Doing Justice to Bartleby

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Editors: Russel Whitaker and Laura A. Wisner-Broyles
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,428 words

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[(essay date March 2003) In the following essay, Weinstock addresses the narrator's scrupulous but ultimately futile efforts to uncover the essence of Bartleby's character. Describing the story as a form of "love letter from the narrator to Bartleby," Weinstock suggests that the narrator's account of the scrivener is primarily an attempt to "fill in a void with words."]

Herman Melville's 1853 short story "Bartleby" is a text about haunting and a text that haunts. It is a tale that intimates that there are some secrets that never can be revealed and therefore raises the important question of how one can act and react in the face of incomplete knowledge and the possibility of total loss. It structures a desire for meaning that never can be fulfilled--as such, it foregrounds lack, which is the nature of haunting and, in haunting, intimates that to be human is precisely to be haunted.

"Bartleby" is a short story that explicitly traffics in ghostly dead letters. Within the tale, the only piece of background information uncovered about the narrator's uncanny scrivener is the posthumously reported "rumor" that he served for a time as a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington. The lawyer appends this "vague report" as an epilogue that he cannot substantiate. However, the supplemental status of the epilogue and its equation of dead letters with dead men compels a reevaluation of the narrative as a whole and encourages the reader to consider Bartleby himself as a type of "dead letter," and his story as itself a rumor, an unsubstantiated report. The question that the ghostly scrivener raises for the narrator whom he haunts is how can one act in the absence of understanding? The more general question that the narrator's dilemma raises is the question of how one is to "do justice" to another when the other will always escape reduction to a singular narrative, will always escape knowing in full. What finally does it mean to do justice to Bartleby, to this uncanny dead letter that resists all attempts at understanding?

"Bartleby" ultimately raises the possibilities that some things may not be knowable or may be lost forever--that history may not be recoverable, that secrets may remain unrevealed. Beyond this, the tale intimates that the possibilities of misinterpretation, of "dissemination," are intrinsic to language in general. The conclusion (or lack thereof) of "Bartleby" points to the unsettling realization that every letter is potentially a "dead letter"--that, as famously proposed by Jacques Derrida, a letter can always not arrive at its destination. Meaning can always go astray. If this is an inherent possibility of language, then "Bartleby" finally raises the question of what it means for meaning to arrive--of what it in fact means for something to mean at all.

Correspondences

The dead letter office account at the end of the narrative refers the reader back to the narrative's beginning, in which the lawyer introduces his subject as one that he precisely cannot narrate. The first paragraph of "Bartleby"...

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420083278