Doing Justice to Bartleby, March 2003



Doing Justice to Bartleby
Material Type
Journal Article
Weinstock, Jeffrey, Department of English Language and Literature
University of Rhode Island
Copyright 2003 by the University of Rhode Island. Intellectual Property Rights owned by Jeffrey Weinstock. This material is copyrighted, and any further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without the permission of the copyright owner.
Melville, Herman, 1819-1891. Bartleby, the scrivener; Mellville, Herman, 1819-1891 -- Criticism and interpretation; Loss (Psychology) -- Fiction; Mystery in literature
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. 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.
American Transcendental Quarterly New Series: 17:1, (March 2003): 23-42
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