In his piece reacting to The Stranger, Jean-Paul Sartre quotes Camus, “a man is more of a man because of what he does not say than what he does say” (Sartre 82). It is almost as if Camus was specifically describing the silent namesake of Melville’s “Bartleby.” Somewhat ironically, this quote appears twice in Sartre’s short essay about The Stranger, Camus’ debut novel dealing with the philosophy of the absurd. There’s a good deal of writing relating Melville’s character Bartleby to some sort of psychological distress but much less looking at “Bartleby” from a philosophic perspective. Although The Stranger was written as a philosophic novel, many new readers of the novel attempt to make the same psychiatric diagnosis to its main character, Meursault. I have experienced this first hand with many of my classmates upon studying The Stranger and Sartre echoes this observation, “’he’s a nut, a poor fool,’ some people said” (Sartre 74). But Camus did something quite rare for an author of a novel and that is to publish a novel length essay explaining it. The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to explain the philosophy behind Meursault’s actions and character. Sartre aptly describes these two-related works; “we could say that the aim of The Myth of Sisyphus is to convey the idea of the absurd, and that of The Stranger to convey the feeling (85). This paper will attempt to argue that Melville’s “Bartleby” also conveys the feeling of the absurd despite being written well before the Absurdist movement existed. As Sartre states of Camus’ writing, “these themes are not really very new, and Camus does not present them as such” (75).
The absurd is the conflict between man’s desire for meaning and the universe’s lack of any meaning. Of course, Camus explains this best in his essay,
This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the time being it is their only link. (The Myth of Sisyphus 21)
Philip Thody writes of this passage,
The absurd, like the Cartesian cogito, is the first result of thinking about the world and about ourselves. It results from the conflict between our awareness of death and our desire for eternity, from the clash between our demand for explanation and the essential mystery of all existence. (Thody 2)
Both Bartleby’s and Meursault’s stories begin with an awareness or confrontation of death. The Stranger opens with Meursault learning of his mother’s death and, although not disclosed until the end, prior to working for the lawyer, Bartleby was a clerk at the Dead Letter Office. In regard to Camus and Thody’s definitions, the absurd man fully accepts these conditions and neither holds on to nor searches for any form of meaning. As Camus once said in an interview, “I have a sense of the sacred and I don’t believe in a future life, that’s all” (Royal 6). This is where absurdism splits from its sister, existentialism. Existentialists do not necessarily accept the absurd; they recognize it but may also possess an ethic or subscribe to some form of political ideology or dogmatism; something that may be argued to give their lives a guise of meaning.
Meursault can be thought of as, “an absurdist literary device” (Royal 5). This is exactly how Camus uses Meursault. The reader is presented with a series of episodes, which depict Meursault’s indifference to the world. The reader sees Meursault deal with a series of situations in a manner that is unique to the absurd man. With no knowledge of Camus’ philosophy, it is no wonder why so many readers are “shocked,” as Sartre describes it, upon reading the opening pages of The Stranger (Sartre 79).
A similar shock is had when readers meet Melville’s mysterious Bartleby. With no explanatory essay proceeding its publication, we are left to diagnose the strange character and explain his strangeness away with psychology such as Hannah Walser attempts in her article “The Behavior Character: Action without Consciousness in Melville’s ‘Bartleby.’” In her introduction she describes Bartleby as, “a thoroughly alien intruder into the world of Melville’s narrating lawyer” (312). And refers us to, “Deleuze’s characterization of Bartleby as a ‘pure outsider’ whose speech refuses any shared syntax” (Walser 312). A fitting description for Bartleby and its interesting to note that Camus’s L’Etranger, has been translated into English before as, The Outsider.
Bartleby is very much an outsider. He appears one morning at the narrator’s office threshold, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” (Melville 11). Bartleby refuses to conform to the ways of the office; his only protest comes in the form of his favorite phrase, “I would prefer not to.” A protest, which implies that Bartleby only does those things which he does prefer. Sartre writes, “the absurd man is a humanist; he knows only the good things of this world” (89). These “good things,” one must assume, would be preferred. It is very tempting to think of Bartleby as sad, distressed, or forlorn as that narrator suggests, but Bartleby gives us every indication that he is not. By never allowing himself a moment of dissatisfaction, one must assume, as Camus writes of Sisyphus, that he is happy (The Myth of Sisyphus 123).
Bartleby transcends the absurd in a way Meursault fails to until the very end of The Stranger. Upon waiting his execution, Meursault turns away from his last chance at hope or of providing meaning to his life. This is when he refuses the chaplain, who can be thought of as a physical symbol for hope or meaning (The Stranger 122). This is followed by the famously bewildering last passage, “I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consumed, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate” (The Stranger 123).
The cries of hate are a confirmation to Meursault that he has transcended society (or his fellow man) and has fully embraced the absurd. Bartleby is met with these same cries of hate, “‘Prefer not, eh?’ gritted Nippers-I’d prefer him, if I were you, sir,’ addressing me-‘I’d prefer him; I’d give him preferences, the stubborn mule! What is it, sir, pray, that he prefers not to do now?’” (Melville 26). Bartleby is unaffected by this, just as Meursault is unaffected by his inevitable doom, which, from Meursault’s point of view, is no doom at all. Meursault does not suffer in his final moments just as we must assume Bartleby is not suffering as the narrator insists,
And what at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach. (Melville 25)
Not only does the narrator presume Bartleby is suffering, he insists on the notion of a soul and further presumes that it needs some sort of saving. At this moment, Bartleby and Meursault share the same confrontation, that of a man of faith (however much that may be) insistent on “saving” them. The chaplain says to Meursault, in his prison cell, “Every stone here sweats with suffering, I know that. I have never looked at them without a feeling of anguish. But deep in my heart I know that the most wretched among you have seen a divine face emerge from their darkness. That is the face you are asked to see” (The Stranger 118-119). This is followed by Meursault’s passionate argument against the chaplain. Meursault, at this point, is still accepting the absurd. Bartleby has fully accepted it. This is why there is no passionate show given from him when Nippers insults him or Turkey threatens to “black his eyes” (Melville 18). Bartleby has transcended the expectations of his fellow man the same way Meursault does by the end of the novel.
Perhaps the strongest thematic link between “Bartleby” and The Stranger is the use and imagery of the prison. Bartleby’s office is little more than a prison; even the windows show only more walls. Bartleby not only exists contently in this prison, he refuses to leave it. The narrator often describes Bartleby staring out of his window for long periods of time. A great portion of chapter two, part one of The Stranger deals with Meursault looking out of his window. He spends his entire Sunday doing it. Chapter two, part two of The Stranger mirrors this prolonged meditation of sorts, only Meursault now occupies his prison cell and, like Bartleby, has only walls to look at,
Sometimes I would get to thinking about my room, and in my imagination I would start at one corner and circle the room, mentally noting everything there was on the way. At first it didn’t take long. But every time I started over, it took a little longer. I would remember every piece of furniture; and on every piece of furniture, every object; and of every object, all the details; and of the details themselves—a flake, a crack, or a chipped edge—the color and the texture. (The Stranger 78-79)
Despite the lack of scenery or as the lawyer puts it, despite being “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life,’” one can understand how the absurd man may exist happily in even the most bleak environments. Meursault recedes into his mind realizing that, “after awhile you could get used to anything” (The Stranger 77). Bartleby’s stoic behavior suggests a similar realization.
As Camus asks us to imagine Sisyphus as happy, I ask to imagine Bartleby as fully experiencing the myriad “inert present moments” (a phrase Sartre uses to describe The Stranger’s structure) that make up his life. Bartleby is more than Sisyphus. He does not resign himself happily to the absurdity of his life but completely transcends it. He lets his bolder roll to the bottom of the hill and leaves it, telling the gods, “I would prefer not to.” The same way Meursault refuses to give into the fear of death or of some spiritual damnation. While before, Meursault lived similarly to Sisyphus; he rolled his bolder up the hill and took pleasure in the walk back down. His life was divided between pointless labor and pointless pleasure, and he chose what to focus on, what to make of his experiences. Bartleby may have, no – must have at one point lived in a similar matter. Perhaps during his time at the Dead Letter Office. But by the time both the reader and narrator are introduced to him, Bartleby has become the absurd man. He stares at the walls of his prison and goes over every crack, flake, or chipped edge. He lives solely in the present and, much like Camus, possesses a sense of the sacred and no belief of a future life.
Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1983. Print.
Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Trans. Matthew Ward. New York: Vintage International, 1989. Print.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby.” Billy Budd: And Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 1986. 3-46. Print.
Royal, Robert. “The other Camus.” The Wilson Quarterly 19.4 (1995): 53+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 May 2015.
Sartre, Jean-Paul, John Kulka, and Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre. “A Commentary on The Stranger.” Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. 73-98. Print.
Thody, Philip. “Albert Camus: A Study of His Work.” Albert Camus: A Study of His Work (1957). Grove Press, Inc, 1959. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism Select. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 May 2015.
Walser, Hannah. “The Behaviorist Character: Action Without Consciousness In Melville’s “Bartleby.” Narrative23.3 (2015): 312-332. Literary Reference Center. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.