Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 2 of 2)

In my previous post I began to discuss the wonderful short story by Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ (You can find it for free online, on Project Gutenberg.) Following a great many caveats, I suggested that to assume that Bartleby was autistic (had he been a real person living today, that is) is not an outrageous notion. His many eccentricities, as these are noted and interpreted by the (neurotypical) narrator, seem to indicate a neurological-developmental difference in Bartleby; one that today would very likely be deemed an autism spectrum condition.

Also in that post (oh just go ahead and read it, it’s not very long), I mentioned the claim that Melville himself may very well have had the traits that would qualify him for an autism diagnosis today. If that is indeed the case, then Bartleby is essentially a story of an autistic person, told by a neurotypical narrator, who is in turn written by an autistic author. It is autism seen from the eyes of neurotypicality as seen through the eyes of an autistic person. This makes for a fascinating focus for a blog on autism from a social anthropology perspective; a perspective that emphasizes social relationships and social dynamics, as well as the different points of view that people from various social, cultural and – yes – neurological groups have on themselves and of others.

So let’s begin. Finally.

Possibly the most prominent theme in Bartleby is the lawyer’s/narrator’s constant and ongoing struggle to understand Bartleby. Initially merely feeling perplexed and baffled by Bartleby’s determined yet polite refusal to adhere to his boss’s requests (“I would prefer not to”), the lawyer realizes that this is not done as a provocation; it is not an act of impertinence or disrespect. This realization makes it easier for him to excuse Bartleby’s disobedience. But he still doesn’t understand why Bartleby refuses. Choosing to make no further assumptions without compelling evidence (very anthropological of him), he decides the best course of action would be to simply ask Bartleby. Surely, if the scrivener has good reasons to refuse to do his job, he shall share them with his employer. But no such luck. “I would prefer not to”, Bartleby once again replies. And again. And again.

This word, “prefer”, which appears in various forms 47 times throughout the story, seems to fascinate Melville as the characters in his tale all take the habit of using it themselves quite frequently.  Not unaware of the massive effect that this single word had on him and his other employees, the lawyer tries to make sense of its gripping influence – but unfortunately, to not real avail. So just to have a bit of fun, I’ll give it a go myself, if you don’t mind: “Prefer” seems to denote a somewhat flexible approach to a matter. A personal inclination that’s not bound by any rule or law. As such, it is seen as more or less contingent; preferences change. But Bartleby’s preference doesn’t change. Ever. Not even when his life is put on the line, and he is imprisoned and at the point of near starvation. Unlike other people’s, Bartleby’s preference is a solid as a rock. Moreover, when someone has a preference, it is expected that there be a reason behind it. “Why do you refuse?” inquires the lawyer. “I would prefer not to”, Bartleby frustratingly repeats himself. Without an apparent reason behind it, and without a prospect of it ever changing, Bartleby’s preference gains almost mystical powers, against which there is nothing the lawyer feels he can do. Had Bartleby simply “refused”, he would have been instantly let go and be over with, as the lawyer himself admits. Had he stated a reason for him preferring “not to”, he may have won his employer’s sympathies, and been allowed to loiter idly in his office to his heart’s content. But he had done neither; thus, unable to fully resent Bartleby or fully accept him, his employer is left in a perpetual state of liminality – suspended between empathy and anger, kindness and cruelty, care and pity, determination and inaction.

There is something very telling about the fact that it is the lawyer, and not Bartleby, who seems to struggle most in this story. It is him who constantly questions and negotiates his own morality, on the basis of his relationship with Bartleby. Bartleby, on his part, is quite serene. He knows who he is and what he wants; and it is the very fact that he is so resolute about this that arouses such extreme and contradictory emotions in the lawyer. With which of his two main characters does Melville sympathize more, I wonder? Hard to say, really. While diametrically opposed in almost every way, both the lawyer and the scrivener are portrayed as generally positive characters. Well if that’s the case, what is the problem? What is the source for all the tension, drama, and ultimate tragedy that occur in the story?  Is it Bartleby’s fault, with his eccentric habits and preferences (which include not doing the job he has come to do)? Not really, no. Melville never seems to suggest it is. So is it the lawyer’s inability to elicit a response from Bartleby? To force an answer? To make him do his job? No, he’d done all that was in his powers, surely, and Melville never implies otherwise. So what is it then? Who’s to blame? Where’s the fault?

I suggested previously that we might assume that Bartleby is autistic. It is an inaccurate assumption, to say the least, but it will do the trick, as it were, to help us understand a very simple – though not nearly adequately known or accepted – truth about autism. Let us imagine that Bartleby represents autistic people as a whole. And that the lawyer represents neurotypical society.

Autistic people are not sufficiently understood by neurotypicals (much like Bartleby is not understood by his boss). That much is more or less a fact. Curiously (or not), there is seldom any doubt among neurotypicals as to the source of this shortage of communication. The question “where’s the fault” is answered so hurriedly in autism research as to hide the fact that the question was ever worth asking. “It is in autistic people!” neurotypical society seems to enthusiastically proclaim: “I don’t understand those people”, they say. “And worse, they don’t seem to understand me! So there must be something wrong with them”. Researchers then go about looking for the specific location and source of this so-called “impairment” – is it in their genes? Is it in their brains? Were they exposed to pollutants? Infections? Abuse?

Damian Milton, an English sociologist, is perhaps the most eloquent author to frame the problem in a very different – and quite more productive – way; a way that is not dissimilar from what appears to have been Melville’s approach to the matter 150 years ago. Yes, neurotypicals don’t always understand the motives, intentions, and behaviours of autistic people, Milton asserts in his excellent article titled “On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’ (2012); But at the same time, autistic people don’t usually understand the motives, intentions, and behaviours of neurotypical people, either. So, here are two groups who regularly fail to communicate successfully between them. What, other than prevailing discourses about normality as well as unequal power dynamics between those deemed “normal” and those deemed “deviant”, would compel anyone to immediately assume that the problem is fixed inside autistic people? This is an entirely false view, Milton argues. The problem is not fixed anywhere; it is simply not specific – It is not bounded within autistic people nor in neurotypical people.  Instead, the problem is relational. The aforementioned communication problem merely lies in the relation between autist and neurotypical; between autism and neurotypicality. Only once we acknowledge this, can we start seeking for solutions.

Milton calls this the Double-Empathy Problem, and he defines it thus:

“The ‘double empathy problem’: a disjuncture in reciprocity between two differently disposed social actors which becomes more marked the wider the disjuncture in dispositional perceptions of the lifeworld – perceived as a breach in the ‘natural attitude’ of what constitutes ‘social reality’ for ‘non-autistic spectrum’ people and yet an everyday and often traumatic experience for ‘autistic people’. (Author’s concept and definition)” (Milton 2012:884)

Quite a handy concept, don’t you think?

I want to make a couple of notes on this. First, mind the part that says “…perceived as a breach in the ‘natural attitude’ of what constitutes ‘social reality’”. That the definition states that the breach is perceived, rather than simply ‘is’, is important.  It conveys an important message – the reality of autism (or “The Ontological Status of Autism”, as the article heading reads) is co-constructed in the social sphere by social actors; it is not static or inevitable, but contingent and fluid. Also note how ‘natural attitude’ is put into scare quotes; it is used almost ironically, I think, to indicate that there is nothing “natural” or permanent about “social reality”; but that it is instead constantly negotiated and changing. At any rate, it is certainly naturalized; namely, it is made to appear natural, but really, it is a social construct if there ever was one! Alas, the tall pile of construction rubble that was left behind is regularly swept clumsily under the rug.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Milton draws our attention to the fact that the double-empathy problem affects autistic people much more frequently, and much more severely, than it does neurotypicals. For NTs, the breaking down of communication with an autistic person is an anomaly, and may be frustrating. For the autistic person, it is everyday life, and it may very well be traumatizing.


Shall we have a quick go at seeing how this approach helps us understand the story a bit better? Yeah, why not.


The story of Bartleby and the lawyer does not occur in a vacuum – though we are given this impression up until the very last couple of pages. Only then, are we made aware of the fact that Bartleby has a history. Before coming to work on Wall-Street as a scrivener, Bartleby had worked at the dead-letter office; an office dedicated to processing broken communications: messages, gifts, and expressions of emotion and intent that never made it to their destination. A beautiful metaphor, this is the sad life story of Bartleby. The lawyer constantly asks the reader for their sympathies; oh, how he struggles to make sense of Bartleby’s seemingly illegible behaviour!  How hard he tries to accept Bartleby, to help him, to save him. Yes, he does. And it is admirable. But let us think of Bartleby. What to his employer was a single frustrating experience, would most likely have been an excruciating recurring theme in Bartley’s entire life. Broken communications, undeliverable messages, intercepted gestures. Time and time again. If he had finally grown weary of futilely trying to be understood, right up to the point of giving up altogether; can we blame him?





10 thoughts on “Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 2 of 2)

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  6. tiggerthewing

    Yes, I’ve noticed this in my own life. When I was younger, and forced (more-or-less) to socialise within my own age-group, it was probably noticeable to an observer that, while my classmates had no trouble interacting with anyone except me, I had trouble interacting with all of them.

    Not to say I didn’t have friends (except in my first year at school); but it is possibly of significance that when I did have friends, I was one of a threesome; and, although the other two often socialised together without me, I rarely socialised with either of them without both being there.

    Of course, as I got older I became better at recognising people like me; and, in recent years, my friends have been almost exclusively on the spectrum. It is perhaps a strange thing to note that we have had the best house parties when we’ve had a dozen or more spectrumites of all ages visiting (the kind of party where no-one wants to go home, and farewells on the doorstep last for an hour or more); the worst (never to be repeated!) have been when the visitors were NT.

    Make of that what you will, but I think it is that the empathy ‘problem’ is, as you suggest, two-way. NT people, although easily communicating one another, fail to have any rapport with autistic people. Autistic people, who can read one another like open books, are equally baffled by NT people.

    Autism is only a problem for an autistic person who has no-one like them around. One of my friends spent the first three decades of his life not knowing any other autistic people until his son was born. Then he moved to a city with a thriving autistic population*, and now has a loyal group of autistic friends.

    *I used to surreptitiously people-watch, when I lived there, while having coffee waiting for friends. When you look out for the little signs, autistic people stand out; and I reckon we were a LOT more than one in eighty, there. 😉

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  8. hopefulandfree

    Wow. Thank you for this inviting narrative analysis. I see the interpretation of the story’s end “reveal” —about the scrivener’s former post office gig — results in a conventional acceptance of status quo definitions/constructions i/r/t communication— as the sending and receiving of, say, “information” or messages, which either get written, sent, and delivered “effectively” or not. So, all those beautiful letters at the P.O.—those which remain undelivered and unread–those letters are not suggestive of Bartleby’s failed efforts to reach understanding. Bartleby would have to be, in that case, a thing, a commodity.

    Bartleby cannot make himself understood. BECAUSE no person can…no one makes themselves understood…but if they seem to do that very thing…if that is how it seems, perhaps we are not looking at what we think we are looking at when we speak of human communication.

    Maybe the status quo model is…problematic… maybe the models of communication that resemble a postal service are…problematic…

    Well, anyway, this Melville story is on my shelf, and I never before noticed that it offers such an awe inspiring emancipatory “message”…a message of hope, not for poor Bartleby, alas, perhaps….but for living human beings, now.

    Thank you. This is a thrill and a rare treat for me—-encountering this lovely….and on the internet! Cool. 🙂 Of coursre, I prefer not to explain my happy response. You would not understand, I safely assume— and if I tried to, anyway, in the process I would simply become a commodity, once again…

    I prefer not to be a commodity. I prefer to not end up like Bartleby.

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