Reading Review: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

Melville has gained most of his literary renown on the strength of Moby Dick, which I have yet to read (yes, somehow I got through a 20th century US high school education, and even an English major undergraduate degree, without encountering the great white whale). Given my personal conviction that the writings of Shakespeare are not what they have been cracked up to be, it wouldn’t surprise me if Moby Dick engenders a similar skepticism in me in the event that I choose to read it. But I decided to sit down for “Bartleby the Scrivener” based on the strength and passion of its recent recommendation to me from my grandfather. After all, it’s a short story; even if it’s bad, I reasoned, it’ll be over quickly.

Now that I’ve read the story, while I wouldn’t characterize “Bartleby the Scrivener” as bad, Melville’s work puzzled me. Its 20th century introduction tried to force parallels between the actions of the title character and a protester’s acts of civil disobedience, and my appreciation of the short story probably suffered as a result, because I did not find the comparison apt at all. Let’s take a moment – a brief one, for a brief work – to scratch our heads and explore what Melville somehow got published.

Plot

Did Melville ever try to diagram the shape of his stories?
Did Melville ever try to diagram the shape of his stories?

The plot of “Bartleby the Scrivener” is quite simple. The narrator, an attorney, hires a new scrivener (law clerk, copier of documents), and after his hire, the new scrivener starts refusing to do common scrivener tasks. Eventually he refuses to do all of his work, and also to leave the office. The attorney moves out of the office and conducts his business elsewhere to be rid of Bartleby, but other tenants of the old building insist that the attorney is responsible for Bartleby, and this sense of responsibility persists after Bartleby is arrested. Bartleby eventually dies in “the Tombs” (some form of jail), presumably as a result of refusing to eat.

If, while reading the above summary, you found it rather odd that the narrator did not fire Bartleby and have the police escort him from the premises of the law office early in the story, then you and I have something in common. Melville’s narrator explains at the start of the story that he is “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is best… All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.” The argument, I suppose, would be that it is easier to acquiesce to someone like Bartleby who is full of irrational and blunt refusal than to assert authority. And that might hold up for the portion of the story in which Bartleby is simply refusing to examine copy work. But when it becomes clear that Bartleby has been living without permission at the narrator’s office, I would think enough alarm bells would have been going off in the head of someone concerned with safety that the narrator would have contacted the police and had Bartleby taken away as trespassing. The course of action seems pretty clear cut to me – but then, I’m a product of a different era from Melville and his intended audience. How will the plots of my creations look to anyone reading more than a century later, I wonder?

Themes

Some things make us nervous.
Some things make us nervous.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t take away from this piece whatever it was Melville wanted me to take away from it. I’m also pretty sure that what he wanted me to take away from it was a sense of curiosity about Bartleby. I base this supposition on the story’s epilogue, which offers up a completely unhelpful sentence of explanation about Bartleby’s past with a preface along the lines of ‘In case you’re curious about where this guy came from…’ The thing was, I really wasn’t curious about where Bartleby came from at that point. I was much more curious about why neither the narrator nor apparently anyone else in Bartleby’s society was thinking to ask Bartleby what he would actually prefer to do.

Bartleby doesn't do much except refuse.
Bartleby doesn’t do much except refuse.

Before it was revealed that Bartleby was sleeping in the law office, it seemed pretty obvious to me that what needed to happen was, the narrator needed to ask him some questions to draw out his logic and work with his motivation. Eventually, the narrator writes Bartleby off as having a disorder, and I guess what I got out of this story more than anything else is the fluidity and cultural definition of disability, because Bartleby can’t really be diagnosed under a modern mental health rubric and he certainly isn’t seen by any authority in the story as being in need of treatment.

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading “Bartleby the Scrivener”. It wasn’t an especially unpleasant experience, but it also didn’t feel like a great use of my time. My advice to you as a reader is to only pursue this if you are already a fan of Melville or distinctly enjoy 19th century literature. Personally, I feel it’s safe to let the sun set on this one.

Overall Rating: 2.0 out of 5.

Film Review: Violette

This is the story of Violette Leduc, 20th century bisexual Parisienne authoress. Leduc kept company with several French intellectuals and artists that I am familiar with and admire, such as Jean Cocteau and Simone De Beauvoir, yet I had never heard her name before encountering this film’s promotion. After watching the film, I can understand why. Violette explores a life eked out in the margins of history. A life of dependence, and being pushed aside because heightened emotions are messy and take time to deal with. A life of acting out, and accusations of drama.

Characters

Not ugly... but probably plain.
Not ugly… but probably plain.

About three-fourths of the way through Violette, Leduc is hospitalized. Her diagnosis is never mentioned in the film, but De Beauvoir makes reference to Leduc receiving “electroshocks”, usually referred to in mental health treatment circles these days as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). My off-the-cuff diagnosis of the film’s portrayed Leduc, with the insight provided by Master’s level coursework in social work? EID (Emotional Intensity Disorder), more commonly referred to as borderline personality disorder. Behaviors displayed by the film character common to those with EID included, but were not limited to: polarized black/white thinking and alternating idealization/demonization of people she related to, suicidal thinking and threats of suicide, inappropriate attempts at intimacy ignoring commonly recognized social boundaries, attempted use of sexuality as a commodity in exchange for intimacy, frantic acting out to avoid real or perceived abandonment, and ascribing her own thoughts and motives to others due to a lack of sense of self. If this attempt at diagnosis rings true (and I don’t feel like taking a trip over to Wikipedia to find out at the moment, it’s been a trying day), the real Leduc would have had my sympathies. The lived experience of people with EID is frequently nightmarish; the disorder is a direct assault on quality of life, an impairment only compounded by the social consequences of disability. I listened to the assessment of Violette’s character by other moviegoers with interest. One pejorative adjective I heard them label her with was “whiny”. Well, if you experienced the pain of excruciatingly intense negative emotions that someone with EID lives with on a daily basis, you would most likely whine too.

Authenticity of Setting

Check out that wallpaper!
Check out that wallpaper!

After my dismay over the staged feel of The Artist, the believability of Violette as a mid-twentieth century period piece refreshed me. The film included so many details about Violette’s marginal life in Paris that I never would have thought to include, from sponge baths and toilets down the hall from the apartment, to dingy peeling wallpaper, chipped paint and scuffed wood. Even the furnishings of the office of the richest character in the film (gay perfume-maker Jacques), while sumptuous relative to the rest of the setting’s decor, would have appeared modest if juxtaposed with the brass, marble, polished wood and brilliant lighting of the standard Rich CEO’s Office of most current Hollywood creations. Violette’s studio apartment reminded me of my own studios in days gone by in Chicago, except the general shabbiness of Violette’s place was much worse – absolutely to be expected in 1950s Paris from someone living the feast-or-famine lifestyle of a black marketer, like Violette wades through at the start of the film. What I really loved about all of this mise-en-scene was the fact that if someone had asked me what life was like in Paris during the era of the film, I would have strained to imagine the details, but every time a new scene started in Violette, some part of my heart and mind said “Yes! Yes, that is exactly what it was like!”

Casting

Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.
Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.

Violette‘s casting was equally painstakingly realistic. Again, I must contrast this film with The Artist. Unlike Bejo’s conventional Hollywood beauty, the actresses who played De Beauvoir and Leduc had the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from passing everyday women on Midwestern streets, the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from looking in the mirror. Sandrine Kiberlain, who played De Beauvoir, is thin, but it’s not a glamorous, hypersexualized thin, she’s just a thin woman. When Emmanuelle Devos gives voice to Leduc’s insecurities about her age and appearance, I can believe that the character would think such things, and not experience cognitive dissonance like I did when I watched Eva Mendes fuss with her hair in Hitch. If this is how French cinema in general or Martin Provost in particular usually rolls, I have to watch more.

If you are unsympathetic toward people who have mental illness and behave in ways that push the limits of what is socially acceptable as the result of their emotions running high, you are unlikely to find anything here that will challenge your preconceived notions about the meaning of such people’s lives. If, however, you would like to examine how such people are able to find solace in art or the written word, and can produce works that even people who do not struggle with such illness or behavior find valuable, Violette is probably worth your time. It’s not a short film and it is quite possible that it will emotionally drain you. But I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of why I engage in creative endeavors like this blog.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.