Critical Essays Literary Technique


Part of Melville's skill in storytelling is his ability to weave significant stylistic devices into his narrative technique. In the exposition, the narrator briefly broaches a digression on the "sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a — premature act." Later mention of Bartleby's career disappointment at the Dead Letter Office makes the initial, casual throwaway remark meaningful in the overall analysis of the two major characters, who at the outset appear worlds apart, yet share similar career disappointments. A subsequent device, the introduction of Turkey, employs an image of his face, which "gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate, and decline the following day, with the like regularity and undiminished glory." Prophetically, the image foreshadows the rapid rise and decline of Bartleby. A third narrative device, a bit of dialogue between Turkey and the lawyer, concludes with Turkey's remark, ". . . we both are getting old," a foreshadowing of the lawyer's perception that he has more in common with ordinary workmen than he may realize.

In the rising action, Melville introduces a symbol, the plaster of Paris bust of Cicero, which serves as a kind of foretaste of the mask of cool detachment which obscures Bartleby's emotions. A similar example of tactile artistry is the allusion to a "pillar of salt," which particularizes the stodgy response of the lawyer at the head of his "column of clerks." These bloodless images suggest the depersonalized atmosphere on Wall Street, which is capable of reducing at least one of its inmates to mental breakdown. The lawyer, who is given to egotism and pomposity, notes with an aphorism, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance" and compares his efforts to motivate Bartleby to the futile attempt of striking sparks with his knuckles "against a bit of Windsor soap."

As the lawyer continues his ruminations over the quandary of what to do with Bartleby, he voices a conceit, or farfetched simile, comparing the pallid Bartleby to the faces "in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway." So rapt is the lawyer in his musings that he speaks in conversational tone, "a certain unconscious air of pallid — how shall I call it? — of pallid haughtiness, say, or rather an austere reserve." The sporadic caesura emphasizes his own thought rhythms, which lurch along, badly out of sync. He notes a personified feeling, a "superstitious knocking at my heart," which halts his urge to lash out at Bartleby, whom he skewers with an unaccustomed epithet, "the stubborn mule!" With an inversion — a somewhat prissy, self-conscious sentence pattern of his day — the lawyer hopes that "departed he was."

Following the climax of the story, the lawyer again returns to caesura and halting rhetorical questions. He challenges himself, "What! he a vagrant, a wanderer, who refuses to budge?" The story then moves rapidly to its conclusion, employing an extended metaphor as a means of foreshadowing Bartleby's death: "The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew under foot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung." In conversation with the grub-man, he employs a euphemism to note Bartleby's passing: "Lives without dining." The final touch, two cryptic apostrophes, sum up what he has acquired from his experience: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

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