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  • A Syntax of Silence:The Punctuated Spaces in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street”
  • Daniel Diez Couch (bio)

When Bartleby first refuses a request by uttering his famous phrase, “I would prefer not to,” the narrator of “Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street” (1853) explains his reaction to Bartleby’s unusual statement: “I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties.”1 In this first occurrence of Bartleby’s famous phrase, the lawyer responds with a “perfect silence” because he cannot articulate a response to Bartleby’s passive refusal—language fails the characteristically garrulous narrator. And, as a result of the scrivener’s odd disinclination the lawyer loses track of time and can only offer the vague, indeterminate explanation that he “sat awhile” at his desk. Despite the lawyer’s passive, “perfect silence” in this moment, throughout the story he progressively reacts more and more expressively to Bartleby’s continued iterations of passive refusal. The narrator describes how he feels alternately frustrated, hopeful, charitable, selfish, angry, philosophical, religious, and even violent.2 Without trying, Bartleby torments the narrator of the story and elicits a wide array of emotions from him, emotions that take the place of the lawyer’s initial, silent reply. Instead of maintaining a taciturn attitude the lawyer reflects on Bartleby’s statements and actions, reading philosophical texts, conferring with his other employees, and talking directly to Bartleby in a thorough effort to uncover and understand the cause of the scrivener’s cryptic statements.

Literary critics have followed in the lawyer’s interpretive attempts by searching for an explanatory thread in Melville’s story that offers some reason, cause, or source for Bartleby’s constant repetition of his phrase (and his eventual refusal to do anything at all). Indeed, scholars have analyzed the text so much that it has gone through nearly every methodological approach and theoretical lens, indexing the changing interests of academic paradigms more so than offering a determinate account of the story. This [End Page 167] institutionally-driven criticism has resulted in two main approaches. First, literary historians look to Melville’s nineteenth-century American context in order to explain the tale through Bartleby’s economic deprivation, religious motivations, physical disability, lack of food, and unwanted, queer sexual attention received from the lawyer.3 These narratives of contextual explanation draw heavily on historicist and new historicist approaches, and play out in stark contrast to a second group of writers who treat the text more like a philosophical parable that stands outside of any definite, historical moment.4 This group includes literary critics and continental philosophers alike who emphasize the linguistic phenomenology of Melville’s story, and consider it a tale of metaphysical speculation more than a product of its contemporary culture. Nancy Ruttenberg describes how this latter approach detaches the story from “the lawyer’s practical constraints and considerations as well as the material specificities of Bartleby’s environment,” and focuses heavily on the weird phrases spoken by the scrivener.5

While this brief account of the principal critical approaches surrounding Melville’s story glosses over the subtlety of many of the interpretations, it makes evident the extent to which writers have pored over the key phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from Melville’s short, inscrutable tale. Nearly every phrase articulated by the lawyer and by Bartleby has been subjected to close grammatical and formal analysis, and almost every event in the story has been scrutinized from a variety of critical angles. Explanations abound for even the smallest pieces of dialogue, incident, and description. Taking this overwhelming surfeit as an advantage rather than an obstacle, this essay veers away from the words in Melville’s story and instead considers the text by venturing an answer to Susan Howe’s question in her poem “Melville’s Marginalia”: “What is a parenthesis” for Melville?6 Howe creates palimpsests of words and extensive blank spaces throughout her poem that muddle the clarity of her language, an effect that reinvigorates the visual effect of the page and draws attention to the crevices between words, places where seemingly unnecessary information resides. Building on Howe’s idiosyncratic approach, I focus on the forgotten and the miniscule in...