Write an essay discussing the following points:
  1. Thoroughly show how the work of literature fits the definition of Romanticism.
  2. Show how the writer’s life affected his/her work.
  3. Show how the work compares in style, character, theme, etc. to other works by the author and to your other assigned work.

The short story written by Herman Melville titled “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a very peculiar and interesting story because it is so wide open for interpretation. Upon further analyzing, it is easy to see the qualities of Romanticism in the main character, Bartleby. Although Melville is classified as a writer of the Dark Romanticism period, this short story exhibits irreparable qualities of the general Romanticism period.

As the story goes on Bartleby, a law-copyist working with many other scriveners for the Lawyer, who is the narrator of the story, goes from a diligent and dedicated worker to a pacifistically stubborn man who literally does nothing such as not eating. Bartleby himself is the main source of the Romanticism qualities. Melville’s life can also be seen through the eyes of this story. The events and other literature he has written really do shine through in this short story, and his. His writing style in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is also paralleled in another of his works titled Moby Dick. Another work in which this short story could be compared to is actually a poem written by Edgar Allan Poe called “Ulalume.” Melville uses the qualities of Romanticism in his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to purvey an account of not only his own life and works, but those of other such Dark Romanticism writers as Edgar Allan Poe.

The story opens with the narrator, the Lawyer, describing his office and the more interesting characters in it such as Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. However, he mentions that there is nobody that is more complex than Bartleby (Melville). The intricate character of Bartleby great resembles a Romantic hero in this Romantic literature. One quality that defines Romanticism is the desire of youthful intuition over educated sophistication (Langley). Matthew Bruccoli discusses this topic in his literary criticism by saying, “Bartleby refuses to interact verbally or physically with the other characters in the story” (Bruccoli). Although Bartleby seems to be educated and intelligent, he chooses rather to constantly refuse politeness, in a complying manner, as a child would do. For example, later in the story, the Lawyer constantly asks him to do his job of copying the laws or other simple tasks, but Bartleby civilly refuses by responding with, “I would prefer not to.” (Melville).

Another quality of Romanticism as stated by Langley is the act of shunning modern civilization and seeking the unspoiled nature (Langley). This is apparent in Melville’s character of Bartleby, and really, the whole story, but the element of nature is missing. This is where Melville’s Dark Romanticism comes in; instead of searching for the beauty of nature, Bartleby decides merely to shun civilization. This brings him into a gloomy and mysterious stage in his life. Bartleby seems to appear later as a faceless and lifeless drone (Bruccoli). The personality of Bartleby or lack there of, is filled with an ominous and pitiful man. The Lawyer does finally take pity on him after he sees that while in prison, Bartleby has eaten nothing (Melville). Bartleby and the short story as a whole represent a sort of combination of the two philosophies Romanticism and Dark Romanticism.

It is clear to see that the life of Herman Melville had a great effect on his writing, and this is certainly the case in “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” More specifically, Melville’s financial perils are taken into account. When in his younger years, Melville worked on a variety of ships such as whaling ships, and it was from these experiences in which he wrote his first novels. These novels were quite successful, and after some experience with his new friend of Dark Romanticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville came out with his novel, Moby Dick. However, this new novel did not experience near as much immediate success as his previous novels from the whaling work (Bloom). The terrible initial reaction seemed to greatly inspire Melville for his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Lawyer himself appears to represent Melville following the publication of Moby Dick, and Bartleby seems to play the role of society purchasing his novel. The Lawyer tries everything to interest Bartleby or at least know why he is so lifeless, but Bartleby offers no response (Melville). This is paralleled to Melville in real life wondering why his novel has not gained popularity, and he searches for the answers. It looks as if Melville wrote this story in accordance to his life rather than just using events from his life as inspiration. Carl Rollyson reinforces this statement by adding, “Bartleby seems to invite critics to make diverse symbolic interpretations. Because Bartleby refuses to explain himself, and because the narrator hesitates to fill in the missing details with his own guesses, readers feel obliged to attach some meaning or significance” (Rollyson). He is implying that any point you that one draws from the text, dealing with the life of Melville for instance, may be considered correct because this was the intention of Melville.

This aspect of Melville’s writing style is also exhibited in his novel Moby Dick. In this novel, Melville presents to the reader an open character, Ahab, much like Bartleby. However, Ahab is a very progressive character throughout the story, and Bartleby remains the same. What they do have in common though, is the ability of readers to attach a certain persona or symbol to them such as Christ (Rollyson). Melville’s writing style in these two stories is almost identical, yet the works are completely different.

In addition, Melville’s short story is comparable to the poem of a fellow Dark Romanticism writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s poem “Ulalume” is centered on a man grieving the loss of his lost, beloved wife. The wife’s tragic death sends the narrator into a depressing and complex state of thought (Snodgrass). The death of Bartleby has a similar effect on the Lawyer, who is also the narrator of the story. The last line of the story reads, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (Melville). Taking this line into account and the previous section about the Lawyer dealing with the tragic death of Bartleby while in prison truly resembles the mindset of the narrator in “Ulalume.”

When reading the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” more closely, the Romanticism qualities as well as the influence from the life of Melville are easily noticed. However, this influence from Melville’s life, according to Rollyson, is truly open for debate, and it is for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions (Rollyson). Though if looking at the cold facts and events from Melville’s life, one notices the similarity of the selling of his novel Moby Dick and the life of Bartleby. The themes from Romanticism in addition to his life’s influence, and in accordance with works from other writers of this Dark Romanticism period such as Poe, aid Melville succeeding in providing an extremely meaningful account of not only the life of Bartleby, but also an accurate representation of his Romanticism philosophy.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold, ed. "Melville, Herman." Herman Melville, Bloom's Major Novelists. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 2003. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= BMNHM02&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 10, 2010).

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Judith S. Baugman. "Bartleby." Student's Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= SEOALC543&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 10, 2010).

Langley, John. “Romanticism 1800-1860.” Mr. Langley's Digital Classroom. 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. <http://sites.google.com/site/mrlangleysroom/treasure-chest/presentations>. Microsoft Powerpoint File.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street." Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. <http://www.bartleby.com/129/>.

Rollyson, Carl, Lisa Paddock, and April Gentry. "'Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street'." Critical Companion to Herman Melville: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= CCHM0855&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 10, 2010).

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. "'Ulalume'." Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2005. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin= EGL375&SingleRecord=True (accessed December 10, 2010).