J. M. Coetzee, in a rare public appearance with Paul Auster, recently visited the University at Albany for an interactive master class on Herman Melville’s classic short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Later that evening, they read from a soon-to-be-published book, Here and Now, of their correspondence between the years 2008-2011. The letters they read from covered topics including their friendship, writing, politics, Israel, and Coetzee even read from a letter commenting on the future of libraries and the diminishing role of printed books.
I was thrilled to see these two writers together, and as I happen to be taking a graduate English course this semester on The Gothic, of which “Bartleby” is one of the course texts, I was particularly interested in what Coetzee and Auster had to say about this enigmatic text. Even though a discussion of an hour or so could barely scratch the surface in terms of interpreting a story like “Bartleby”, there really were a lot of great ideas raised, so here I’ll just give a brief synopsis of the points that stood out to me.
Questions were raised about the reliability and morality of the narrator, Bartleby’s boss in a Wall Street office. It was argued that the narrator experiences an evolving moral insight throughout the story and does show signs of sympathy for Bartleby — the narrator even offers to take Bartleby home with him at one point, but Bartleby declines.
There was much discussion about the dead letters. Coetzee suggested that the final paragraph of the story on the dead letters seemed “tacked on,” a structural flaw. Someone raised the idea that the dead letter paragraph riffs on the idea of Bartleby as a sort of “ghost”, as he is described in the story (Melville). This led to questions about the “dead-wall reverie”, which refers to Bartleby’s habit of standing and staring at a blank wall — what does this phrase mean exactly, and is it conceptually related to the dead letters? It was suggested that the walls of the office represent stagnation, emptiness, or confinement for Bartleby and the other office workers, who are trapped as fixtures in an economic system. Auster also commented on the other workers, Nippers, Turkey and Ginger Nut, as humorous, Dickensian “mechanical” characters.
In further discussion of the “dead-wall reverie”, Auster and Coetzee drew a connection between the white wall in “Bartleby” and the white whale in Moby Dick. Part of that discussion can be seen here:
Some of the other questions raised during the talk included: “Why are there no women in the story, no ‘Mrs. Narrator’ for example?” (Coetzee). What is the difference between “I prefer not to” , Bartleby’s phrase of choice, versus the flat-out “I refuse”? And does Bartleby represent some part of the narrator’s mind which the narrator does not wish to examine too closely, perhaps a dissatisfaction with Wall Street life?
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” full text at Project Gutenberg