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Old 02-10-2004, 05:26 PM
dropzone dropzone is offline
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'Bartleby the Scrivener' - What symbolism? -or- Why I'm not an English professor

You people could come up with many reasons why I chose the correct path when I dropped my English major after Freshman year. Borderline competence in composition and grammar and an addiction to the "cutesy-pie" are some, but I was reminded of another as I listened to a professor speak of the symbolism in Herman Melville's story, "Bartleby the Scrivener."

What symbolism? I always thought Melville was describing a real person, an annoying, Obsessive-Compulsive, and Passive-Agressive (in Cecil's "Pain in the Ass" meaning) jerk. The sort who became a scrivener in 1850 or a drafter today. I read it and want to buy Melville a drink saying, "Yeah, I've worked with him, too. Don't you want to kill him?"

Am I missing something? Were there depths I did not plumb? It's not like Melville was ever subtle with his symbolism--"Billy Budd," anyone?
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Old 02-10-2004, 05:45 PM
Binarydrone Binarydrone is offline
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Originally Posted by dropzone
...Am I missing something? Were there depths I did not plumb? It's not like Melville was ever subtle with his symbolism--"Billy Budd," anyone?
Well, I could explain it to you but I would prefer not to.
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Old 02-10-2004, 06:05 PM
pepperlandgirl pepperlandgirl is offline
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Heh, and this is why I'm going to be an English professor. It never occurred to me that ol' Bartleby was supposed to be a real person....I thought the whole story was entirely alligorical and symbolic. Of course, I haven't read it in a year, so I don't really feel comfortable getting into the particulars.
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Old 02-10-2004, 06:07 PM
Matchka Matchka is offline
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Curse you Binarydrone, I was gonna do that!

Can't stand Melville. Said so to my lit prof and backed it up with, "He's tedious and obvious and a generally unpleasant read." Didn't go over well at the time, but I'm sticking to my guns.

The only remotely provocative paragraph in Bartleby is the last one. And the only "symbolism" it evokes as far as I'm concerned has to do with people who read too much meaning into what they see: C'mon, dead letters are just undeliverable mail that get incinerated. To go further and insist that what is really getting incinerated are dreams, welfare checks and pardons is relevant only if you include the junk mail as well. Personal opinion, of course. Herman ain't around to comment, but here's a version of the story with some hand-holding for those who would buy it.
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Old 02-10-2004, 06:39 PM
monstro monstro is offline
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Something I once read pegged Bartleby as autistic.
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Old 02-10-2004, 09:20 PM
Binarydrone Binarydrone is offline
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Originally Posted by Matchka
Curse you Binarydrone, I was gonna do that!.....
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Old 02-10-2004, 10:46 PM
Larry Mudd Larry Mudd is offline
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Matchka: And the only "symbolism" it evokes as far as I'm concerned has to do with people who read too much meaning into what they see: C'mon, dead letters are just undeliverable mail that get incinerated.
So, too subtle of a pun for you, eh?
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Old 02-10-2004, 10:50 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
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How to Read Literature Like a Professor : A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, by Thomas C. Foster

Boiled down, the book makes the case that everything in literature, and I mean everything, is either symbolism or a reference. But he does it in an easy-going, here are a million examples and you can read into them in a million ways format. This makes it a bit lightweight for an English major but for someone looking for the "oh, that's what they mean" experience it's a good intro.

He barely mentions Melville, though.
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Old 02-10-2004, 11:12 PM
pepperlandgirl pepperlandgirl is offline
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You know, I've been thinking about this all day, trying to remember what we discussed in class.

The only thing I remember is that everybody in my class, including the professor, disagreed with my interp. Obviously, they were wrong. Now if I can remember what my interp was we'd be getting somewhere...
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Old 02-11-2004, 08:56 AM
dropzone dropzone is offline
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John Astin, who was working towards his Lit Masters when he caught the acting bug, was flunked by his high school English teacher after he interpreted "Moby Dick" as an extended advertisement for the whaling industry. When he got to college he confessed that to a prof, who agreed with him.

THERE IS NO SYMBOLISM IN "BARTLEBY!" It's a story of REAL people working in a REAL office. I, for instance, am the guy who lives on junk food. A drafter I worked with named Jim could be Bartleby. Monstro's suggestion that Bartleby is autistic is brilliant--there are few people in the world harder to work with than high-functioning autistics (my apologies to the Aspbergers in our midst but even they should realize by now that most of their co-workers want to kill them ) and it was a syndrome unrecognized and unexplainable in 1850.
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Old 02-11-2004, 08:59 AM
dropzone dropzone is offline
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Oh, and this constant search for symbolism in literature classes is the LAST REMNANT OF FREUDIAN PSYCHOLOGY NOW THAT IT HAS BEEN DISCREDITED EVERYWHERE ELSE! "SOMETIMES A CIGAR IS JUST A CIGAR!"

Whew. Glad I got THAT out of my system.
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Old 02-11-2004, 09:17 AM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
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Not every literary work has symbolism in it, though it is possible to "see" symbolism in anything, much as one can see bunnies in inkblots. All too often, and analysis of symbolism tells more about the person doing the analysis than it does about the work.

Real the letters of Flannery O'Connor and her comments about the Misfit's black hat.

Heck, in high school, my daughter was supposed to find symbolism every time she wrote a book report. She would come to be desperate because she needed to come up with some sort of symbolism in Heinlein.

I basically gave up on this sort of analysis due to Bartleby, as the class started discussing whether Bartelby was lying facing the wall or away from the wall.
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Old 02-11-2004, 12:08 PM
Ex Machina Ex Machina is offline
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I told an english teacher that I was having trouble finding symbolism in a novel. I told him I thought it was mainly an interesting story with interesting characters. He told me I wasn't applying myself. I was led to believe that I was lazy or ignorant, and then I managed a strained and confused paper on the symbolism of the work. Years later I read an interview with the author of that novel. He said he didn't understand the symbolism people were supposedly finding in that work. He said he wrote it because it was an interesting story with interesting characters.

However, when I first made an attempt at creative writing, I outlined what I hoped would be a novel. The more the story developed, the more I noticed that objects, settings, characters, etc. were emblematic of my own opinions and experiences. I suddenly realized, for example, that a lamp being extinguished represented my loss of religious faith. What I thought was invention was really revelation. I was merely drawing on my subconscious store of life experience, ordering and relating things in the way I understood them to be ordered and related. In a kind of creative determinism even trivial objects were conjured out of necessity. Why that lamp popped into my head and story at that time now makes sense. But at the time it was just a story and it was time for the lights to go out.

So it may be possible for even an author himself to be unaware of symbolism in his own words. And it just might be true, after all, that if you try hard enough you can find symbolism in any creative work.
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Old 02-11-2004, 03:28 PM
smiling bandit smiling bandit is offline
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This is one story I like form Melville. And yeah, its not about any big symbols, just maybe the difference between being alive and being efficient. And maybe thats reading into it too much. Maybe its really just about meeting Bartleby made the Narrator think about things.
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Old 02-11-2004, 04:08 PM
yellowcakesolid yellowcakesolid is offline
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Our class discussed Bartleby as a symbolic representation of the non-conformity and civil disobedience beliefs suggested by Thoreau. Is Bartleby supposed to be Thoreau? Who knows. Does Bartleby act like a non-conformist and show signs of civil disobedience? Yes, very much so. Is Melville bashing non-conformity or supporting it through Bartleby? This is not as clear cut as you might think. Certainly Bartleby appears to be a foolish character. If I remember correctly, there is some Christian/sacrifice symbolism around Bartleby. He works in the dark until his eyes hurt, but he keeps on working.

I donít know if you would call it symbolism or plot structure, but there is a lot of rising and falling going on in the story as well. The other employees get better and worse during the work day. Bartleby starts out as an incredible employee and then gets worse and worse. Like Lear, is he falling or ascending, though?
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Old 02-11-2004, 06:02 PM
Shill Shill is offline
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What a coincidence, we just did 'Bartleby the Scrivener' on my American Lit course. I kinda saw that it wasn't about a real person, but I just couldn't force myself to care about it anyway. To me, the conclusion came across as really faux-profound and I found Bartleby intensely annoying, so I didn't really get upset when he died either. I liked the title of it more than the content. Yes, there was symbolism, but as far as I could see it was amateurish and clumsy (I really didn't get on with Melville).
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Old 02-11-2004, 06:35 PM
jackelope jackelope is offline
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I've got an M.A. in English Lit, but never read Bartleby in a class. I did read it on my own a few years ago out of curiosity, and I liked it a lot. I saw no overt symbolism in it; I'm sure one could find it, but I didn't get the feeling it was in there intentionally.

What I saw in Bartleby was the total failure of reason in the face of pure obstinacy. The narrator (what was his name?) would try all the incontrovertible methods of persuasion, thinking he could convince Bartleby to his way of thinking if he only tried hard enough, and Bartleby just sat there and took it. Trying to reason with Bartleby was like trying to reason with a glacier, and the narrator just couldn't get it; he just kept trying harder.

Come to think of it, it also had some of the dynamic of a dominant/submissive relationship, where the submissive is the one who's actually in charge. Except in the story, Bartleby is the only one who realizes that.

In some ways, the whole thing had a Beckett-like quality of futility and comedy to it, in the "I can't go on, I'll go on" sense. Then again, I wrote my thesis on Beckett, so I tend to find shades of Endgame in Charlie Brown cartoons and such.

Has anyone seen the recent film of "Bartleby" with Crispin Glover? I'm curious, but not quite curious enough to rent it without someone telling me they liked it.

My extremely disorganized $.02.
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Old 02-11-2004, 08:19 PM
Hamish Hamish is offline
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I had Bartleby in my last semester of my BA. Our class discussed it incessantly, never came to any to any firm conclusions, but here's a few things to consider:
  • The narrator is grossly unreliable. Many of the most important things Bartleby "says" are indirect quotations -- "he gave me to understand" is repeated a lot. The narrator makes assumption after assumption, believes a rumour he hears, and lets his imagination go on wild flights. Also, the narrator presents himself as a philanthropist, but he's worked for Astor, meaning he probably helped Astor exploit legal loopholes to steal property. Many people feel the story is about the narrator, not about Bartleby.
  • Shortly before "Bartleby" appeared in serial form, another, similar story about a philanthropic lawyer appeared as well, called "The Lawyer's Story." In that story, the lawyer really was a kind heroic type, trying to help someone. Some people think "Bartleby" was a parody of it.
  • Some people think it's a comment on writing for profit, which Melville had to do, and which he apparently hated. First Bartleby pumps out hundreds of words of copy, then he stops -- and he doesn't expect any reward for any of it. The person who pays him thinks he's doing him a favour by paying him, but expects the writing to be done on time and conform to expectations. So it would be "the artist" versus "the publisher."

That's all I can remember right now. If I think of anything else we talked about, I'll mention it.

As for me, I never figured it out. I do think there's something there, though, because there are recurring motifs and so on that seem to suggest symbols. I think Melville is sometimes a little too subtle, though.
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Old 02-11-2004, 08:39 PM
jackelope jackelope is offline
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Originally Posted by Hamish
The narrator is grossly unreliable.
Good point, and one that I meant to bring up in my post. The narrator is not only unreliable, he's also a bit of a moron.

Recall the other two employees: A would show up in the morning all grumpy, and B would show up cheerful. They'd go to lunch and come back a little wobbly, and now A would be happy and B would be taciturn. It's clear to us that they're drinking themselves silly at lunch, but the narrator (as I recall) doesn't figure this out.
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Old 02-11-2004, 09:11 PM
Hamish Hamish is offline
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Originally Posted by jackelope
It's clear to us that they're drinking themselves silly at lunch, but the narrator (as I recall) doesn't figure this out.
You recall correctly. I think it's pretty clear that Melville is making fun of his own narrator. Another of his stories, "Benito Cereno," uses a third-person voice but still largely sticks to the main character's point of view -- yet still gives the reader enough clues to know that this supposedly heroic main character is a lot worse than the "villain."

I always wondered why everyone had food nicknames in "Bartleby" -- "Turkey," "Ginger Nut," and "Nippers" (which refers to crab or lobster claws). In an earlier version, the grub-man at the prison was named "Cutlets," according to my Norton Critical Edition of Melville's Short Novels.
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Old 02-12-2004, 02:12 AM
First Amongst Daves First Amongst Daves is offline
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Originally Posted by dropzone
John Astin, who was working towards his Lit Masters when he caught the acting bug, was flunked by his high school English teacher after he interpreted "Moby Dick" as an extended advertisement for the whaling industry. When he got to college he confessed that to a prof, who agreed with him.
I actually thought Melville was out to excite his audience with graphic details of whale slaughter. It was all rather tedious.

Advertisement for the whaling industry? Could this be the world's first example of product placement?
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Old 02-12-2004, 02:38 AM
Derleth Derleth is online now
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bartleby.com has "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" -- Yay for Captain Obvious.

Anyway, the story was published in 1853. Melville died in 1891. It's long past copyright, mainly because Disney hasn't made a profit from it yet.

I liked "Bartleby the Scrivener" because I liked the story and I empathized with the title character. He just wanted to drop out and relax for a while, maybe getting some cookies thrown in for good measure. Who could blame him? Maybe he was an autistic. Maybe he was a manic-depressive, and he hit a really big depressive state. I like to think he was bored and just didn't care anymore.

I can read for symbolism. I enjoy it. But I didn't read "Bartleby" for symbolism, and none presented.
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Old 02-12-2004, 07:46 AM
LateComer LateComer is offline
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May I suggest Peter Straub's deliciously twisted take on "Bartleby the Scrivener," his novelette "Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff" collected in his book "Magic Terror?" I'm not sure he expands upon any symbolism, but he does take the odd concept of the story to an extreme.

Here is an excerpt.
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Old 02-12-2004, 08:11 AM
smiling bandit smiling bandit is offline
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Recall the other two employees: A would show up in the morning all grumpy, and B would show up cheerful. They'd go to lunch and come back a little wobbly, and now A would be happy and B would be taciturn. It's clear to us that they're drinking themselves silly at lunch, but the narrator (as I recall) doesn't figure this out.
I wasn't quite sure he wasn't dancing around the fact.
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