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"In mercy's name: who is he?" The symbolic identity of the Melvillean hero Bartleby the Scrivener.

In his brilliant study of the various esoteric traditions that gave substance to the American Renaissance, Arthur Versluis makes the insightful remark that
   Melville's novels, short stories and poetry (...) dramatize the
   desire to escape the world and the clutches of an ignorant
   demiurge (...) it is a world from which one can imagine escape
   via death (...) and thus Melville's Gnosticism harks back
   clearly to ancient heretical predecessors (104).

The critic draws a parallel and reveals the similarities between the Gnostic view Melville projects in his work and the sense of entrapment in and the desire to escape from a flawed condition of heavy corporeality dramatized in the Gnostic myths and rituals.

This condition of submission to the limitations of the lower quaternary which is transcended by a movement of re-integration into the supersensible is also experienced by the solar heroes who perform a "descent and ascent journey" (Penglase 93) which is also referred to as "the cosmic journey" (Penglase 45).

In the Orphic Mysteries, the journey constructed upon the pattern of descent and return is performed by the solar god Apollo, "since Orpheus is an Apollonian priest" (Wolf 144). "Melville's Orphic tendencies"--to quote Jack C. Wolf's phrase from his provocative study of Orphism in Heart Crane's poetry--are revealed in his use of the motif of the mythical journey "mentioned by the Orphics, alluded to by the Y symbol of the Pythagoreans, (...) described by Virgil, revealed by the Gospels" (Gebser 72) and spoken of by Plutarch and Dante.

The immersion of the "Orphic Apollo" (Wolf 144) into the lower nature and the subsequent withdrawal into the intelligible has as ultimate goal the imparting of "salvific knowledge-Gnosis" (Riffard 60) to the prisoners of illusions and imperfect knowledge. This cosmic voyage is mirrored in the Classical katabasis and anabasis of the Logos.

For the Orphics, this two-beat process is undergone by "the summer Dionyssos, identifiable with Adonis, Apollo or any other solar deities or solar heroes" (Wolf 8).

In Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville "tries his hand at the Orphic style" (277)--to quote Raymond Weaver. Orphic echoes resound in the thematic structure and the portrayal of the mythic hero of the story.

Bartleby the Scrivener is structured around the theme of the symbolic journey and of suffering as a source of enlightenment.

The hero, an emissary of the intelligible, descends into the lower quaternary assuming the limiting conditions of the phenomenal, suffers the tribulations of this level of being, then, through death, is set free to return into the reality he emerged from.

The title-hero belongs to the same gallery of mythical figures who discharge symbolic functions and aim to operate beneficially upon a distorted order of being with a view to separating the real from the apparent. In fact, they are the protagonists of "the great 'Gnostic drama' enacted on a worldly stage" (Lavery 47).

Bartleby's pilgrimage in the visible world is an illustration of a sacrificial gesture performed with a view to abolishing the dominion of ignorance and delusion over human mind.

Bartleby is a passer-by through the office world, but not an indifferent one; his having embarked on this pilgrimage in the sublunary sphere results in redeeming the Lawyer from the spiritual winter which is gradually taking possession of him. As Andre Furlani aptly observes, Bartleby does not possess the defining traits of a conventional character, emerging as "an affect rather than a personality (...) He is a force, almost talismanic, exerting an influence on a character" (340).

This "talismanic force" embodied in the person of the Scrivener is made manifest in the area contained within the sphere of the moon. According to those "who [have] come to know him" (to quote the Lawyer's words) he is "moon-struck" or "luny." Both of these labels point to a reality situated symbolically under the influence of the moon. Bartleby sank into the elemental world subject to corruption and change. His "passage" through the narrator's office may be interpreted as "moon--struck" if the meaning of this word is corroborated with the significance of the moon as a "symbol of passage from life to death and from death to life" (Chevalier & Gheerbrant 309).

The first movement, the passage from life to death, is illustrated by Bartleby's coming into the office. He passes from death to life when he returns "whence he came" (119), namely, into the immutable realm. His evolution in the story is that of a solar hero on pilgrimage in the phenomenal.

A. W. Plumstead in Bartleby: Melville's Venture into a New Genre states that the story displays at least four features that are new in Melville's writing. After seven narratives in which the main structural device had been a journey, he writes a story in which there is a confined setting (90).

If taken at face value, the idea of a "confined setting" is accurate; however, if the perspective is shifted from the visible space into the realm of the Invisible, it becomes apparent that there is no confinement at all. If the perspective includes the idea of a Beyond, it may be easily inferred that Bartleby, just as the seven preceding narratives is centered around "a journey", but not a journey within the bounds of the tangible: Bartleby emerges from an intelligible Reality, descends into the conditioned space assuming a human shape, then returns home leaving the corporeal level behind.

During his earthly sojourn, Bartleby borrows a human appearance, or, as the narrator perceives it, an "apparition." It is the duty of the Lawyer--the representative of this world--to furnish the guest from Above with "office room" (112). Surprisingly enough, the old man is aware that Bartleby is only paying a flying visit down here, that he will "remain" in his office as long as he sees "fit": My mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office room for such period as you may see fit to remain (112).

The transcendent, in the person of Bartleby, places itself under the laws of being and suffering. That he chooses to be the guest of a lawyer is by no means a simple coincidence. He becomes the "hired clerk" (110) of a lawyer to offer a faithful illustration of the submission of the Higher to the rules of the manifested life. The Transcendent becomes immanent by wrapping itself in the basic laws of this life.

Bartleby, the Archetypal Man, sets forth on his sublunary periplus, clad in the appearance of a "poor," "pallid" copyist; he willingly submits himself to the limiting conditions of the space he visits. The purpose of his existential mission is to reveal another "way of life" as an alternative to the "easiest" and "best"--in which his host so indulges--which accounts for his ability to "live on ginger-nuts" (124) while possessing "no visible means of support" (131).

The mystery of Bartleby's identity lies at the very core of his cosmic adventure. The desperate question: "In mercy's name: who is he?"(134) launched by a character in the story "probes at the very axis of Bartleby's reality," to paraphrase Melville's own words from his celebrated piece Hawthorne and His Mosses.

The narrator himself "shares" in the curiosity "as to who Bartleby was." The sequel to the story is meant to spark off the quest for Bartleby's meaning, upon which quest the reader is invited to embark.

In his study of the 19th century American short-story, Douglas Tallack submits an original opinion regarding the fictional dimension of the title character: "Yet Bartleby is too extraordinary a character to elicit credibility. As a fictional character, he lacks complexity. He mainly functions as a point of reference in dramatizing the spirit of resistance" (Tallack 147).

Therefore, Bartleby emerges as "too extraordinary a character"--a description which perfectly illustrates Bartleby's "problem": his meaning is too deep to be fathomed, "too extraordinary" to be grasped by a limited appraisal.

Elizabeth Hardwick offers a subtle reading of Bartleby in her essay Bartleby and Manhattan. She makes the point that to interpret Bartleby as someone other than himself "dishonors him" (9). Thinking of Bartleby as anyone else is "unthinkable, a vulgarization, adding truculence, idleness, foolishness, adding indeed 'character' and altering a sublimity of definition" (13).

When the Lawyer earnestly declares that he cannot see anything "ordinarily human" (125) about him he makes a perfectly accurate statement since Bartleby's qualities belong to the super-human. As Todd F. Davis points out "some critics recognize in Bartleby a Christ-like figure, others like Donald Fiene have pushed this analysis further, arguing that Bartleby is Christ exactly. Graham Nicol Forst sees in Bartleby "a mythic presence" (183).

Davis contends that "it is certainly possible that Bartleby may represent some celestial power" (187) and goes on to advance an assessment of "Bartleby as transcendent" (187) from a Kantian perspective.

Considering the wider design of the story, it would be illuminating for the meaning of the "little narrative" to look upon Bartleby not as a "pale, passive mortal" (115)--as the narrator describes him at some point--but as the embodiment of a cosmic function. Regarding him as an existential symbol, the Herald of a Higher Reality, might bring the reader-quester closer to a revelation of Bartleby's "quiet mysteries"(129).

Douglas Tallack advances a provocative interpretation of the title character, considering him "a symbol of the ineffable" (175), rather than a literary character in the traditional sense of the word, since his meaning is too complete to be taken in by human explanations which are mere approximations and should hold no claim to completeness or infallibility.

In fact, to paraphrase Tallack's comment, Bartleby is too "extraordinary" to be human. Ceasing to be human, he becomes a symbol, a cosmic agent. The narrator himself depicts Bartleby as "one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small" (103).

The Romanian esoteric thinker Vasile Lovinescu is of the opinion that "disindividuation is realized through excess": when a trait of character is exaggerated till it loses credibility the possessor of that particular feature acquires "an immediate symbolic quality," "becoming a symbol of first degree" (Al Patrulea Hagialic, 49).

Bartleby realizes dis-individuation through excess of "mildness," gentleness," silence and stillness, in a word, through excess of perfection. Being "too extraordinary (...) to elicit credibility" (Tallack 147), and too consummate to be human, he emerges as the embodiment of a "symbolic quality," which is in consonance with Liane Norman's observation that "in many ways, Melville has exempted Bartleby from judgment, representing him more as a phenomenon than as a specific individual" (35).

Liane Norman's reader-response approach "comes closer to freeing the scrivener from the fetters of narrowly realistic readings, (...) insist[ing] that he is not quite human" (33).

If read in the context of Bartleby's "not quite human," "symbolic" identity and corroborated with the story of his pilgrimage into matter, the idea of "suffering"--put forward by the narrator and a number of critics assumes different connotations and points to Suffering on a higher level of understanding.

Suffering concentrates the essence of the bondage of Spirit in matter, the latter standing for ignorance. The Scrivener may be said to experience suffering in the sense that he assumes the limitations of this world; he plunges into a conditioned existence where he undergoes separation from his Reality.

This dimension of Bartleby's suffering prefaces the sacrificial aspect of his descent into the Lawyer's world. His sacrifice may be regarded as an attempt to rejuvenate the old man's microcosm.

Through his passive resistance Bartleby tries to liberate the Lawyer's life from the fetters of matter. By limiting his own nature and conditioning his activity--acts which characterize the Archetypal Sacrificer--Bartleby performs a sacrificial gesture intended to deliver the Wall Street world from chaos. His passions are meant to give a fresh dimension to the existence of a man who is "getting old" (134).

Bartleby dies into this order of being in order to redeem it. During his journey through the elemental, he is torn apart by the limiting conditions of the phenomenal world, just as, according to Goethe's theory of colors, "white light is broken down into colored light" (Vietor 41). Goethe looked upon the solar spectrum as the passion of the white light, an idea which can be corroborated with Bartleby's condition as the white light itself refracted on this level of being.

The White Light, the ultimate Reality, is transformed into colors which constitute the solar spectrum. The colors compounding the world of appearances are mere specters in relation to the Reality of the White Light, epitomized by Bartleby, the Archetypal Man.

The Scrivener's whiteness, which is absolute in itself, presides over the "colored" world of the office which is a tiny fragment of the manifested existence. Bartleby's solar attributes assume richer connotations in the context of his association with white--the absolute "color"--which symbolizes both the East and the West, that is to say, "those two distant and mysterious points at which the Sun is born and dies everyday" (Cirlot 317).

The Bartleby-Lawyer couple is analogous to the Summer-Winter antithetic pair, the latter being symbolic of the "fruitfulness and bareness" pair of opposites. Mentioned should be made of the fact that the Lawyer is a "rather elderly man" who is rich in the experience of the temporal world, which is unfruitful and desert-like. Enters Bartleby with his youth and luminous aura; moreover, it is summer time when Bartleby comes: "In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man, one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer."

The crucial moments of Bartleby's journey in the quaternary correspond to the key points of the yearly solar cycle.

Bartleby's "motionlessness" equates with a momentary dissolution of time; his "standing immovable" is suggestive of the restoration of the Eternal Present; therefore, his "standing on the threshold" corresponds to the Summer Solstice which marks the apogee of light: the sun reaches its highest point in the sky from which it starts its descending movement.

This is how the Scrivener first appeared to the old man: in the stillness of a glorified light. This moment represents the starting point of two different new cycles of life: for the Lawyer, it marks the beginning of the progress toward self-knowledge while for Bartleby, it represents the commencement of his pilgrimage.

From the Summer Solstice on, the day begins to decrease; the light gradually wanes; the Sun enters the sign of Cancer which, in the Orphic tradition, is regarded as "the threshold through which the soul enters upon its incarnation" (Guenon, Symboles 237). This symbolism may be perfectly correlated with Bartleby's sublunary itinerary unfolding between two extremes marked by his "standing on the threshold" and his "death" out of this world.

An analogy could be drawn between the interval delimited by the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox and Bartleby's active period. Then he "give[s] up copying" thus becoming "a fixture" in the Lawyer's chambers. This moment of immobility has the Autumn Equinox as its correspondent in the solar course: the instant when the forces of light and darkness are equal. This is a point of balance when the Sun, just as his human counterpart does not "make any change at all."

When this perfect equilibrium is lost the power of darkness gradually increases. Light is overcome by darkness; this is the period whose boundaries are marked by the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice, which period is reflected in Bartleby's "stay" in "the Tombs." The solar hero is placed under the fierce dominion of brute materiality. Bartleby's confinement is the replica of the offensive of the shadows.

The victory of Night is completed in Bartleby's "death"; threatening gloom reigns undisturbed. The Winter Solstice, which signifies the defeat of the Sun, is the physical counterpart of Bartleby's return to his source.

Bartleby's rebirth into the Unseen is mirrored into the Lawyer's growing awareness. The wisdom he attains is first expressed in his revelation that Bartleby is a "king"; the Scrivener's attributes pertain to his solar nature, for the Sun is an imperial symbol.

The Scrivener's being "conducted" to the Tombs at noon "at the head of a silent procession" (138) represents an illustration of another aspect of solar symbolism. Midday is the moment when the flux of change is interrupted; it represents an interval of timelessness preceding the decline of light.

The protagonist of the mythic journey undertaken by the title hero of the Melvillean tale is an actualization of the figure of "the Mysterious Stranger" who disrupts the shallow world order of a narrator who is "characteristically conservative, sentimental, and limited in perception:" (...) the Mysterious Stranger [is] a construct that, in variation, emerges in the shape of Bartleby in Bartleby, the Scrivener and Benito Cereno in Benito Cereno (Cahir 58).

The encounter between the Mysterious Stranger and the narrator-protagonist leaves indelible marks upon the latter's mind and soul, "tumultuously affect[ing]" and "inexorably" changing him into "a knowledge-seeker": Thus, at the heart of each of Melville's tales involving a Mysterious Stranger is the urgent need of humankind's search for certainty (Cahir 60).

The protagonist attains a degree of enlightenment as a consequence of witnessing the Mysterious Stranger's journey through the quaternary: the Wall Street lawyer is awakened to the existence of another dimension of being where it is possible to "live without dining."


Cahir, Linda Constanzo (1999), Solitude and Society in the Works of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Chevalier Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant (1969), Dictionnaire des Symboles. Paris: Robert Laffont.

Cirlot, Juan Eduardo (1962), A Dictionary of Symbols. Trans. Jack Saye. New York: Philosophical Library.

Davis, Todd F. (1997), "The Narrator's Dilemma in Bartleby the Scrivener: The Excellently Illustrated Re-statement of a Problem," Studies in Short Fiction (34)2: 183-207.

Furlani, Andre (1997), "Bartleby the Socratic," Studies in Short Fiction (34)3: 335-357.

Gebser, Jean (1984), The Ever-Present Origin. Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas (translator.), Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Guenon, Rene (1962), Symboles fondamentaux de la science sacree. Paris: Gallimard.

Hardwick, Elizabeth (1983), Bartleby in Manhattan, and Other Essays. New York: Random House.

Lavery, David (1992), Late for the Sky: The Mentality of the Space Age. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.

Lovinescu, Vasile (1981), Al Patrulea Hagialic. Bucharest: Cartea Romaneasca.

Melville, Herman (1961), Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York: New American Library.

Norman, Liane (1971), "Bartleby and the Reader," New England Quarterly (44)1: 22-39.

Penglase, Charles (1994), Greek Myths and Mesopotamia: Parallels and Influence in the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod. London: Routledge, 1994.

Plumstead, A. W. (1966), "Bartleby: Melville's Venture into a New Genre," Bartleby the Scrivener: The Melville Annual. Howard P. Vincent (ed.), Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 82-93.

Riffard, Pierre (1990), L Esoterisme. Paris: Robert Laffont.

Tallack, Douglas (1993), The Nineteenth-Century American Short Story: Language, Form and Ideology. London: Routledge.

Versluis, Arthur (2001), The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vietor, Karl (1950), Goethe: The Thinker. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wolf, Jack C. (1986), Hart Crane's Harp of Evil: A Study of Orphism in the Bridge. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing.


Spiru Haret University

Irina Dubsky is a Senior Lecturer Ph.D. in English and American Literature with the Faculty of Letters of Spiru Haret University, Bucharest. The focal points of her field of research are represented by the exploration of the alchemical tropes and esoteric significance encoded in Herman Melville's work alongside the study of the initiatory patterns and symbolic imagery in the literature of the American Renaissance. The works of such esoteric writers as R. Guenon, A. Versluis, V. Lovinescu, Eliade, Schuon, Borella etc. have provided the main interpretive tools for this intellectual enterprise in which she has been involved throughout her academic studies (the BA, MA and doctoral programs) at the University of Bucharest and onwards. In 2010 she was awarded a PhD in Philology by the University of Bucharest upon defending her doctoral dissertation entitled "Shadowings-Forth of the Invisible": Esotericism in Herman Melville's Fiction--Moby Dick and the Tales. She has also worked as a translator for Humanitas Publishing House.
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Author:Dubsky, Irina
Publication:Journal of Research in Gender Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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