleby as autistic.  To begin this richer reading, we watched a data-loaded video on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, for which Bartleby became an icon (hence the picture above).    We also looked at fascinating historical documents pertaining to 19th century poorhouse in America–the sort of place that Bartleby would have ended up, had he been institutionalized.  In examining the historical poorhouse, we noted how the “insane” and the indigent were often lumped together, living in custodial, publicly-funded institutions.  This led to a larger exploration of the relationship between capitalism and neurotypicality, and I argued that capitalism defines neurotypicality, both today and in the past.  In other words, people who cannot function in a capitalist system are typically regarded as deviant, and while our information economy is more accommodating than Melville’s industrial and agricultural economy, those who cannot contribute are still pushed to the margins.

Next week–Sherlock Holmes and A Study in Scarlet.





Thaxton, Analysis 2, Blog 1

“Herman Melville was a truly great American writer. His Asperger’s syndrome helped him to be a great observer and to focus… persons with Asperger’s syndrome are capable of this [success in a career].” – Michael Fitzgerald

Throughout my college career, I may have read Bartleby at least two other times. And in those times, none of my professors even mentioned that the text could be analyzed in an “autistic perspective”. I never learned that Herman Melville himself displayed characteristics of those with Asperger’s Syndrome, and that many theorized if he was on the spectrum or not. Until now, I felt cheated.

Part of me wants to believe that the teachers merely forgot to mention that Melville wrote Bartleby to be similar to him—similar to someone with AS. Part of me thinks that they simply did not know either, and if they did know, they didn’t know how to roach the subject of talking about AS and ASD. I also wonder about the stigmas that those two disorders have, and if that has impacted the conversation surrounding Melville and his work, if that’s why no one mentioned it, because the entire story would be deduced to: “Bartleby had autism and the story ended with him becoming institutionalized.” It breaks my heart.

Fitzgerald mentions throughout his argument that Melville displayed many common characteristics of someone with AS:  eccentric social behavior, narrow interests, motor clumsiness, and a tendency to be controlling. I think that his inference about misogyny here (pg. 54) seems like a stretch and doesn’t polarize the two from each other enough to the reader. Nonetheless, Bartleby, as a supposed translation of Melville, displays these similar qualities. He repeats himself throughout the story, and he refrains from social interaction with his co-workers. Bartleby thrives in the workplace through routine and structure and also through independence. When these aspects of the job begin to change, Bartleby becomes insubordinate. When Melville felt the same shifts in life, he displaced it onto his family.

Reading Bartleby and regarding Melville through an “autistic perspective” is vital to understanding the breadth of the story. Bartleby, who acts “luny”, is sent away to prison at the end instead of being understood. The lawyer, who feels compassion for him, in the end cannot empathize and cannot resolve his own misunderstandings around his employee. Like many real life individuals with autism, they become institutionalized because of this frustrations and misunderstandings. This builds the negative stigmas surrounding AS and ASD, and the educational process goes down the drain.

So why don’t more English teachers teach stories about AS and ASD individuals to their students in high school? Why has it become so taboo to the point that even fiction is uncomfortable to speak of? I wonder about my own teachers, even still, and perhaps they just preferred not to teach it that, to deduce Bartleby to a series of stereotypes to be misinterpreted; but, by doing so, a great message is being lost to those who need to hear it.

This individual wrote a compelling blog post about Melville’s story in regards to the conflict being “neurotypical vs. neurodiverse”. He states that there is a “double empathy” problem between the two groups, as neither can truly understand each other in total empathy (that most ASD individuals lack). Thinking of who to blame in the story, (lawyer? Bartleby?), it is interesting to think of the double-empathy problem to see that no one is truly “at fault” (though debatable).

Trisch, Analysis One

‘”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.



Schweda, Analysis 2: Frustration is a two way street

“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (Melville 19)

This quote from the beginning of Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener emphasizes the narrator’s general contempt with taking the easy way out.  As seen with his three employees, the narrator is the absolute definition of non-confrontational.  From allowing Turkey to drink on his lunch break, to ignoring Nippers (completely sketch) “clients”, this story teller might be the chillest lawyer known to man-kind. However, Bartleby’s quirks test the patience of the narrator and bring up important societal issues and constructs.

Bartleby shows signs of having autism during a time in which autism wasn’t well-known to society.  By choosing to narrate the story though the eyes of the lawyer, Melville allows us to closely observe Bartleby but he also leaves a sense of mystery.  Bartleby’s employer is directly affected by his seemingly strange quirks which allows the audience to feel fully engaged in figuring out exactly what’s going on with him. The first societal construct I feel Bartleby challenges is the idea of rules and order. Generally people follow a certain routine.  We wake up, go to work or school, go home, and then repeat day after day.  Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” challenges that which frustrates the narrator. It’s abnormal to question the system of the working world so who is Bartleby to do so?  The narrator assumes his preference to do absolutely nothing stems from his isolation or a hidden sadness. The narrator tries his hardest to work with Bartleby by allowing him to stay for a while and eventually offering him money to leave. The aftermath of the narrator leaving Bartleby in the building brings up the next ethic. How far do our moral duties extend? How responsible are we for our fellow human beings?

Society’s response to Bartleby’s quirks is to send him to jail. Reading this story today, we can see the problems with that decision.  It’s a safe assumption that Bartleby merely required some extra attention from professionals. He’s able to function in the work place for a little while on his own so I would assume he’s high functioning. One author suggests “Melville himself may very well have had the traits that would qualify him for an autism diagnosis today. If that is indeed the case, then Bartleby is essentially a story of an autistic person, told by a neurotypical narrator, who is in turn written by an autistic author” (Belek). To me, this is a kind of crazy circle of projections but it adds up.  I think Melville wrote a story about what society wants him to be (the lawyer) versus what he more closes related to (Bartleby).

I think the saddest part of the story is the very end. Before working as a scrivener, Bartleby worked at the dead-letter office.  He spent “considerable time processing broken communications and expressions of emotions that never made it to their destination” (Belek). That job represents the entirety of Bartleby’s life on its own. The lawyer feels frustrated after dealing with Bartleby for a short period of time. However, that’s nothing in comparison to how frustrated Bartleby must have been his whole life trying to communicate with a society that dubbed him as different. This is comparative to neurotypical versus neurodiversity. I can personally say I’ve had some frustrating times working with students who have autism. However, the tale of Bartleby showed me that they’re probably just as frustrated with me as I am with them.  Frustration is a two way street in this case. I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through my whole life failing to communicate in the “right” way as dubbed by society.  I think the story of Bartleby is important because it shows the importance of society recognizing differences and learning to work with them, rather than push them aside like they did with the scrivener.


Benek, Ben. The Autism Anthropologist: Bartleby the Scrivener. Pub. 15 March 2014. Web 15           September 2016. Path: