“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: