Week 13: Alienation
Week 13 (Nov. 11-17): Alienation
Two of the world’s greatest short stories illustrate the profoundly disorienting effects of
alienation. This week we cover Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and next week we read
Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.”
Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener”
My lecture on putting the alien in alienation
Complete the assigned readings and post responses to the discussion forum.
Begin working on paper #3, due Nov. 30th.
To realize that isolation may be deeply psychological and may arise not only from factors of
class, race, and gender but from other causes as well
To appreciate the poignancy and profundity of Melville’s story
Week 13 Lecture: Alienation
Week 13 Lecture: Alienation
Below is this week’s lecture, followed by discussion questions.
“A Story of Wall Street”
And yes, we’re really putting the alien in alienation!
When I originally constructed the ENGL 225 course in the summer of 2008, I didn’t know that there
would be an ongoing global financial crisis when we hit the section called “Alienation” that fall. (I
knew a financial crisis was coming sooner or later, probably sooner; I just didn’t know when. We are
still feeling the effects of it today.) My ENGL 525 class reads Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in
a unit entitled “The Absurd,” and obviously absurdity applies just as much as does alienation to our
stories this week and next. Absurd alienation is what the protagonists experience in the Melville and
Kafka stories, and it’s what we often experience in our own lives, including when the nation’s very
financial structure has been risked because of plundering plutocrats, fiscal farce, and gauche greed.
So there is a darkly humorous coincidence here, especially given that “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is
subtitled “A Story of Wall Street.”
Dark humor brightens your day in inverted ways.
Financial crisis or no, life is full of absurdity and alienation. Hot dogs and buns don’t come in
packages with the same number of items. Everything we like is illegal, immoral, or fattening. You
always hurt the one you love. You often don’t fit into whatever situation, job, or role you’ve been
Then we have politics, religion, and war. The educational system, ahem. The healthcare system.
Aging. Sickening. Dying. I worked in a nursing home some years ago, and suggestions of absurdity
and alienation were everywhere. When I’ve had coronary attacks, I’ve thought, when I could think
at all, “well, this is ridiculous.” You know the Bob Dylan song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” with
its line “that long black cloud is coming down.” It’s exactly right. Only my cloud drizzled.
If you want scientific Alice in Wonderland, check out quantum physics. For that matter, black holes
don’t make a lot of sense. The universe is a rather absurd and alienating place, as Douglas Adams
explored in his “trilogy” (actually five books) making up the series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the
Galaxy. It sometimes seems as though our national, global, and universal currency is nonsense,
which sure can be alienating at times.
One reason (or lack of reason) is the sheer messiness of the universe—its refusal to be reduced to
neat, irrevocable, dictatorial categories of thought or to succumb to our wishes. Although it’s often a
painful, very painful, messiness, fraught with bafflement and whimpering at 3 a.m., it’s probably
preferable to the alternative. If there’s anything worse than being chased by a hairy Spanish irregular
verb (to adopt the ending from Woody Allen’s “The Kugelmass Episode”), it’s being pinned to the
wall (or Wall Street) by 2 + 2 = 4. At least absurdity, in all its anarchic irregularity, does let us
breathe, or at least occasionally gasp. Even alienation can be refreshing. Sometimes one doesn’t
really want to be included in the madness going on.
Ultimately, perhaps, these are moot points, befitting academia. We play the hand we’re dealt, even if
it’s full of jokers that are wild but perhaps of little value. After all, as Hemingway observed, it’s not
whether you win or lose but how you play the game–and how much the Wall Street bailout is going
to cost you.
Herman Melville is regarded as perhaps the greatest American writer of the nineteenth century. He
was descended from aristocrats on both his mother’s and his father’s side, yet his father’s death when
Herman was twelve ended Herman’s education (compare Mark Twain) and forced him to work at
various menial jobs, which must have been frustrating, alienating, and yes, absurd to somebody with
Herman’s background and potential. His father had been an import/export merchant and had often
crossed the Atlantic on business to England. Herman loved hearing his father’s sea stories, and at
nineteen Herman shipped “before the mast” as an apprentice seaman on a merchant ship to
Liverpool. Later he embarked on a long whaling voyage to the South Pacific, jumped ship at the
Marquesas islands and lived among cannibals for a while, made his way to the Sandwich Islands
(Hawaii), shipped aboard a U.S. naval frigate, and eventually returned home, with enough adventures
by age 25 to last a lifetime. He made use of these experiences in a series of popular novels: Typee,
Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket. His one early foray into a philosophical novel, Mardi, an
allegory set in the South Seas, didn’t fare so well with the public. In his sixth novel, he wrote his
most profoundly philosophical, symbolic, and eloquent novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851),
which deals with questions of existence, ethics, and meaning against the backdrop of a doomed
whaling voyage. (A reasonably good film version of the novel was made in the 1950s, starring
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Richard Basehart as Ishmael.) The public didn’t understand and
hence didn’t like this novel, nor did the public like his subsequent, darkly psychological novel of
innocence and guilt: Pierre; or The Ambiguities. These failures discouraged Melville and he turned
to writing shorter works for a while, including the masterful stories “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and
“Benito Cereno” (which I teach in my ENGL 296 class). After a cynical, psychological exploration
of con artistry and human gullibility in his novel The Confidence-Man, Melville spent the remaining
decades of his life in relative obscurity, writing mostly poetry. Before his death in 1891 he
completed the novella Billy Budd, a complex tale of irony, ambiguity, satire, and affirmation that
wasn’t discovered and published until three decades later, sparking a “Melville revival” that has
lasted until this day. Melville is among the most studied of American authors because of his
complex symbolism, brooding depths of philosophical and psychological thought, and intense
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is perhaps Melville’s finest short story. “Bartleby” has social, financial,
and political resonance, of course, but it also anticipates, with darkly Dickensian ironic humor, the
absurdity, alienation, and poignancy revealed by existentialism a century later. “There it is,” the story
suggests about futility, despair, death. Yes, there it is. I think about the “No Trespassing” sign
hanging on the fence surrounding the Kane mansion in Orson Welles’s cinematic masterpiece Citizen
Kane. The great and the small, and the nothing at all. I agree with literary critic Martin Scofield that
“Bartleby” is one of the world’s greatest short stories, if only for that reason. Besides, it’s impressive
to agree with somebody like Martin Scofield.
to agree with somebody like Martin Scofield.
You might think about why Melville chose to narrate his story through this particular first-person
narrator, with his sundry humors, sympathies, and limitations, and what is suggested about the
narrator, his world, and ourselves. And please don’t tell me that you would prefer not to!
1. Why is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” narrated this way? What is the first-person narrator like? How
does he influence the way we view Bartleby?
2. Why do you think Melville chose to subtitle this story “A Story of Wall Street”? How do walls
figure actually and symbolically in this narrative? What do they suggest about Bartleby and his life?
3. How do you regard the rather Dickensian minor characters in this story–Turkey, Nippers, and
Ginger Nut? How do they influence the way we look at this story and Bartleby?
4. The ending is profound and moving. What might this story be suggesting through this ending?
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