Thursday, July 22, 2010

When the Character Didn't Change

Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.
by J.F.

“Bartleby the Scrivener: A story of Wall Street” is maybe not a story you are not familiar with.

Bartleby was written shortly after the failure of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, the more widely known “Moby Dick.” Few outside the literary realm know that Herman Melville, one of America’s leading authors, was not a success in his own lifetime. Even the initial printing of just 3,000 copies of Moby Dick did not sell well. Melville's struggle is perhaps why many of his critics believe his novella “Bartleby the Scrivener” reflected his own life.

The significance of Bartleby to Hero School is that it’s a story of a character who did not change. Oddly, this was not because the main character couldn't change, but because he “preferred not to.”

A scrivener named Bartleby who is hired at a law firm, must produce large quantity of copies day in and day out. After a while, however, the quantity and quality of Bartleby's work declines. When asked about his job performance, he simply replies, “I prefer not to.” Even though the lawyer in the firm tries to help Bartleby improve his performance by giving him days off and doing what he believes will motivate the scrivener, Bartleby’s work - and life - continues to decline. One day, the lawyer discover that Bartleby is homeless, living out of the office. Even more disturbing is that Bartleby is no longer even working as a scrivener, but lounging about the office doing nothing. His behavior devolves further to the point that the lawyer must send out for the police to have him removed. But the story doesn’t end with Bartleby simply losing his job. His behavior continues until he eventually dies from lacking the will even to eat.

This story truly embodies the principle of life that those who succeed must understand. As quoted in the Shawshank Redemption:  “You either get busy living or get busy dying.” No one can make us live, let alone make us successful, or even keep us from becoming homeless.

An argument can be made that the failure from Moby Dick contributed to the inspiration for Bartleby the Scrivener. It is difficult to keep trying when our work not only goes unnoticed, but particularly when it is criticized. For some it is equally challenging to suppress one's creative flow through the demands of monotonous, repetitive work? You and I may even lose perspective of why we are even at the company we chose to work for. We can lose our ambition, drive, and will.

Get Busy Living

Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener gives us a rare glimpse of what happens when we stop caring, stop trying, and no longer find meaning in the work we do. With few exceptions like Saw  and Final Destination, where foreshadowing shows audience members what happens when we don't do what we know we know we should, most Hollywood movies reinforce deliverance from negative circumstances through character change. Melville must have been aware of this truth, too, but often the effects of monotonous, repetitious work can erode our hope.

Finding ways each and every day to remind ourselves to get busy living, by discovering meaning in our work, learning from those who know something we don't, and doing those things that change our character, we can remain free from the weights that literally - and figuratively - buried poor Bartleby.

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