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  • The Lawyer's Trouble with Cicero in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
  • Robin Miskolcze

When readers finish "Bartleby, the Scrivener" for the first time, they may find themselves standing squarely in the lawyer's shoes, repeating a version of the remarks made by the lawyer early in the story when Bartleby begins to "prefer not to": "This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do?" (NN PT 21). Bartleby vexes us because, like the lawyer, we are not sure of the best approach to Bartleby's apparent passive resistance. Critics of the story have expended a great deal of interpretive energy combing through the lawyer's rationalizations for his treatment of Bartleby in order to understand how the lawyer answers his own question, and, by extension, our own. Our reading of the story is enriched if we consider the lawyer's speculations within the larger context of Melville's critique of mid-nineteenth century American society. To be specific, critics have overlooked two important, interrelated factors that appear to underlie the lawyer's decision-making process: first, the Ciceronian code of ethics that permeates the lawyer's rationalizations for his charitable acts, and second, the nineteenth-century laws and social attitudes that pathologized and criminalized a homeless population once thought to be worthy of charity. Such an approach illuminates the responses of Melville's nineteenth-century lawyer and may clarify our own interpretations of the puzzling scrivener as well.

Before I lay out a more detailed thesis, let us look at a telling passage that often serves as the crux for a prominent reading of Melville's short story. The lawyer, critics suggest, relies on ethics derived from Christian morality, even while he cannot ignore the demands of doing business on Wall Street, a place where the market economy prioritizes work and production above all else.1 This reading derives some of its evidence from the scene in which the scrivener is found living in the office, when the lawyer's "melancholy" feelings about Bartleby "merge into fear . . . [and] repulsion" (NN PT 29). This passage stands out in the story because though the lawyer previously has relied on his understanding of Christian morality to rationalize his sympathetic response to Bartleby, here his sympathy evolves into repulsion. Readers are left to wonder [End Page 43] why at this moment the lawyer cannot, or will not, sustain his sympathy. Wyn Kelley speculates that, as a man of business, perhaps the lawyer cannot accept the fact that the scrivener "does not allow himself to be excluded from the city's public and private spaces, does not force himself to choose between domestic and working spheres. Instead he creates his own space, an alternative space, where he stands his ground" (Kelley 224). In this interpretation, Bartleby repulses the lawyer topographically because he unconventionally creates a space that includes both domesticity and work in the lawyer's office. The lawyer cannot bear this challenge to his authority as the manager of such a workspace, especially since it seems as if Bartleby is taking advantage of his Christian charity. Thereafter, the lawyer decides that Bartleby must be fired.

Bartleby incites fear and repulsion in the lawyer for reasons that remain unaddressed by critics. Though Melville alludes to the lawyer's inner conflict between Christian morality and contemporary capitalist expectations about office work, he also alludes to another set of duties, those formulated by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the well-known classical philosopher and lawyer, whose bust makes two conspicuous appearances in the story. Cicero outlines one's duties to those who are worthy of charity. The lawyer's discomfort with Bartleby living in his office is prompted not only by Bartleby's unwillingness to work and conflation of public and private space but also by the lawyer's anxiety about living up to Cicero's standards when confronted with New York City's attitude toward the overwhelming social reality of vagrancy and homelessness in the 1850s.

Melville suggests that his lawyer reveres Cicero, and most nineteenth-century educated men in both England and the U.S. "studied Cicero's rhetoric and style either by directly reading his works or by reading rhetorics that borrowed...