Herman Melville (in Bartleby) about Freedom, Free Will and their Consequences
Bartleby is a short story about a man who was employed as a scrivener. What a scrivener does is copying the law documents. He does that as a machine without thinking just mechanical work. This story is narrated by a lawyer who has an office at Wall Street. Something happened in his life that made him to put this story on a paper so people can read it. That is obvious from the very beginning when he says “But I waive the biographies of all other scrivener, for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw, or heard of.” (p.1328)
The lawyer use past tense in this sentences from where can be concluded that he narrates the story as a consequence of an event this happened earlier. It is hard to define whether Melville views are the narrator ones or the views that Bartleby holds which is implied in all he is saying and doing. Anyway both views are opposite and that on the end makes the consequences. Freedom and free will are in a way connected and it will be hard to define them separately. Bartleby has another view of freedom and free will and that breaks the normal way in which people behave and think. Examples will follow to support both views and what the consequences are of holding such a kind of view.
Freedom for the lawyer is when people can speak and tell their opinions in public. One example to explain the freedom of speech is “I think I should kick him out of the office.” (p.1335) This sentence is taken out of the conversation between the lawyer, Nipper and Turkey. Consequently on what is going on, these two people are asked to say what they think of the provided answer from Bartleby about examining the papers. Both of them are saying what they think. In the case of Bartleby when he says what he wants that breaks the borders of freedom in speech. That gives the lawyer so much trouble finding the rational explanation. That is all about freedom in speech and action. The lawyer gives an explanation that neither Nipper nor Turkey is perfect but they do their job and that is why he keeps them employed. That is a rational explanation, but he can’t find any for what Bartleby is doing. Freedom for Bartleby is not only freedom is speech but also freedom in choice. That freedom in choice automatically connects to free will.
Free will from the aspect of the lawyer is when he acts in accordance with what is called a social law. Which means act in a way the society requires or with other words do their job as his other employees do. There is no right to choose only to do the order given. Free will for Bartleby is when he has a choice and prefers one. He is exactly doing what he prefers; one thing rather than the other one. There is the answer that Bartleby is saying when he is asked to do something.” I would prefer not to.” (1333) This sentence is neither yes or no. It is just saying that he would prefer not to do something, not that he will not do that.
“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not to.” (1336)
Look at those words in italics. That word will is a part of free will. It means that is a free will to choose between two choices and prefer just one. If it is so, for the lawyer then free will does not exist. People should do what their job is to do. For the lawyer is very strange a scrivener to refuse to examine the papers and even to refuse to copy further documents. That is the part when the office owner does not know what to do and he tries to look into “Edwards on the Will” and “Priestley on Necessity.” These two books are mentioned in the story, but in his real life this is not a case to be found in those books.
“Then, sir,” said the stranger, who proved a lawyer, “your are responsible for man you left there” (1347) In this statement that really makes a sense, but if that man did not want to leave the building no one else is responsible for him. In that time, 19th century in the United States money and property defined the social status of a person and that is the bounds that Bartleby tries to break. That is what people have to realize. What a free will is and not to act because the society requires so but to act because one prefers so. The society in the sentence above requires a responsibility from the lawyer even though Bartleby is not working there anymore. It is easier for them just to transfer the responsibility to someone else rather than respect ones will which is irrational for them.
“Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. I will change my offices; I will move elsewhere, and give him fair notice, that if I find him on my new premises I will then proceed against his as a common trespasser.” (1347) This is not an example of a free will it as rather a rational thinking and the lawyer is not conscious what he really wants to do. He feels threatened.
“Come, let us start now, right away.” “No: at present I would prefer not to make any changes at all.” (1349) The lawyer offers Bartleby to go with him and Bartleby says that he would prefer not to. Why? From another aspect how stupid and silly looks to offer a job to Bartleby such as bar-tender, clerkship, a traveler and a companion. Bartleby description was more or less as a dead man, so imagine how unreasonable looks Bartleby talking to other people when he is not communicative at all. That is a point when the lawyer still can’t get what free will is. Bartleby at that point of conversation knows what he wants and he states that.
Concerning the consequences it could be concluded that each view has its own consequences. Bartleby is going to die and that is a consequence. The same as one has a right to live, he or she has a right to choose and die. Holding that view in a society where the people supposrt the lawyer’s view, the consequences are to get rid of the free will. With other words get rid of Bartleby.
The consequence of the view that the lawyer holds is the story by itself. All through the story he narrates his opinion and he can’t stop thinking and looking for an answer. “I must get rid of a demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and the clerks.” (1341) With other words he must get rid of the free will that in a way does not allow him to act properly. “My procedure seemed as sagacious as ever- but only in theory. How it would prove in practice, there was the rub. It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby departure; but after all, that assumption was simply my own and none of Bartleby.” (1343) It is obvious that lawyer’s procedures does not work anymore. That is the point when theory does not apply anymore too. That is the truth, and the truth is that in practice freedom and free will means something more than just words.
In conclusion, Melville wrote this story in a way to show that views about freedom and free will for different people are not the same. The last paragraph of the story is just awesome realization of how hollow humanity is. Scrivener does copy documents without thinking and a person writes a letter reasoning what he is writing and doing. That is the gap and that is the reason why those letters mentioned on the end of the story speed to death. There is a will written in them and people do prefer to send them nowhere. Imagine just what will be if everyone was taking the right of free will and prefer to do one thing rather than the other. Where will the humanity go? Simple as that, speed to death.