Tag Archives: Fiction

Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is a short story by Herman Melville (author of “Moby Dick”) published in 1853.shirtmockup-450x450

The story is told by a narrator who is a lawyer and employs Bartleby as a copyist. As time goes by, Bartleby begins responding to requests with the phrase “I would prefer not to”. Eventually he withdraws completely from any work, remaining a strange silent presence in the office. He seemingly survives without work or money or a home. The narrator tolerates him for a while but eventually after failing to persuade Bartleby to leave (“I would prefer not to”) moves offices to escape him – only to find later that Bartleby has died in prison after refusing to eat.

Most recently the story of Bartleby came to prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement for Bartleby’s use of passive resistance, an obvious parallel to the tactics used by the occupiers. Bartleby ‘occupies’ the narrator’s offices on Wall Street calmly but firmly refusing all requests that he work and confounding all the narrator’s requests to either work or leave. Bartleby’s actions have been seen as an exemplar for political action, challenging those in authority over him without expressing any concrete demands, seemingly exactly the pattern followed by Occupy.

Is this passive approach effective? In the story, the narrator relocates his business to escape Bartleby, and as far as we can tell continues to run a successful law practice. Bartleby’s resistance leads however to his imprisonment and eventual death. Whatever his grievance, it doesn’t seem to have been addressed. Similarly Occupy Wall Street was eventually evicted without seemingly having achieved much that’s tangible. Perhaps the moral we should be drawing here is about the limits of passive resistance. Both Bartleby and Occupy create disruption that is initially difficult for the authorities to know how to deal with. But eventually the system adapts and neutralises the threat.

I’m not convinced by this explanation however. If this is supposed to be about politics, then it is almost entirely absent from Melville’s story. Indeed the narrator passes a demonstration for the mayoral election on the street but ignores it, rushing on to his next meeting. It is difficult to believe that Bartleby is making a principled stand against, well, anything really. He simply prefers not to. His refusal is rather a failure to undertake the work required by his employer. This is however a more radical position. Bartleby is challenging the fundamental relationship of capitalist society, that of waged labour. He withdraws dramatically from the market economy – but still seemingly works on his own terms. He continues to copy, but refuses requests to take on other tasks. It is not the occupation of neutral space that is significant (as it was for Occupy) but the radical withdrawal from his employer’s authority. The lesson to be learned is a far more active and aggressive one than that of passive resistance taken by Occupy.

In other words, there really is no substitute for effective action which targets the core economic structures of society. Now that’s something for the modern left to reflect on.


The Fellowship of the Ring: Gollum

I have read the Lord of the Rings very many times. After taking a long break I read it again last year. A year later and strangely I feel like reading it again. Each time I read it I find something new, some of which I noted in my updates on Goodreads last year. This time I will look for some broader themes to blog about.

The early chapters of the Fellowship of the Ring play an important part in setting the stage for the remainder of the book, setting out many of the major themes. There is the sense of landscape and the connection to a specifically English rural past. Preservation and loss emerge clearly both in the story of Bilbo but also in the story of the Ring itself presented in the key chapter “The Shadow of the Past”. Most important of all we are introduced to the story of Gollum.

During “The Shadow of the Past” Gandalf narrates the story of Gollum after Bilbo leaves him in the mountains during The Hobbit. Gollum tracks across Wilderland to Lake Town, Dale, and the Lonely Mountain. As he attempts to return he is drawn south towards Mordor and is finally captured and tortured by Sauron, revealing that the ring has been found before being released.

The parallel between Frodo and Gollum is fairly obvious. Throughout the Lord of the Rings, and particularly in the latter stages, Gollum provides a vision of the future that awaits Frodo if the Ring is not destroyed. What I haven’t noticed before is the parallel between Gollum’s journey in search of Bilbo and the Ring, and both Bilbo’s earlier quest, and the journey that Frodo is about to set out on.

Gollum’s travel is on a similarly epic scale, and ends with him trying to evade capture in Mordor. He is drawn by desire of the Ring, a mirror of Frodo and his aim to destroy the Ring. His capture and revelation to Sauron that the Ring survives and has been found perhaps also foreshadows Frodo’s ultimate failure to cast the Ring into the fire, and the reversal which leads Gollum to eventually cause the Ring’s destruction.

There is a complex set of parallels here (I might almost say a dialectic) which I think is truly fascinating, and I wonder to what extent this was intended by Tolkien.