Bartleby–Group 3

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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.

7 thoughts on “Bartleby–Group 3

  1. Michael Frank

    While only described in brief, the Tombs sound like an externally pleasant location. As the narrator explains to Bartleby, “this should not be so vile a place.” Trying to lift his associate’s spirits, he says “Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.” Looking at the sketch provided, one might not doubt this assessment of the location. The toll that imprisonment takes on Bartleby is in complete contrast to the Tombs’ facade.
    To a pedestrian on the streets of New York, the building blends neatly into the skyline, both in Hemingway’s time and our own. As the narrator himself states, however, “happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay.” Ugly places like the Tombs have a way of nicely blending into our world.

  2. Dan Cielak

    I think that the Trinity Church image substantiates the text and reaffirms the narrator’s perspective as he is speaking about his occupation at a time when New York was undergoing a large cultural transformation. The structure of the church in the image seems to affirm the rigidness and order of a city that is preparing itself to be an industrial powerhouse. Likewise, the design of the church seems to evoke a deep sense of hierarchy. This feeling suits the story particularly well because the narrator is a lawyer who cares deeply about how he is perceived by others in his field. That is why it troubles him so much when Bartleby’s presence in his office seems to make his colleagues so uncomfortable. I also like the image because of its simple details; the smoke coming from the chimney from the building on the left propels this sense of industry I began to associate the narrative because of the narrator’s insistence on efficiency and doing one’s job; the narrator heavily emphasizes how distraught he is by Bartleby’s resistance to do the work he assigns him. The differing shades of clouds hovering over the other buildings cast a gloomy mood to the image which substantiates the narrative as it is about mental health and the dangers of being in isolation. The overcast weather mimics the internal struggle of the narrator after observing Bartleby’s strange behavior as he is so overwhelmed about how to address his problem. Finally, the contrast between the white buildings and the dark church itself are noteworthy as they demonstrate a visual dichotomy between the narrator’s anger/ sympathy/ confusion/ love for Bartleby.

  3. Alexandra Lawson

    The overall feel of the Trinity Church and street surrounding it is consistent with Melville’s depiction of it in Bartleby. The dark nature of the image mirrors both with the cold and unattached interactions between individuals on Wall Street, and the lawyers literal description of his surroundings. In depicting the office the lawyer describes a window which viewed a “lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade… pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes” (2). The lawyer goes on to describe the “great height of the surrounding buildings” (2). The towering nature of the buildings, especially that of the dark Trinity Church, builds an ominous feel of the street in the image. It seems a place not of love or compassion but of work and disconnect. This is similar to the day-to-day activities described of the office, where the lawyer identifies his work as something for “unambitious lawyers” who live in a “cool tranquility of a snug retreat” (1). Transcribing long legal documents is not something particularly stimulating or rewarding, and such a task is something I would imagine being done in a sort of dark and uninteresting location, much like is shown in the illustration. I agree with Will’s comment on the unidentifiable figures in the illustration. Similar to the separation of business and life described in Bartleby, all of the individuals in the painting appear to be either moving quickly somewhere or engaged in a conversation with another individual. Each of these people look relatively similar, and do not have any distinctive features. Like those in Bartleby, they appear to be defined by what they are doing, presumably their work. In fact, without the looming Trinity Church, the illustration could really represent any street at all, and I think that this lack of specificity captures the overall feel of darkness and insignificance described by the lawyer.

  4. William Koch

    I think the image of Trinity Church is pretty consistent with the narrator’s perspective of events in the story. Given that he operates within the constructs of Wall Street capitalism, he expresses a surprising amount of sympathy towards Bartleby. Even his more erratic outbursts and immoral thoughts as the story progresses (e.g. entertaining thoughts of killing Bartleby) carry tones of mercy and “sweet charity’s sake” rather than malice (21). Still, the narrator does act within a capitalist rationale, placing the success of his enterprise above the care of Bartleby. I don’t necessarily think he is wrong for doing so; he certainly complies with the expectations of a mid-19th century Wall Street lawyer. I agree with Joseph’s observations that the dark clouds surrounding the church is an image that is tonally similar to Melville’s account. A similar observation can be made about the darkness of the street at the center of the image. I think, too, that the unidentifiable figures in the image are consistent with the tone and time of the story; in a burgeoning capitalist New York, one certainly expects a level of anonymity. I am most interested, however, by how the figures interact, or rather DON’T interact with the church. They all face and move in different directions and operate in pairs (perhaps orchestrating some sort of business transaction), seemingly disregarding the foreboding church. As the narrator’s actions in the story suggest, sympathy comes secondary to economics. The church, despite being the subject of the image, is largely ignored by the people on the street.

  5. Joseph Levine

    The above illustration of Trinity Church presents the building as a monolithic beacon piercing through the dark clouds above Wall Street. It towers above the surrounding banks, and the cross on its spire looks down over the cities’ happenings below. When I imagined the church while reading the story, I envisioned a far less glorious picture. In my mind, the church was dwarfed by the banks and buildings surrounding it, both literally and figuratively, and rather than piercing a darkened sky, I pictured a lingering gloom hovered above it. It seemed unimaginable that any spirituality could be found in a place as banal and oppressive as 19th century Wall Street. This was reinforced by the scene where the narrator finds Bartleby in his office on a Sunday morning. After finding Bartleby there, the narrator is so disturbed by the experience that he chooses to not go to the church afterwards, claiming “the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going” (Melville 15). I read this as being tongue-in-cheek by Melville, but it nonetheless reinforces the idea that the clash with Bartleby is existential and spiritual in nature. Bartleby is challenging the narrator’s conception of normalcy and obedience, and what better example of blind obedience than going to a church? Of course, confronting Bartleby’s lucidity leaves the narrator inert and fleeing for his home away from the church. Perhaps the image of the church in the story is to show an antique form of indoctrination, with the banks surrounding it being the new arbiters of obedience. In that way, the church is no escape, but rather an appeal to an alternative submission.

  6. Haley Glover

    The perspective of the narrator warps the landscape to benefit both his conscience and his imagined well being of Bartleby. For example, when describing the Tombs, the narrator veils the grounds with an idyllic light because Bartleby in the Tombs is a return to the normalcy and order of New York. Unlike the “spacious grounds” and “cool apartments” Mr. Cutlet describes the Tombs as, the image shows a demanding structure of reinforced stone walls and pillars imprisoning those inside. (Melville 28) Rather than recognizing these walls as confinements, the narrator describes a tranquil silence provided by such structures. The narrator states, “the yard was entirely quiet. It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them” (Melville 28). Further, when the narrator does recognize Bartleby’s imprisonment, he chooses to focus on an imagined enclosed paradise. The narrator states, “the Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew under foot” (Melville 28). Even when faced with the gloom of the Tombs, the narrator’s conscience produces positive details to craft an imagined peaceful environment for Bartleby who he feels indebted to. The narrator’s description of the tombs noticeably ignores the structure of the Tombs itself and instead looks to the sky and grass, pockets of freedom in the dominating structure pictured. To live with his guilt, the narrator imagines an imprisoned freedom, and a place of peace where the nonconforming Bartleby can belong in the emerging capitalistic society of New York.

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