In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville displays the life of a person, named Bartelby, who does almost nothing with his life except write. Even latter in the story, Bartelby gives up writing and on life itself. Melville’s story brings up two major themes, which include writing and freedom. The story revolves around scriveners whose job it is to constantly copy documents and in a sense become a slave to writing. Bartelby, though one of the scriveners, resists the command to do exactly what he is told and as the story unfolds, he consistently refused to do what he was told.
This defiance leads the reader to question whether Bartelby was protecting his freedom or just setting himself up for an early demise. Barthe includes in his essay “The Death of the Author” that the author has no control over how his work is interpreted and the reader must decide what the work truly means. Authors are only limited to being authors when they are in the midst of writing but once they have finished their work and are not writing then the Authors are no longer authors.
Freedom is constantly emphasized throughout Melville’s story because Bartelby chooses to quit writing do to the fact that he is not being a true author but only a “scriptor. ” Most of “Bartelby and the Scrivener” centers on writing and how it is necessary in the law practice. Scriveners are law copyists which means their job is to copy law documents for the lawyer to have. At first, Bartelby was a dedicated worker who never stopped copying throughout the day. He did not even take the time to take a lunch break but rather had snacks delivered to him.
But as the story continues, Bartelby deteriorates as a worker by first refusing to look over copied documents then finally giving up writing all together. Writing, in this story, seems to be a chore and does not require the person to be an individual in any way. The scriveners had to tediously copy documents, which explain why the scriveners were not exactly the best-qualified workers. Turkey couldn’t work in the afternoon and Nippers couldn’t work in the morning. In any other job that requires serious thought, these two would be fired due to their inability to work all day.
According to Barthe, these scriveners are not authors but only scriptors because they mimic the writing and don’t create something original. Bartelby could no longer do this seemingly unimportant writing and finally just stopped writing at all. The only time Bartelby was considered a scriptor was while he was currently copying the documents because “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing” (Barthe 145).
To be a scriptor, the person must be constantly writing which explains why at the beginning of the story Bartelby never leaves his room but works throughout the day. Bartelby did this because he believed that the only time his life was worth something was when he had the title of a scriptor. Over time though having this title stopped meaning something to him and he eventually quit writing. When Bartelby lost his title of a scriptor, he lost his will to live and that is why when he was in jail he refused to eat.
Freedom is an extremely complicated theme in “Bartelby and the Scrivener” because it is unclear who exactly is free. The scriveners are all slaves to writing because they must spend their time copying documents and don’t really do anything else that would lead another person to say the scriveners are living productive lives. But each scrivener exercises a bit of his or her own type of freedom. Turkey works well in the morning but as the day goes on, he tends to make more and more mistakes. The lawyer tries decides to only have Turkey work in the morning but Turkey refuses that request.
This refusal shows that Turkey has a certain free will and doesn’t just spend his time mindlessly copying documents and doing exactly what the lawyer tells him to do. The much younger Nippers has the opposite problem that Turkey has and he cannot work well in the morning because Nippers needs time to get adjusted for work. At first, Bartelby looks to be the least free scrivener at work because he would work nonstop throughout the day without even taking a lunch break but as the story progressed the reader would see that this is untrue.
Bartelby on several occasions refuses to do work for the lawyer and eventually stops writing all together. The lawyer is very curious with Bartelby’s response and actually seems to admire his unyielding response to looking over copies. “His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry… his great stillness, his unalter- ableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition” (Melville 19). Bartelby’s decision to quit writing demonstrates his desire to become free from the tediousness of writing. Bartelby, however, cannot handle this freedom being captive by writing for so long.
He needs to make choices with his freedom and he really didn’t know what to do with his life. This is why he stayed in the office until he was thrown in jail and then died of starvation because he refused to eat. Bartelby couldn’t decide what to do with his life without writing and it led to his death. The lesson learned about freedom from this story is that complete freedom means complete loneliness and helplessness. Barthes’ “Death of the Author” combines writing and freedom together in order to express how certain writings should be interpreted.
Barthes explains to his readers that “a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘Theological’ meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes 146). This quote iterates that the author does not come up with a work that is truly original but takes aspects of different works to create his own. Barthes emphasizes that the author should not instill his own opinions in his work but rather allow the reader to have the freedom to come up with his own interpretation. This is where freedom intertwines with writing.
The author must give up control of his work and allow the reader to take authority and decide what exactly is meant be the work. But also, the author’s duty is to limit how much is actually expressed in the text. “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (Barthes 147). The readers must separate a literary work from the author in order to free the writing from being read only as the author’s opinion. Every work of writing contains multiple interpretations.
Barthes compares text to textiles by explaining that “everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath” (Barthes 147). This quote explains that much of writing read through thoroughly but conclusions don’t necessary need to be drawn. Reading a work is much different than figuring out a puzzle. To truly grasp writing, a reader must capture the actual literature and realize exactly what each word in the writing is trying to express.
The meaning of the work is derived from the ideas of the reader, rather than the thoughts of the writer. The reader has the freedom to capture whatever meaning he desires from a work of writing. Barthes explains that the author cannot put his own opinions into his own work because the reader must come up with his own interpretation of the work. Melville’s “Bartelby and the Scrivener” emphasizes this concept by showing the role of a scrivener, who only copies documents and puts nothing of himself into it.
Bartelby feels like his life has been wasted just copying documents and finally decides to quit writing. Once Bartelby loses his will to write, he completely loses his will to do anything of importance, even eat. Writing must be entangled like threads of a cloth, and the author must place a limit on how much can be inferred from the text. Bartelby is not an author but only a scriptor because he is not performing art by copying legal documents. This explains why Bartelby believes his life is useless because he wasted it away copying documents.