Is Bartleby “true genius?”

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In reading Bartleby, the Scrivener, I was interested by the narrator’s construal of Bartleby as the story’s central point of intrigue, lamenting in the end that he is “wholly unable to gratify” the reader’s curiosity about Bartleby’s past (1494). Whereas the novel’s other characters are comically inconsistent, operating on a schedule of complementary neurosis, Bartleby stays entirely consistent. He speaks essentially one phrase and adheres strictly to doing only that which he would prefer to do. After finishing the work, I found myself feeling curious not about Bartleby’s oddness or his past, as this is an unchanging constant, but about the narrator’s oscillating feelings towards Bartleby. Since Bartleby remains consistent throughout, why does the narrator change his mind so many times? Why does he ultimately feel so kindly towards Bartleby? To me, this is the story’s central mystery. 

Bartleby is a scrivener, a writer, who will not copy the works of others. He stubbornly rejects comparison. The narrator makes note of the fact that “[he] had never seen [Bartleby] reading” (1481). A writer who doesn’t read, Bartleby, one could argue, takes no inspiration or input from previous writing, instead operating entirely independently. In fact, he refuses to do the kind of writing demanded of him. Conversely, the narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, is at the behest of clients. I wonder if, in combination, Bartleby and the narrator represent the conundrum an author faces to be entirely original while appearing to popular tastes and satisfying demand. It seems that writers idealize pure originality, invention not subject to the whims of others, as the highest form of literary achievement (for example, this esteem for non-conformity, the rejection of imitation represented by Bartleby, aligns with Emerson’s conception of true genius). Thus, while the narrator is frustrated by and perhaps jealous of Bartleby’s ability to operate only on his own terms, he ultimately respects him. In a sense, he aspires to be him: the writer who does not copy others. By leaving Bartleby to die at the story’s end, however, Melville suggests that no writer can be truly original and maintain commercial success. In fact, the narrator’s perception of Bartleby as dysfunctional and even repulsive characterizes this desire for originality as parasitic, threatening to authorial achievement.

2 thoughts on “Is Bartleby “true genius?””

  1. I really thought it was interesting how you pointed out how the narrator strives for the kind of resolve and integrity Bartleby displays. Bartleby does remain unchanged in relation to the narrator. The narrator seems to revolve around Bartleby like a planet around the sun, though the narrator is the one actually telling the story. Bartleby possesses this steadiness, this sense of assurance that the narrator simply lacks. The narrator flickers, catering to the system and never ever dreaming of challenging it; Bartleby refuses to copy anyone else’s work, and thus presents a challenge that the narrator has no idea how to respond to. Ultimately, Bartleby has figured out some piece to the puzzle of power in a way that remains incomprehensible to the narrator.

  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    I thought it was interesting that you mentioned that the narrator respects and admires Bartley because he can be entirely consistent and unchanged regardless of one’s surroundings. Bartley, in the story, serves as a contrast to the narrator. The narrator can be defined as empathetic, unwilling to confront, and inconsistent. As you mentioned, the narrator constantly changes his mind regarding Bartley and is never adamant about enforcing a task on Bartley or firing him. In comparison, Bartley is a non-conformist. This characteristic, as mentioned in your post, Bartley can be depicted as a genius when relating to Emerson’s idea of genius. Emerson believes that to be a good writer, a writer must strive to be a genius who can create something new rather than staying with something old. As a result, it was interesting how you tied Bartley’s death as a representation that no writer can be completely original. This is intriguing because as we read various texts from 19th-century authors, we notice that these authors are inspired by other writers, building on each other, both in style and themes.

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