Fictional works tend to use their characters as an escape from reality.
In a world in which few often do as they please, no character better represents an escape from reality than the title character of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”. The character in question is an obstinately independent scrivener who harbors immense determination to act against increasing pressure by society to conform. According to literary critic Maria Konnikova, a human achieving that level of independence could not be further from reality. “Numerous studies have shown educated, intelligent people acting in bizarre ways just to fit in with a group of completely unknown individuals”, Konnikova writes, discussing the psychological truths underscoring the ending of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Konnikova argues that Huck Finn’s ending is accurate as a reflection of reality; indeed, both Twain and Melville utilize character dynamics and displeasing endings to instill reader frustration and to paint parallels to tragedies of reality: in Huck Finn, the notion that childhood and adventure do not last forever; in “Bartleby”, the fact that obstinate behavior leads to one’s eventual death.
Twain characterizes Huck Finn realistically as a circular protagonist.
Huck undergoes positive development throughout the course of the story only for that development to entirely regress near the novel’s end. This regression becomes especially prominent once Tom Sawyer makes a reappearance in Huck’s life; though Huck is perfectly fine getting by on his wit and practicality throughout his time accompanying Jim on an adventure, after Tom returns, Huck seriously considers unnecessarily elaborate and inefficient tactics solely because Tom claims that “It don’t make no difference how foolish it looks, it’s the right way”. Tom’s remark is an example of peer pressure, which Konnikova describes as “an incredibly powerful force” capable of twisting Huck’s mentality so that Huck starts “conforming to Tom’s wishes and reverting to their old group dynamic” because of a tendency “to behave differently in private versus public spheres”. The virtues of respect and consideration, which appeal to Huck back on the “private sphere” of the raft, no longer receive the same consideration, and are instead replaced by virtues of the past such as immaturity and racism. Twain even chooses for the final sentence of his novel to feature Huck exclaiming “I been there before”, lampshading that the Huck readers observed grow into a well-behaved, capable young man has entirely vanished.
In contrast, Melville portrays Bartleby as a stubborn, unrealistic naysayer.
Bartleby responds to most orders with his five word mantra, “I would prefer not to”. In comparison to the (at times, too) agreeable attitudes of Nippers and Turkey, Bartleby’s obstinance appears increasingly audacious. He maintains an absurd loyalty to his catchphrase throughout the story, “prefer[ring] not to” compare his copied papers with the Narrator, divulge information about his past, be a little reasonable, quit his job, leave after being fired, or even leave after the Narrator himself leaves. His actions directly contradict the studies Konnikova points to in her analysis of Huck Finn which prove that even educated people act in “bizzare ways” to fit in with society. Bartleby’s unwillingness to conform leaves both the reader and the Narrator with unsated curiosity regarding Bartleby’s nature. According to the Narrator, Bartleby “never spoke but to answer”, never read a thing (“not even a newspaper”), “never visited any refectory or eating house”, and “never drank beer like Turkey, or tea and coffee even, like other men”, reinforcing Bartleby’s odd, unrealistic characterization.
The endings to both Huck Finn and “Bartleby” are unsatisfactory and thought-provoking for audiences.
Bartleby’s catchphrase commitment leads to his death, as he opts to starve himself rather than eat the food provided to him, prompting the Narrator to declare that Bartleby “lives without dining” rather than that Bartleby is dead. Huck reverts to his old ways, reversing the improvements his character accrued throughout the story and rendering his earlier remark that “human beings CAN be awful cruel to one another” hypocritical through his treatment of Jim as inferior. Konnikova even points out that “the two most vocal proponents of Huck Finn’s iconic status had to explain” the novel’s ending away because “many readers, reviewers, and critics” have deemed said ending “not worthy of the book”.
Huck’s circular characterization and Bartleby’s stubbornness contribute to endings which instill reader frustration; this frustration is the exact reaction Twain and Melville desire, because it forces their audiences to dwell on the anti-climax and be reminded of unfortunate truths in reality: that childhood always comes to an end and that naysaying leads to suffering. The only difference is that Twain teaches his lesson through portraying Huck realistically, whereas Melville teaches his by designing Bartleby unrealistically, which leaves behind only one question: isn’t Twain more well-known for satire?
Konnikova, Maria. “Is Huckleberry Finn’s Ending Really Lacking? Not If You’re Talking Psychology.” Scientific American Blog Network. Scientific American Blog Network, 06 Aug. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/literally-psyched/is-huckleberry-finns-ending-really-lacking-not-if-youre-talking-psychology/>.
MELVILLE, HERMAN. BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER: A Story of Wall Street. S.l.: BARTLEBY PR, 2017. Print.
-Paragraph 24, Paragraph 92, Paragraph 246
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, NY: Clydesdale, 2016. Print.
-Chapter 4, Chapter 35, Chapter The Last