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Body Politics in "Bartleby": Leprosy, Healing, and Christ-ness in Melville's "Story of Wall-Street"

Richard J. Zlogar
Nineteenth-Century Literature
Vol. 53, No. 4 (Mar., 1999), pp. 505-529
DOI: 10.2307/2903029
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2903029
Page Count: 25
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Body Politics in "Bartleby": Leprosy, Healing, and Christ-ness in Melville's "Story of Wall-Street"
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Abstract

Over the years, critics have attached multiple equivalences to the title character in Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853). Bartleby has become metaphor as readers have found a variety of matches for the condition of alienation and rejection implicit in his tragic story, a well-known example of which is interpreting Bartleby as an artist who refuses to produce the type of literature that is commercially successful in his society. The central contention of this study is that the scholarship written on "Bartleby" to date has not identified the vehicle for the tenor we uncover in Bartleby's situation. Melville in effect programs diversity of interpretation into his story by depicting the scrivener as a figurative leper. We arrive at such a reading of Bartleby's character not only by examining a biblical allusion that Melville scholars have not yet discussed, but also by noting the extent to which the medieval ritual for sequestering the leper from mainstream society figures into the story-a ritual that Melville clearly knew, as evidenced years later in Clarel (1876). Reading "Bartleby" within a context of figurative leprosy results in an interpretation that unites what initially seem like disparate elements in the text: reclusion, illness and a related fear of infection, the mixture of corpse and Christ imagery surrounding the scrivener, Bartleby's "dead-wall reveries," and the role of touch. This reading also sheds new light on the interdependence of the narrator and his copyist. Once we recognize Bartleby as a figurative leper, we realize that the narrator faces a challenge of Christ-ness in his interaction with the scrivener: he has the opportunity to imitate Christ and heal the illness of alienation that afflicts Bartleby by choosing to go against the prevailing norms of his society.

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