for another, but they show a general compassion for all the human race. One never sees them inflict pointless suffering, and they are glad to relieve the sorrows of others when they can do so without much trouble to themselves. They are not disinterested, but they are gentle.
– Alexis De Tocqueville(www.cybernation.com)
Compassion is an innate quality that is found within human nature, and is expressed to those in the form of a helping hand to people who are financially and emotionally troubled. However, each individual may have a different limit towards the amount of compassion that one can show to another being. In Herman Melvilles story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, Melville is showing the reader that each individual does have a limit, when it comes to expressing compassion towards other beings. Melville also shows that this limit is different for each individual, when he talks about how each of the characters interact with Bartleby.
The story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” begins with the narrator identifying himself as a man who is “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is best”. This very attitude towards life in general, suggests that the narrator cannot be too compassionate towards other beings because showing compassion and providing support is hard work emotionally and physically. To be compassionate, one must be able to understand the inner workings of the unfortunate soul, so that one can help fix the problem. Thus, the narrator does not have the experience or the spontaneity to help others because all who know him, consider him to be “an eminently safe man” (2330). However, one must note that as the story progresses, the narrator does push his boundaries towards helping Bartleby, but ultimately fails because he does not take the time to understand Bartleby.
There is no doubt that the narrator is a compassionate person because he puts up with the antics of his employees. One of his employees is an old man named Turkey, who handles himself well in the morning, but in the afternoon becomes insolent. Any other person would have fired Turkey, when he becomes insolent towards his fellow workers and clients, but the narrator generally leaves him alone. One can conclude that the narrator is weak, and being a safe man, he decides to let things be the same in order to prevent a conflict, but this is an incorrect conclusion. The narrator could have fired Turkey, which would have prevented a conflict as well as resolving the issue regarding Turkeys attitude, but the narrator chooses to keep Turkey.
Although one can say that the narrator is compassionate, one must also take into account the extent of his compassion. In the scene where Bartleby refuses to help examine the paper, the narrator backs away from a confrontation. He says, “I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled in him” (2336). The narrator does not know how to handle the situation because he could not find any human qualities within Bartleby. Therefore, he plays it safe and avoids the confrontation by proceeding to other matters. This scene helps show the narrators limits because by playing it safe, he is not helping Bartleby, but instead delays the inevitable confrontation. Thus, one can argue incorrectly that the narrator has a weak character, when in reality he is looking at the world with a different perspective, and therefore is not able to understand the needs of Bartleby.
It is easy to see that the narrator is a compassionate man, although many would argue that he is weak. He allows his employees to be themselves, and tries to reign them in when they go too far. Thus, when Bartleby refuses to help him and the others examine the documents, he avoids a confrontation. However, the others are quick to judge Bartleby. This is seen when Nippers says, “I think I should kick him out of the office” (2337) while Turkey says, “shall I go and black his eyes?” (2339). Neither of these characters attempt to understand Bartleby, and if they had their way, they would have fired him immediately. This shows that the limit of their compassion towards Bartleby is very short, and it also allows the reader to come to the conclusion that the narrator is indeed an extraordinary man, whose limit towards helping Bartleby exceeds that of many people.
A compassionate person is a person who understands the strengths and weaknesses of other people. With a better understanding of the person, one can help sort out the other persons problems. The narrators perspective of life, along with how he lives his life, makes him incapable of showing more compassion towards Bartleby. John Seelye says that the narrators “orderliness of his world is suggested by the design of his office: two adjoining apartments, with antipodal windows looking out upon opposing white and black walls, suggesting the cleanly defined ethics of their inhabitant” (97). Thus, due to his “commitment to balance, order, and rational processes, his office is not equipped to handle a case like the mysterious scrivener, the motionless young man whose gravity nearly destroys the balanced movements” of the narrators life. Bartleby “demands love that passes all understanding”, but the narrator is incapable of understanding Bartlebys needs, and the “most he can give is [limited compassion]” (97).
However, the narrator does make a connection with Bartleby in the scene where he realizes that Bartleby has been living in the office. He says, “for the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (2341). This is an important scene because now that he has made a connection with Bartleby, he goes beyond his safe zone and becomes more compassionate towards the needs of Bartleby.
By attempting to understand Bartleby, the narrator becomes more compassionate, and thus leaves his safe zone. This is evident when he tries to find information about Bartlebys personal life. However, Bartleby refuses to talk about his life, and the narrator finds that he cant break through the wall that Bartleby has erected. One can say that the narrators attempt to understand Bartleby is half-hearted because he already feels that he will never be able to fully understand Bartleby, and thus cannot help overcome Bartlebys problems. He says, “what I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener [,Bartleby,] was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach” (2342). Thus, the narrator has given up trying to understand Bartleby, which in effect leads to Bartlebys death.
When the narrator concludes that he could not connect to Bartleby, it seems he has reached the limit of his compassion towards Bartleby. He devises a plan to get rid of Bartleby, rationalizing that he is helping the scrivener, when in truth he is bribing him. He says, “I told Bartleby that in six days time he must unconditionally leave the office. I offered to assist him in this endeavor, if he himself would but take the first step towards a removal” (2345). This indicates that the narrator has reached his limit, when it comes to helping Bartleby. However, it also shows that the narrator is still being compassionate towards Bartleby because he is giving him advance notice, along with money, when other people would have simply had Bartleby removed from the premises. It can be argued that the narrator is giving money to Bartleby in order to ease his guilty conscience, but the fact remains that many people would have fired Bartleby the day he quit working, and they would not have given him extra pay. Therefore, the narrator is still trying to be compassionate, although he himself admits later on that he was trying to bribe Bartleby.
Furthermore, when Bartleby refuses to leave the premises, the narrator packs his things and moves to another area. This is humorous because he is the one who is moving, since Bartleby refuses to leave. The narrator could have had Bartleby thrown into jail, or he could have kicked him out, but chose not to. Many people would think that the narrator is weak because he does not throw Bartleby out, but instead moves his office to another location to accommodate Bartleby, and avoid a confrontation. The narrator says to himself, “you will not thrust him, the poor, pale, passive mortal you will not thrust such a helpless creature out of your door?” The narrator realizes that he would rather let Bartleby “live and die” in the office, instead of throwing him out. In the same line of reasoning, the narrator says to himself, “you will not have him collared by a constable, and commit his innocent pallor to the common jail” (2349). Therefore, he still remains compassionate towards Bartleby, while at the same time he leaves Bartleby, thinking that he is no longer responsible for Bartlebys welfare. This act shows that the narrator is still a prisoner towards his own rational thinking, and thus is still incapable of helping Bartleby.
However, the narrators compassion towards Bartleby has extended further, when he offers to give Bartleby a new job. He says, “would you like to travel through the country collecting bills for the merchants? That would improve your health”. Bartleby refuses to accept any of the jobs that the narrator offers him, which in turn angers the narrator. The narrator is at his wits end because he is trying to help Bartleby, but his help is always rejected. Finally, the narrator offers to take Bartleby to his home. He says, “[Bartleby,] will you go home with me now not to my office, but my dwelling and remain there till we can conclude upon some convenient arrangement for your leisure?” (2352). The spontaneity of the narrators action shows that the narrator has again moved further away from his safe zone, in his need to help Bartleby. This also shows that the limit of his compassion has increased significantly, as he again tries to relate to Bartleby.
The narrators safe zone is again challenged, when he learns that the landlord had called the police to take away Bartleby. The narrator, who for most of his life was considered to be an “eminently safe man” (2330), goes to the Tombs to see Bartleby. This shows that he is again pushing the limit of his compassion in order to provide comfort to a man that he hardly knows. The narrator is again going out of his way to ensure that Bartleby is properly taken care off. He says, “I narrated all I knew [about Bartleby to the functionary], and closed by suggesting the idea of letting him remain in as indulged confinement as possible till something less harsh might be done” (2353). This act goes beyond what many people would do for someone in need, and therefore one should respect and admire the type of person that the narrator has become.
When the narrator goes to see Bartleby in the Tombs, Bartleby says, “I know you . . . and I want nothing to say to you” (2353). This suggests that everything that the narrator had done was not enough, and therefore this response would anger many people if they had to endure what the narrator went through in helping Bartleby. However, the narrator only felt pain, and again tried to reach out by trying to ensure that Bartlebys stay would be as comfortable as possible. This is seen when he gives money to the grub man, and asks the man to take care of Bartleby. He says, “I want you to give particular attention to my friend there; let him have the best dinner you can get. And you must be polite to him as possible” (2353). This again shows that the narrator is a compassionate man, who does a lot to help give physical comfort to Bartleby, but cannot reach out to Bartlebys soul, because he is still incapable of understanding Bartleby.
Thus, Melville shows in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that there is a limit to compassion, which differs for each individual, when one tries to help another individual. True compassion is when one gives freely, love that surpasses all understanding. However, this is a quality only seen in very few people (i.e. Mother Teresa). Although the narrator tries to understand Bartleby, he ultimately fails because they are worlds apart. The narrator is rational and practical, while Bartleby is withdrawing from life. In order to relate to Bartleby, one cannot rationalize the situation, as it will not benefit Bartleby. Instead, the narrator should have given him unconditional love, which would have brought Bartleby back into the social world.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.,
Seelye, John. Melville: The Ironic Diagram. Evanston: NorthWestern University