The Pathology of Bartleby

Autism in Herman Melville's Bartleby, The Scrivener

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 19 Pages

American Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. Historical Roots of Modern Psychology and Melville’s Fictional Constructs

III. Bartleby’s Pathology
1) Definition Of Psychological Terms
a) Schizophrenia
2) Bartleby’s Mental Disorder
a) Schizophrenia
b) Autism

IV. Summary

Works Cited
I. Primary Sources
II. Secondary Sources

I. Introduction

When Melville wrote Bartleby, The Scrivener, he was in a state of intense despair and a feeling of rejection had come over him because his former works such as Moby Dick and Pierre had not received the attention and appreciation he had expected. Many critics consider Melville‘s failure to reach the contemporary readership to have influenced his later works such as the Piazza Tales (Dan McCall, The Silence Of Bartleby., p. 38) . Some even regard the figure of Bartleby as a personification of the author (Robert Rogers, A Psychoanalytic Reading Of The Double In Literature. Detroit/Michigan: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1970, p. 67-68). Most critics agree that Bartleby is one of the most interesting characters of nineteenth century literature, also in a psychological point of view. In contrast to religious, philological or other approaches, psychoanalytic criticism is an especially anachronistic approach: Melville did not have the means of modern psychology to describe and explain such illnesses as schizophrenia, autism and similar personality disorders. Bartleby, The Scrivener is a fictional work of art while a psychological explanation of Bartleby’s illness is scientific.

In psychoanalytic criticism there are three possible objects of analysis: The author (a so-called psycho-biographical approach), the fictional characters and the readership (Oxford Encycl 823). My main focus will be on the figure of Bartleby along with the narrator who is considered by some critics to be a „psychological double“ of Bartleby and vice-versa (Rogers, Psychological Double, p. 67). Firstly, I will draw a rough summary of the transition from moral philosophy to psychology and situate Melville in that historical context and show how this influenced his worldview and accordingly, his works. Then I will make brief definitions of the mental illnesses schizophrenia and autistic disorder which are relevant for my textual analysis. The main body of this work will be the textual (psycho-)analysis of Bartleby, The Scrivener, where I will try to determine in how far Bartleby is mentally ill, how Melville reflects this fact in his language and imagery and which role the narrator plays in this context.

II. Historical Roots of Modern Psychology and Melville’s Fictional Constructs

Melville wrote Bartleby, The Scrivener in 1851, almost 40 years before the beginning of modern psychology in America. Therefore he did not have the modern terminology of scientific psychological theories, but he was influenced by the contemporary moral philosophies of Emerson, Hawthorne, Schopenhauer and others which already dealt with the unconcious, although in a speculative rather than empirical and scientific way. Melville was very interested in contemporary „psychology“ and read Burton’s Anatomy Of Melancholy, Lemuel Shaw’s Commonwealth vs. Rogers court case in which a definition of psychological terms such as monomania is made (McCall, Silence Of Bartleby, p. 53). The time during which Melville wrote Bartleby was a time in which the ideas of Enlightenment challenged orthodox religious ways to explain the world, which was based on facts and evidence rather than on assumptions (Martin Bickman, American Romantic Psychology - Emerson, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville. 2nd edition, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1988, p. 152). But this does not mean that science replaced religion but it rather arised from religion. To be more concrete, psychology is nowadays regarded to have been derived from the ideas of Revivalism and set in motion by the Protestant preoccupation with understanding how human will and subjectivity actually work. Protestantism changed the major focus from God to humanity and psychology was seen as a means to strengthen the foundations of religion by focusing on the divine in the human soul. Melville was influenced by this notions and weaved them into his works. While Melville therefore lived in a time where „psychology“ was still based on the notion that the mind was a „storebox of faculties“ he often broke free from this limitations and intuitively took a modern psychological approach towards his characters although he of course used other terms than in modern psychology (McCall, Silence Of Bartleby, p. 54). He preconceived modern psychological theories such as Freud’s idea of the subconcious in a symbolical way and attempted to observe the behaviour of his fellow beings and society in an unprejudiced and objective way without trying to explain them rationally and placing them into stereotypical categories. Some critics consider Melville’s works also to be a form self-therapy for his own mental and spiritual crises: Adamson thinks that Melville tried to deal with his feelings of deep shame, guilt and concealment by being as frank and uninhibited as possible in his novels in a symbolic way (Joseph Adamson, Melville, Shame And The Evil Eye – A Psychoanalytic Reading, New York: Univ. Press, 1997, p. 295 ff.).

Important psychological aspects of Melville’s images are their ambiguity, ambivalence, incompleteness and resonance (Bickman, American Romantic Psychology, p. 151). Interpretations of Melville’s works reveal that his images can be explained in various ways. Some critics see in Bartleby a religious Christ or Hindu figure (Rowe 119-120), others regard him as a symbol of modern alienated man (Friedman, p. 64, in: Howard P. Vincent, A Symposium: Bartleby, The Scrivener. Kent: Kent State Univ. Press, 1966) and still others diagnose Bartleby as a schizophrenic, catatonic type (Bejap. 557, in: Massachusetts Review, , p. 9, in: Howard P. Vincent, A Symposium: Bartleby, The Scrivener. ORT: Kent State Univ. Press, 1966), some of them treating the character of Bartleby as if he was a real life psychological case study and not a fictional figure. The ambiguity of Melville’s images and language may also represent his awareness that the subconcious does not „speak“ or reveal itself in unambigious forms. As Brodhead illustrates with Melville’s Mardi, Melville had a faith in the imagination’s automatic creation of its own valid forms which he also calls „instincts“ which reminds of Freud’s idea of the subconcious and the role that symbols play in that context (Brodhead). Melville’s imagery often comes to represent the darker sides of human sexuality and minutely describes the oral, anal and genital world which stands in close resonance to Freud’s theory of the underlying of sexuality in language and symbols (McCall, Silence Of Bartleby, p. 43-45). Freud himself said that he only interpreted the symbols that poets (and novelists) have written through their subconcious visions (McCall, Silence Of Bartleby, p. 49; Bickman, American Romantic Psychology, p. 151). Freud was one of the first who had the notion that much of human behaviour is subconciously motivated and irrational (STAGNER, History Of Psychology, p. 292) and exactly this „deeper layer“ is what also interested Melville most. Although various psychological issues were being taught already in the late seventeeth century, the definite beginning of the era of American psychology had its beginning with William James‘ work The Principles Of Psychology, which was published in 1890 (STAGNER, History Of Psychology, p. 99-100). The influence of psychology on literature is apparent in the novels of his brother Henry James, who was considered by many to write „like a psychologist“ (Stagner, History Of Psychology, p. 100).

III. Bartleby’s Pathology

In this section I will analyze of what psychological disorder the figure Bartleby suffers from.

1) Definition Of Psychological Terms

a) Schizophrenia

A person suffering from schizophrenia shows various symptoms which involve disturbances in several major areas, such as perception, thought, motor, attention, emotion and life functioning (Gerald C. Davison, Abnormal Psychology. Ed. John M. Neale et al., rev. 6th edition, New York: Wiley&Sons, 1996, p. 389). The symptoms are categorized into positive, negative and further symptoms (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 390). Positive symptoms are those which distinguish schizophrenic people from mentally normal persons in form of excesses such as disorganized and confused speech, delusions and hallucinations, all for an extended period of time and without drug abuse (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 420). Negative symptoms are behavioral deficits (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 420). Because the negative symptoms are more relevant for my work I will deal with them in more detail. One important negative symptom is avolition, which means that the person is lacking energy and suffers from apathy (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 392). Such persons have difficulties in sustaining a work chore and often sit or stand around doing nothing at all (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 392-93). A further symptom is alogia, a poverty of content and quantity of and the repetitive use of simple phrases. Schizophrenic people are very slow in responding to questions and often do not respond at all (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 393). Also, they are often unable to experience any pleasure and do not seek to make their life more comfortable and pleasurable, which is called anhedonia (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 393). They only show flat affect which means that virtually no external stimulus can elicit a strong emotional response from them. Their speech is flat and toneless, they have a vacant stare and their eyes are lifeless (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 393). In extreme cases, schizophrenics switch from phases of complete immobility in uncomfortable positions to phases of hysterical, wild excitement, which is called catatonia (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 397). If this symptoms of motor disturbances and further negative symptoms predominate, it is called Catatonic Schizophrenia (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 397).

The reasons for this severe disorder are still not fully understood (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 389). Most scientists regard schizophrenia as mainly genetically determined, therefore inherited from the family, which would mean that one cannot do much about it (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 400). It mostly begins with adolescence and the trigger for its outbreak may be stressful events, which the fragile ego of the schizophrenic cannot handle (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 412). Some regard it as a regression to a communication pattern of earlier childhood in order to flee from the stress of interpersonal challenges (Davison, Abnormal Psychology, p. 415). Others like R. D. Laing consider schizophrenia to be a kind of „tactic“, similar to neuroses, in order to flee from the pain of reality.



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University of Göttingen
Pathology Bartleby Autism Herman Melville Scrivener




Title: The Pathology of Bartleby