Bartleby–Group 4

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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.

5 thoughts on “Bartleby–Group 4

  1. Alexander Merrill

    The Trinity Church drawing reminds me of Bartleby in its style, however the content of the drawing does not match my sense of the story.

    I’m not sure exactly what was used to create the Trinity Church drawing, but it looks like a classic fountain pen with ink, which makes me think of Bartleby and his peers copying legal documents all day. The proportions of the paper also bring up associations with old legal documents which furthers this association to the copyists. Furthermore, the shading style of the drawing seems like it would be very tedious to do, and has a certain precision which furthers the similarities I see in the drawing to the story.

    On the other hand, the communal nature of the gatherings and people in the street contrast my experience of the story. We see people talking to each other in multiple different groups, a dog is running around, and there are horse and buggies driving through the street. There also aren’t very many people in the drawing, creating a more communal feel than a bustling city street. The story has a sense of isolation throughout, which likely stems from what the lawyer sees in himself as well as in Bartley and the world around him. For example, the lawyer’s relationship with Bartleby is driven by his fascination over Bartleby’s strange behavior and polite denials to do work, leave the office, etc. It is not driven by any sort of personal connection or friendship between the two men. This contrasts the feel of the drawing in that I sense the people in the street know each other and are a part of the same community.

  2. Jacob Morton

    At first, this image of the Tombs clashed with my personal envisioning of it–however there was one passage on pages 28-29 that prompted my reconsideration. Melville writes, “The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew under foot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the clefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.” This Egyptian motif toyed with throughout these two sentences–though only employed as somewhat of a passing detail in both–is the only description in the entire story that aesthetically aligns with this picture. In other words, if it weren’t for those two sentences, my perception of the prison would be way off; I would imagine its entire architectural aesthetic to be far more typically urbanized. Indeed, I agree with Henry above that the picture “contradicts the visual feel of the piece”–however less due to its prevalence of open space–more due to its distinctly Egyptian-inspired design. Everything from the patterned columns to the pyramid-esque steps–even its coloring (or lack thereof) is reminiscent of limestone, thanks to its yellowish hue. It feels like a classic Hollywood film-set construction of an Egyptian tomb for some mummy serial–a sensationalist ambience which couldn’t be less comparable to the short story’s general atmosphere. After all, Bartleby is a very urban/industrial tale. However, when I looked through the slides I got hooked on the info about the era’s emphasis on the literary sensationalism of crime–a writing style that almost genrefied narratives of con men and the urban underbelly. Thusly, the ancient Egyptian Tomb-like motif oddly befits this sensationalism–especially considering that Mr. Cutlets comments on how the prison contains “gentleman forgers”–the exact type of urban con men that Melville and others were genrefying with their writing. The Tombs bears an almost sensationalistic aesthetic.

  3. Mae Ryan

    Initially, I thought that the image of Trinity Church and Wall Street was not consistent with the mood of Bartleby, specifically because of the figures on the street. Much of the story occurs within the office where, as Henry and Gordon said, the characters appear very isolated and confined from other people. They seem very literally removed from the outside world because of their lack of view through their windows and are even removed from each other by the closing doors and a folding screen. The image above portrays a much more bustling city scene with lots of movement and human interaction. However, after thinking about Bartleby more, I think that the image and the narrator’s description are fairly consistent. The narrator describes a street with large buildings that “hums with industry and life” (13). There are instances where we see how this outside world filled with people impacts the narrator. When people begin to gossip about Bartleby and refer to him as a “strange creature” (22) inhabiting the narrator’s office, the narrator’s thoughts spiral out of control and he decides he must rid himself of Bartleby. We again see this outside influence when the narrator refuses to acknowledge that he knows Bartleby until he becomes too afraid of “being exposed in the papers” (25). Therefore, although these people are not often physically present in the isolated world of the narrator, we still feel their presence and influence on the narrator as readers.

  4. Gordon Lewis

    It seems to me that the depictions of New York City are played up a bit for Melville’s audience. As mentioned in the slides, books that were popular at the time often contained exaggerated images of this bustling new metropolis, and I think Melville channels that sort of energy into this story in order to amplify the feelings of insanity and claustrophobia he is trying to make the reader experience.

    Certainly, when looking at the images above one can discern the artists’ intentions of demonstrating that New York City was a busy place – multiple horse-drawn carriages crossing both sides of the streets, crowds of people gathered around the steps of tall, imposing buildings all squeezed together next to each other – but these images don’t capture the same feelings of isolation, don’t describe the insanity or lunacy that the narrator and his employees felt cooped up in their law office, mechanically reproducing long legal documents by hand day after day. By sensationalizing how cramped and locked up denizens of New York City were through the descriptions of the narrator’s law office and the (from the narrator’s perspective) peculiar habits of the office’s inhabitants, Melville successfully conveys these feelings of social isolation due to the rapid changes in the city to the reader.

  5. Henry Mooers

    I feel as though the image labeled “The Tombs”, despite being the final resting place for Bartleby in the story, contradicts the visual ‘feel’ of the piece. The picture overlooks a wide open space, with a broad sweeping sky, a large front courtyard, and spacious street. Groups of figures in the picture seem to have sufficient enough space between them such that there is not much of an appearance clutter or density.

    While reading through the piece, however, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of confinement, both in terms of the literal descriptions offered, and also the subject matter of the story. The majority of the passage takes place in the narrator’s office. There is not much description of any sort of light or fresh air; one of the only exceptions to this being the description offered by the narrator of Bartleby’s space. Even if this case, the mention of light was used to call attention to the lack thereof, rather than emphasize its presence.

    In terms of the fashion in which the piece is written, it is my view that much of the narrative takes place within the mind of the narrator himself, and centers upon his thoughts. It was this consistent, and often lengthy internal monologue that further gave me a sense of confinement while reading the piece. Stretches of dialogue felt purposely short, as if to cement this closed-off feeling. Overall, the relatively open space display in the image of The Tombs is in contrast to the feel of the piece.

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