Bartleby the Scrivener

Death as an Aesthetic Experience in Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener College

Moby Dick confronts us with problems of language before we encounter anything about whales. The first word in the book—after the table of contents—is “Etymology,” and the tale of the “pale Usher,” and Hackluyt’s quote, immediately raise questions regarding the relationship between language’s formal and significant properties, and, strangely enough, mortality. Melville is not simply engaged in an interrogation of language’s ability to convey Truth as propositional content (or, as the Hackluyt quote implies, its potential transference of untruth). Instead, the linguistic patterns of Bartleby and Pip each demonstrate a type of success predicated on peculiar relationships between language’s formal and significant properties, a kind of success internal to language itself. By “success” we only mean that each character appears to achieve the desired effect by means of his speech. For Bartleby this means, on a basic level, that his speech effects the consummation of his preferences, while Pip’s achievement is somehow tied up in his ability to “speak” his castaway experience. Though the themes at issue for each character—freedom, and communication, respectively—may appear unrelated, examination of Pip and Bartleby’s linguistic patterns...

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