Analysis: Work as Fulfillment: Herman Melville and Robert Frost

Current academic dialogue concerning Melville’s discussion of work focuses on its relevance as a precondition for survival in America’s capitalist landscape during the nineteenth century, and further as Bartleby’s representation of the enigmatic quality of passive resistance against the lawyer, as his superior, as a response to failures within its economic structures. The gap in this dialogue lies in the detail of work’s value, a further exploration of work as a means for personal fulfillment beyond survival and into self-actualization. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” accomplishes this critique through juxtaposed interactions between the narrator-lawyer and Bartleby, as Frost’s “After Apple-Picking" structures its criticisms through a collection of metaphors extending from historical context and the narrator’s interactions with his environment as a direct extension of America’s political and economic landscape. There is simultaneously a present lack of consideration for the application of poetry to express this philosophical and social stance against work’s efficacy for attainment of personal needs beyond survival, especially in conjunction with relevant prose. This underappreciated commentary within “Bartleby”, when read together with Frost’s similarly angled commentary in “After Apple-Picking", provides a noteworthy exposition and diagnostic assessment of the decrease in value for the American occupation as a realization of personal hierarchical needs.

Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Frost’s “After Apple-Picking" both produce harsh critiques of work as a means for individual fulfillment in the American economic and sociopolitical system during two distinct moments in the country’s historical development. These criticisms introduce a collective and collaborative reading of both texts focused on the characters as an extension of the individual’s search for hierarchical need fulfillment in America’s capitalist economic landscape. Reed’s “The Specter of Wall Street: 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' and the Language of Commodities”, for example, views Bartleby’s strange, defiant behavior as an ultimately successful disruptive force, conforming to Marxist ideals rather than America’s set of capitalist principles. My evaluation of Melville’s narrative commentary as a lack of fulfillment is a logical extension of this conclusion when supported by the current academic discourse surrounding each piece.

First, we can provide context for Frost’s commentary as a newly introduced supplement for Melville’s commentary on work and fulfillment. Evans’ interpretation of “After Apple-Picking" describes a narrator who when “done with apple-picking" (Frost line 6), obviously working hard at this task, is “mentally exhausted” (Evans 2). He further evaluates, “The pickers’ work is all-consuming...most humans can relate to this speaker’s sense of profound exhaustion and need for sleep. But even that sleep, it seems, will not be truly restful; apple-picking will continue in dreams just as during the workday” (Evans 2). This portrayal of the picker as a metaphorical woodchuck, his persistence of hard work resulting in exhaustion from hyper-productivity and a resulting hibernation of inactivity or passivity, similarly results in a lack of satisfaction, even a lack of success in the form of a “barrel that I didn’t fill” (Frost line 3) and a consistent lack of clarity in the narrator’s perspective of his own work and his broader environment at many points in the text. When considering the introduction of the assembly line, the forty-hour workweek, and a new minimum wage being established just before the publication of “After Apple-Picking" in 1914, this lack of clarity in the face of exhaustion makes sense and gives new meaning to its metaphors as a critique of these changes and the furthering of capitalism’s grip on the working class. This is a fittingly critical view of capitalism’s focus on production and not on individualism.

Frost's narrator also struggles with battling unconsciousness and remaining fully present in the face of work or labor, “load on load of apples coming in”, becoming “overtired” and falling into a “Long sleep...Or just some human sleep” (Frost lines 26-42). The narrator cannot fight off this inevitable sleep, rather succumbing to an extended sleep, or hibernation like “The woodchuck” (Frost line 40). Work, like apple-picking, leaves the narrator empty and longing rather than satisfied and still. Frost leaves the narrator wanting when reaching the inevitable “human sleep” (42). The narrator has not reached any meaningful level of fulfillment, rather retreating into sleep as an inescapable non-choice. The dull, lethargic work Bartleby faces directly mirrors the work of the narrator in “After Apple-Picking" to a literal extent, “For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired” (Frost lines 27-28). Yet Frost’s narrator, in contrast, is failing in his race against time “But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night” (lines 6-7). The threat of winter stifles progress. Still, according to Evans interpretation, “The speaker blurs distinctions between fall and winter by calling the ‘scent of apples’ harvested in the fall the ‘essence of winter sleep’” (1). The supposed success of autumn is blurred with winter and its inevitable slumber of apathy. All this obscurity blends together into confusion as the narrator drifts into sleep despite any previous agency, reflecting Bartleby’s demise. The blurring of the seasons, and of the narrator’s consciousness and sleep, reflect a non-existent work-life balance, especially when considering even in the narrator’s rest, he is shackled by his work. There is no real rest for the narrator, even in hibernation.

Contemporary scholars tend to agree that Bartleby’s strongest themes regarding work boil down to a few: Bartleby’s passive rebelliousness against the lawyer, his status as a wage slave and a victim of “fixed fate”, his anti-materialist stance and his supplanting as a foil for the lawyer’s meritocracy. These topics, when combined in analysis and reinforced through Frost’s poem, provide a holistic critique of work as fulfillment that I will explore throughout the rest of this analysis.

For example, the argument of a rebellion in Bartleby is supported by Galloway’s comparison of Bartleby’s passive resistance to the Occupy movement via Slavoj Žižek and Antonio Negri’s connection of the text and philosophical withdrawal as rebellion (Victor 661). This Marxist view, the alienation of labor in Melville’s commentary, considers historical context during Melville’s time, context essential to a full understanding of “Bartleby”. Considering New York’s political and labor controversies at the time of its publication, Melville’s perspective becomes clear as a struggling, author after previous literary successes, who became increasingly frustrated with the American economic systems for their brutality and their lack of value for the working class. During the mid-nineteenth century around the time of “Bartleby”’s publication in The Piazza Tales, there was a political landscape of economic frustration. This is exemplified by a few instances during this time, primarily of a group of tailors striking against their employers who were attempting to rob their workers through low wages, what was later labeled the “wage slave” (Foley 91). We can see this reflected consistently in Melville’s story, yet the employees have differing reactions to the tyrannical lawyer and his representation of the ruling class, “Turkey and Nippers, while driven to alcoholism and ulcers by low wages and psychologically debilitating work, do not possess the ‘divine fire’ of rebellion” (Foley 91). Turkey and Nippers have semi-successfully assimilated into the office and its extension as the working class, yet Bartleby struggles to maintain his status mere days after arriving at the office. There is the added injury of his previous work at the Dead Letters Office to explain this difference, but more notable is the difference in capabilities, attitude and even more his obscurity, which we will discuss later.

There is also an important point to be made, or reinforced, regarding Melville’s use of language, as it establishes a dichotomy between the lawyer-narrator and the scriveners, especially Bartleby. In Melville’s story, we see a clear case of “’Contemptus mundi’: critics work from an assumption of shared despair (with the audience) over the condition of modern society, which is seen as in decline” (Curzan 303). The lawyer, a representation of the intelligent but tyrannical meritocracy, uses complex and even overly verbose diction along with formal modality. Bartleby, in contrast, hardly speaks at all, and when he does it is supremely minimal. This contrast delineates the lawyer as the over-complicated “modern society”, one of American capitalism, and Bartleby as the simple, passive resistance of arguably unnecessary work and strife, although if the ending is to be taken literally this work is indeed necessary for survival. This is a specific utilization of semantics in “Bartleby” that differs from the other mediums Melville used. As Gray points out, Melville frequently explored through his work, “the war between meaning and nothingness” (184). The duality of Melville’s personal philosophy provides the tension and antithesis through the lawyer and Bartleby’s dialogue, or sometimes lack thereof. The lawyer serves as a foil for Bartleby, his sparse language only makes him even more confusing and harder to understand (Pinsker 17). Bartleby’s simple and direct refusals, along with repeated silence, reflect a character and an author frustrated with professional life, perhaps directly fueling the silence. They are directly contrasted with repeated turns of Bartleby’s silence or short answers with the lawyer’s verbose speeches.

The lawyer’s intentional separation from Bartleby through literal and figurative walls expresses his distaste for Bartleby’s lower class of worker. The lawyer grows increasingly frustrated by Bartleby’s lack of complication, but expresses this distaste early on, “I can see that figure now-pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby” (Melville 6). Characteristics commonly associated with positive connotations, here are denotatively negative. Neatness is next to godliness in the lawyer’s Christian beliefs, and respectability is practically defined as a sought-after aspect of character, but here the lawyer gives negative context and expresses derision for Bartleby’s figure, giving these typically positive words a negative spin through their denotative meaning. This delineation between the two characters fuels Melville’s commentary of class, as it also supports a critical view of the lawyer’s ruling class and a pessimistically similar critical view of Bartleby’s passivity. Yet Bartleby’s passive resistance as opposition to the lawyer is a failure, as we will continue to explore its consequences in the context of work’s meaning.

There is an intentionally reinforced obscurity in our titular character, as hardly anything is revealed about Bartleby’s character and his past life. The closest thing we get to biography is the lawyer’s discovering of his time with the Dead Letters Office. This lack of detail and explanation serves a few purposes, along with Bartleby’s extremely limited speech and his sometimes refusal to speak or act at all: Bartleby’s lack of defining characteristics or actions let the reader interject our own beliefs, values and proposed actions, his background is deemed unimportant to his status as directly opposed by our lawyer-narrator's excruciatingly detailed background information, and his philosophy of inaction is deemed as having inherent value in and of itself rather than fueled by any past circumstances or contextual background. Sten points out of Bartleby’s dialogue, “’I would prefer not to’ is apparently Melville’s rendering of the idealist’s refusal to act in complicity with the monotonous and spiritually bankrupt world of the materialist” (32-33). Just as “After Apple-Picking" provides no solution to the “long sleep”, Bartleby’s death provides an ultimate refusal to the system yet a woefully pessimistic conclusion to such rebellion. This philosophical pessimism fuels the meaninglessness of work, stepping even further by claiming its meaninglessness as a source of happiness at all. Sten’s view of the story reflects this view and adds its historical context as a critique of materialism and even specifically of Wallstreet, hinted in its subtitle “A Story of Wallstreet”. These workers who spend their lives in their offices provide a sad critique of the human condition and its shackled existence; workers are a slave to their jobs rather than their occupation providing any exalted meaning, furthermore the only escape is provided by the finality of death. This critique aligns and reinforces the duality of the lawyer and Bartleby, through both their language and actions, yet Bartleby is the one who reaches a premature death, leaving the lawyer to comment on his failures.

Bartleby, when choosing the path of passive resistance rather than the required assimilation into the office and its responsibilities, is perpetually grounded in the lowest tier of the needs structure, as his physiological need of shelter is jeopardized, “Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself...His poverty is great” (Melville 13). The offices are like a prison for Bartleby, which he later literally occupies shortly before his death, a final punishment for his apathetic insurrection. This bleak portrayal of resistance is an explicitly critical view of defiance and displays its futility in the face of the American capitalist ideology and accompanying conformity. Considering Melville’s professional struggles, then, why is Bartleby’s brave rebellion thrown into dire straits? Why would Melville provide such an austere picture of a stoic failure? Bartleby’s rejection is an extension of Melville’s unrealized desire to reject the economic model to which he was a victim at the time of publication of The Piazza Tales in 1856, compounded in insult by his financial dependence on his father-in-law who mirrors the lawyer-narrator (Ryan 120). This unrealized desire is a fantasy played out in the narrative of the story, yet its consequences are the extent to which Melville himself does not dare approach in his own life because of their danger, only in metaphor. The consequence of Bartleby’s imprisonment, both literal and symbolic through his lack of fulfillment, is too great a risk.

The fighting off of sleep by Frost’s narrator mirrors Bartleby’s efforts to fight necessary action. Both are equally futile and result in a similar frustration, met with similar unconsciousness, one extended and one brutally final. Even their lack of motivation and desire, an extension of losing consciousness. Bartleby and the narrator of “After Apple-Picking" have similarly been beaten down by the American work systems into a severe submission, losing all individual desire for betterment or even survival, retreating into death and hibernation respectively. These are conclusions reached only after severe hardship, lack of success, and an insurmountably infuriating economic system of capitalism and its ruling meritocracy. Frost’s narrator attempts to ascend the proverbial ladder of success yet feels “the ladder sway as the boughs bend” (23), preventing him from making any headway towards even professional fulfillment. Bartleby’s similar professional failures during his time with the Dead Letter Office and his removal by the administration demonstrate a mirrored immobility. This immobility adds to the uselessness of work, even as a direct means for success in safety in the form of employment, not even approaching realized fulfillment, but remaining below actualization, esteem, and love and belonging. Adding to the confusion are Bartleby’s capabilities; he is seen to have a superior intellect and worldly understanding over his coworkers (Lee 1413). If he is intelligent and capable even beyond the other workers in the office, namely Turkey and Nippers who despite their flaws are relatively successful, why is he still struggling so far down the ladder and its accompanying hierarchy, as is Frost’s narrator? A simple conclusion would be his refusal to work or act. A more accurate conclusion would be that his working or not working has no effect on his happiness. He is essentially an apparition walking before he comes anywhere near death. In fact, at the beginning of Melville’s story, Bartleby is working quite hard, although the work is essentially meaningless, “He ran day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light...It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair" (Melville 6). He sees this meaninglessness, and like Frost’s narrator succumbs to apathy.

Bartleby’s powerlessness and hopelessness is exacerbated by and founded in work’s failure to provide meaning for his life. He comes from the Dead Letters Office, relieved through no fault of his own, then continues to work very hard in the lawyer’s office before succumbing to its pressures and failing to find any sort of fulfillment from the work as a last-ditch effort to resist the philosophical void of despair. He does in fact retreat into this despair, looking and staring into walls of division and retreating into apathy both in speech and inaction. This philosophical response to meaninglessness is appropriate, as Bartleby is a victim of a “fixed fate”. Patrick’s reading of “Bartleby” focuses on this phenomenon and its importance specifically during Melville’s time, “powerless to alter the pattern” (42) and ending in death. This argument focuses on a key aspect of Bartley’s position, as reflected by Melville’s, but is potentially problematic through an ignoring of the lawyer’s flawed perspective as the representation of a materialistic, indulgent meritocracy Melville was criticizing and he was already known to be melodramatic yet simple man and a focus on his flawed diagnosis of Bartleby as the victim of an incurable disorder. As we know, Bartleby’s “fixed fate” prevents him from achieving this freedom, however, as his work provides no real meaning and as a thinking man Lee describes as more understanding than other characters in the story, he is doomed to his fate of death. Unlike the lawyer, he does not have religion, fixed moral values or even surface level previous successes such as the lawyer’s working for John Jacob Astor to derive fulfillment from. He must find this fulfillment on his own yet work very clearly provides none of the significance or even spiritual meaning he yearns for.

Both character’s meaninglessness extends beyond the confines of Bartleby’s death and even its inherent philosophical meaning. Bartleby has no real freedom as a wage slave and a victim of fixed fate; he is a slave to the lawyer and the grander American work machine. Like Frost’s narrator who cannot ascend his ladder, constantly falling into tired sleep, whose dreams fail him, and ultimately falls prey to the inevitable, “Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, / Or just some human sleep” (Frost lines 41-42). The narrator’s helplessness is practically and thematically as final as Bartleby’s death. This failure for both characters reflects the harsh critique of work, seeing its result as hopeless and futile as a means for fulfillment.

Despite their disparity in economic and political history, both “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “After Apple-Picking" share histories reflecting a troubled political and economic climate that stifle individual fulfillment. Melville’s personal economic situation and lack of success resulted in an expressive shackling of his intended artistry as he wrote just before the publication of The Piazza Tales, “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.” (Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne). Melville’s frustration with what brings success is clearly and explicitly reflected in Bartleby’s defiance, yet also by the lawyer’s confusion with Bartleby’s actions and the appropriate response. Frost’s America of 1914 was frozen in recession, its peoples similarly stifled by their contextual situation. The complementary nature of these texts, one as prose and another as poetry, is not commonly seen in academic discussions of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, even considering discussions of the human condition and its hopeless misery such as Bergmann’s comparison and contrast with “Bartleby” and The Lawyer’s Story. With this analysis of both texts, there is an opening of a discussion regarding modern implications of their philosophies, such as the new phenomenon of “quiet quitting” as discussed by modern periodicals such as “Quiet Quitting: Why Doing the Bare Minimum at Work Has Gone Global; The Meaninglessness of Modern Work -- and the Pandemic -- Has Led Many to Question Their Approach to Their Jobs.” The article approaches modern views of work contextualized by Melville’s writing, “The search for meaning has become far more apparent...something quite existential around people thinking ‘What should work mean for me?” (1-2). Even considering questions Bartleby inspires us to ponder such as, “Do we stay put but switch off? Or do we move towards something?” (2). Considering the present implications of “Bartleby” and “After Apple-Picking" furthers the need for discussion surrounding the meaning of work, a very prevalent and inescapable discussion in modern America as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Works Cited

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