Bartleby–Group 2

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Bartelby ends up in the Tombs, NYC’s primary prison. — Johann Gabriel Friedrich Poppel, William Heine, The Tombs, Halls of Justice, 1850, engraving, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Trinity Church stands at the end of Wall Street. The narrator plans to attend services there one Sunday, until he finds Bartleby in his office. That office could be in one of the buildings (many of them banks) that you see. –From the NYPL, 1849.

As the slides point out, Bartleby takes place mostly within the lawyer/narrator’s chambers, but also creates a sense of what it feels like to live through NYC’s emergence as a commercial/capitalist powerhouse. The narrator and others have to contemplate new kinds of human relationships, dangers to mental health, and notions of sympathy and necessity in the workplace. The Tombs and Trinity Church both get mentioned in the story. Are the illustrations above consistent with the feel of the city in Bartleby, or do they present a different vision of it? Write a paragraph or two explaining why one of them reflects or contradicts the mood of Bartleby. Look for visual details not generalizations. If others have commented on the images before you, don’t just repeat them or simply agree. Look to add something new that will elaborate on the previous comment or see the picture and its relationship to the text in a different way.

6 thoughts on “Bartleby–Group 2

  1. Colston Merrell

    Something I found to be particularly discomfiting with the conclusion of Bartleby was the way in which the titular scrivener’s fate feels both timeless and contemporary, at once stemming from a precise moment in history and communicating a feeling of alienation that seems far too terrifying to chalk up to something like urbanization. When I look at the image of the Tombs, above, I get a similar feeling. This is a building that seems to take its architectural cues from bygone eras, with hulking sides and great columns that jut out curiously beneath the rolling sky. The look of the prison is so incompatible with the natural world around it (and even the quaint signs of city life we can see at its edges) that it stands out immediately as something man-made. At the same time, though, it’s hard to imagine human beings making anything so colossal, permanent, and unfeeling. Bartleby’s narrator describes the “Egyptian nature of [the Tombs’] masonry” as something that carries an emotional weight, that bears down on the people within and around it with a gloom that is as inexplicable as it is real. This is a building where humans go to feel small, to be made to forget that they’re humans, not unlike the “soft imprisoned” grass that is still living there, sparsely, somehow, if only by “some strange magic.”

  2. Andreya Zvonar

    Poppel’s 1850 engraving of The Tombs (Halls of Justice) presents well the feel of the city through its chiaroscuro, but contradicts the reader’s perception of New York as a growing metropolis due to its larger composition.

    Firstly, the engraving emphasizes light and dark tones. Its brightest tone is pure white and its darkest is pitch back. On one hand, this allows The Tombs (central composition, light shade) to immediately attract the viewer’s eye. On the other hand, this emphasizes the bleak and dark appearance of the surrounding city. Questions of adequate light, openness, and cleanliness come to mind. In Bartleby, the Scrivener, Melville answers these exact questions when he describes the Lawyer’s home. He mentions a “skylight shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom”, which is a response to the inherent darkness of a growing city where buildings begin to push up against one another (Melville 5). The architecture, Melville writes, is devoid of life, and one feels “the height of surrounding buildings” (5). Again, this suggests darkness, and close quarters. Lastly, the negative space between the Lawyer’s building and the adjacent building resembles that of a “huge square cistern” (5). The comparison to a cistern suggests that the city is dirty – a feeling reflected in the dark shadows of the engraving. Furthermore, the play on dark versus light tones reflects the Lawyer’s perception of The Tombs. Upon seeing Bartleby in the courtyard, he notes: “I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves” (31). If one were to visualize this scene, they might imagine Bartleby bathing in the sunlight of the open courtyard, while dark and tight nooks and crannies surround him. This is reflected in the composition of the engraving, which despite being an exterior view, has The Tombs (Bartleby) in light, and New York (those who imprisoned him) in dark. Melville’s use of light begs the question of Bartleby’s innocence. After all, Bartleby is honest, orderly, and by no means a criminal.

    Nevertheless, Poppel’s use of two-point perspective provides a sense of openness. Similarly, the sky, which takes the upper two thirds of the composition, further emphasizes an inherent airiness to the city. These elements of the greater composition contradict the reader’s general perception of New York as a tight cluster of buildings and people. In contrast, the one-point perspective illustration of Trinity Church shows the cluster of a growing city well. Despite this contradiction in mood, the architectural details of the engraving are in line with Melville’s description. The Corinthian columns are symbolic of justice (hence the name ‘Halls of Justice’), while the heavy stonework reflects the Lawyer’s observation that “the surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them” (Melville 33).

    To conclude, Poppel’s engraving supports the mood Melville presents while its greater composition contradicts the reader’s perception of the development of New York. Despite the Corinthian columns in the engraving, the Lawyer notes the “Egyptian character of the masonry” of The Tombs. Melville also describes the setting as the “eternal pyramids” (33). I wonder what is Egyptian about the masonry, as it seems more classical to me. Perhaps it is a larger symbolic ending, as the pharaohs were buried in the pyramids, and Bartleby dies in The Tombs.

  3. Carl Langaker

    I am struck by the grandeur of the Tombs, as the rest of the buildings in the image pale in comparison. The reading seems to communicate that Bartleby is the victim of a system that is actively working against him; his refusal to conform to the standards expected of him by the lawyer/narrator is what ultimately leads to his downfall. Getting sent to the tombs therefore feels like it should represent some sort of symbolic excommunication – I imagine that the Tombs are a dark and grimy place, housing New York’s worst criminals. As the lawyer notes upon visiting Bartleby, “peering out upon him [were] the eyes of murderers and thieves” (27). However, the illustration above instead makes the Tombs look civilized, as if it were a city hall or a library – it stands out from the rest of the buildings through its size, pillars, and its distinct white coat of paint (could alternatively be some sort of rock/mineral?). I believe that this contradicts the mood, because this reading feels like a commentary on the perceived importance of adhering to societal standards, where inability to do so leads to one’s downfall (getting sent to prison), yet here The Tombs seems to be the nicest place of all.

    Another thing that I found interesting was how a majority of the people in the illustration seem to be looking at the Tombs from a distance. This feels more in line with the mood of the reading, where Bartleby’s refusal to work (let alone move) is the subject of everyone’s scrutiny. In general, everyone in the reading is terrified of disrupting the flow of business – we see this in particular after the lawyer moves offices in order to avoid Bartleby, at which point the new tenants are in a state of hysteria, exclaiming that “every body is concerned; clients are leaving the offices; some fears are entertained of a mob” (25). Though Bartleby has a small presence, he still attracts the attention of everyone around him, much like how the people stare at the Tombs in the illustration above. I believe that this can be interpreted as symbolizing how the average person fears the consequences of veering away from societal norms, which is both represented by Bartleby and the Tombs.

  4. Annabella Twomey

    I found that the etching of the Trinity Church, and the visual surroundings, was reflective of the tone and themes of “Bartleby.” The overall mood of the etching is gloomy, with dark shadows, dark clouds, and muted colors, all indicative of the dreary, monotonous tasks that occupy Turkey, Ginger Nut, and Nippers in their daily work as scriveners. At the forefront of the painting are etchings of several different people, animals, and horse-drawn carriages. The etching depicts the business/capitalistic nature of the time , with a crowded street as everyone is passing by each other, unaware of each other and regarding the other outsiders as strangers, while also clearly having a set task and goal in mind as they all go about their various tasks. Additionally, the surrounding architecture and positioning of the etching depicts a large, looming church, with uniform, similar-looking buildings on either side. The style and position of the buildings give an illusion of being trapped as all of these shapeless, detail-less faces are trapped in the monotony of the capitalistic characteristics of New York at this time.

  5. Elizabeth Srulevich

    In the “Trinity Church, from Wall Street” illustration, Trinity Church is overwhelmingly taller than and distinctively different in architecture from the buildings surrounding it, looming over the commercial hustle and bustle in the foreground like an intimidating reminder that God is always watching. In “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” the character of Bartleby is like the Church in the image, cutting through his surroundings like a steeple. Bartleby contrasts the mindset of commodification and exploitation (the image’s foreground) as a non-productive, ascetic shadow lurking behind the action (the Church). Also, the image is from the perspective of Wall Street observing Trinity Church, and of course, the story is told from the perspective of the Wall Street lawyer observing the God-like, impenetrable, mesmerizing Bartleby.

    Anyway, I’ll stop drawing analogies, even though there are many more to make. Because I noticed more similarities between the image and the story than I saw differences, I’m going with the verdict that the illustration reflects the story’s mood more than it contrasts it.

  6. Michael Taylor

    The etching of Trinity Church seems consistent with the symbolic setting of Bartleby. The church looms in the background of Wall Street, unacknowledged by the crowds on the steps of nearby banks but nevertheless dominating the New York skyline. This physical depiction of the church, the manifest symbol of ordered social behavior, matches the narrator’s psychological relationship to the mores and rituals of early capitalist New York. The narrator identifies such rituals as the unspoken, common assumptions that facilitate the social and business relationship of his day (Melville, 19-20). It is exactly Bartleby’s failure to adhere to these common assumptions of “gentlemanly organization,” compounded by the narrator’s inability to communicate these assumptions directly to Bartleby, that provides the climactic narrative schism which drives the narrator to move buildings and precipitates Bartleby’s demise (20-21).

    Another analogy can be drawn between the etching of Trinity Church and the role of religion in Bartleby. Although the church dominates the Wall Street skyline, the banks that are built in front of it appear in the process of eclipsing the church entirely; the bank facades are painted in light while the church disappears into shadow. Likewise, commercial interests proceed to eclipse religious and spiritual concerns in Bartleby. For example, not only does the narrator fail in his one effort to go to church, but he also, while considering “the divine injunction… to charity and philanthropy,” has to defend charity for its “mere self-interest” in light of its perceived lack of inherent value. (21). Bartleby illustrates the metaphor of spiritual corruption as its sacrificial victim, as well. He wastes away in the warrens of the Tombs – its Egyptian revival style evocative perhaps of the biblical Israelites’ own internment, starved to death despite the material nourishment offered to him by the narrator through Mr. Cutlets (29). Indeed, as the narrator notes earlier, “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” (15). Just as Trinity Church appears to be eclipsed by the banks in the etching, so too do material concerns crowd out humanitarian and spiritual concerns in Bartleby.

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