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Using Melvilles Bartleby, the Scrivener

to Teach Deconstruction in the
Introduction to Fiction Classroom
Todd Giles
Todd is a Ph D student in American literature at the University of Kansas as well as the
Associate Editor of the William Carlos Williams Review.
Note: Paragraphs nine and twelve first appeared in slightly altered form in The Explica-
tor (Fall 2006) in Todds article Non-critical Eye for the Indeterminate Guy: Not Another
Reading of Bartleby, the Scrivener.
One of my main goals as a new teacher of Introduction of Fiction
courses at the University of Kansas is to familiarize my students with a
range of critical approaches to help them enrich their reading, writing,
and thinking skills. As such, I spend the first few weeks of the semester
discussing literary terminologyplot, characterization, dialogue, etc.
and then move on to discussions of feminism, new historicism,
deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and queer theory. For example,
in conjunction with The Fall of the House of Usher I like to introduce
classes to psychoanalytic criticism; with The Yellow Wallpaper, femi-
nism; and with Bartleby, the Scrivener, deconstruction. While the classes
are not based on literary theory per se, I do try to make sure our discus-
sions throughout the semester return to the critical terminology as a way
of making connections between the literature itself and the larger soci-
etal issues that not only went into the making the of the texts, but also
those connections we can make in our everyday lives using the literature
as a springboard.
Although our initial class discussions of Bartleby, the Scrivener
begin by addressing a diverse array of readings ranging from the histori-
cal, biographical, psychoanalytical, metaphorical, Marxist, and Christian,
I point out, when we begin talking about deconstruction, that these read-
ings, while attempting to elucidate, often go counter to what/who Bartleby
is, attesting to the difficulty of finding a language which actually does the
story justice. If the text is so elusive, perhaps it is meant to be just that; it
folds back on itself like the folding green screen behind which Bartleby
resides, and as readers, we must remain on the surface of the page, at the
threshold, like Bartleby at his window. When using Bartleby to address
issues of deconstruction, I focus on binary opposites, indeterminate lan-
guage and spaces, the ungraspable, silence and secrets, the pharmakon,
and Derridas postal metaphor.
Introduction to Deconstruction
We begin by discussing the biased and arbitrary nature of language
and how it alters the way we perceive the world. Language is constantly in
flux, unstable. To help students grasp this point, I ask them to think
about new words that have recently entered our vocabulary and old
words which have been altered to take on new meanings: words like
google (as a verb), word (simultaneously a greeting, a question, and
an exclamation), bling (money, gold, flashiness), internet, mouse,
back (a womans posteriorbaby got back!), and ipod.
Deconstruction celebrates the free play of language, pointing out that
texts are always in a perpetual state of change; language is not precise, but
is rather an untanglable web of possibilities. As with the other forms of
criticism I introduce in the classroom, I try to make it clear that these
concepts are not merely templates one lays over a text to help shed light
on it but are instead viable social and political modes of being. As such, I
prompt them to question the presence of any seemingly objective struc-
ture or content in the texts they read and to look beyond surface-level
Binary Opposites
Turning now to Bartleby, we discuss binary opposites in general
and how Western religion, philosophy, science, and literature are based
on either/or systems which privilege one pole at the cost of subordinat-
ing the other: us/them, alive/dead, white/black, Christian/Muslim, man/
woman, heterosexual/homosexual, etc. The students have, with binary
opposites, something they can solidly grasp hold of . . . at least tempo-
rarily. Writing these and other binaries on the board with the students
help, I then turn to some of the binaries in Bartleby itself: love/hate,
anger/compassion, alive/dead, solid/spectral, inside/outside, Turkey/
Nippers, acceptance/resistance. I then point out how this divided space
(/) is really not an unbridgeable demarcation, but is rather a zone of
undecidability, a space open to free-play and crossings, a gray zone, not a
black and white one. Mentioning Derridas use of the zombie here is
helpful. What is a zombie not, while at the same time also not? A zombie
is not alive but also at the same time not dead. Alive and dead. Zombies
disrupt the logic of oppositions, allowing slippage and play, giving the
students something to talk about as I walk around the room in a clump-
footed, Karloffian state of zombiac horror.
Linguistic Indeterminacy
The indeterminacy of language is a good place to enter into the text
itself (pointing out of course the phallocentric implications of enter-
ing a text) by engaging in a close reading of the first few pages of the
story. From the opening lines the lawyers speech retrospectively shows
vestiges of the infection to come that is Bartleby. He is unable to make an
affirmative statement through the use of words such as rather, would
seem, somewhat singular, might have been, and if I pleased, I could
relate. Note how these wordsall appearing in the first paragraph
operate in the realm of undecidability; the lawyer is unable to solidify his
own thoughts and language. According to Deleuze, Bartleby sends lan-
guage itself into flight . . . open[ing] up a zone of indetermination or
indiscernibility in which neither words nor characters can be distinguished
(76). Likewise, the lawyer and his other assistants remain nameless: his
employees go by nicknames, while the lawyer himself refrains from pro-
viding his own name. Even when Bartleby appears in the office thresh-
old, the narrator is unable to offer a clear description of him: he exhibits
pallid neatness, pitiable respectability, and incurable forlornness. Time
too, as narrated by the lawyer, remains uncertain: Some days now passed,
for such a period, It was the third day, I think.
Indeterminate Spaces
From the indeterminacy of language we turn to the indeterminacy
of spaces. As a class we try to describe the physical setting of the lawyers
office. Doing so, we see that the spaces around which the narrative
revolves are of indeterminate potentialitiesspaces penetrated by the
outside, haunted by specters, silences, preferences, and secret touches.
Spaces which incite the unnamable, undecidable speech, atemporal pas-
sage, the unclassifiable, unwritable, and shifting relationships that waver
from disdain to compassion. The office space, like the men who inhabit
it, remains nameless. It is composed of Duchampesque undecidablesa
window with an unobstructed view of a wall, ground glass folding-doors,
a folding green screen that provides privacy and openness simultaneously,
and a penetrating sky-light running the height of the building. A window
that does not look out; glass doors through which sight is rendered void
by opacity; a folding, movable green screenthe color a folding in of the
natural outsidewhich eliminates sight but not sound: a kind of failed
partitioning; and a penetrating phallic shaft of light (also a folding in of
the outside). Bartlebys workspace is situated in such a way that enables
him to remain perpetually in the corneran indeterminate space where
two planes meet but neither exists solely alone. The lawyers office is the
perfect space for the likes of Bartlebyone that oscillates between
inside and outside, sight and blindness, separate and conjoined. Bartleby
further disrupts this architectural space by sleeping in the threshold and
sitting on the banister of the landing, both movements which call into
question what it means to find a space of ones own, as opposed to a
freewheeling mobility and suspensionsomething other than a sadistic
movement and appropriation, something other than ownership.
The wall, the blank page, potential, the unwritten. We know this of
two of the three walls surrounding the lawyers officeone is white and
one is black with age. The wall outside of Bartlebys window has no view
at allit is colorless, unformed, undescribed, uniscribed, open. It is nei-
ther a blank white page attesting to the violence of writing, nor does it
attest to the appropriation of reading. It is neither impatiently awaiting
color nor erasure, inscription nor translation. It is a nonreflective surface
in which Bartleby can find himself in losing himself. Not a loss of subli-
mation or shedding, but of being beside oneself. The wall, Bartlebys
wall, just is. It is potential, like Bartlebysomething not to be realized. It
is pure presence. The blank page would require movement towards; the
already written page, contemplation. Neither option inviting dead-wall
reveries. Bartleby is not closed in by language. He is an unreadable text
without beginning or end. As Deleuze says in Bartleby; or, The For-
mula, Being as being, and nothing more (71).
The Ungraspable
The lawyer himself seems to want to approach this condition, this
state of statelessness, this present moment perpetually vibrating in its
arrest in which Bartleby is not standing at the precipice, but rather, hov-
ers over the void like Wiley Coyote suspended in mid-air, able, nearly, to
step back to cliff-side. The lawyer sees the importance of this vantage
point but is only able to take cautious steps towards the edge, steps that
at the same time simultaneously retract themselves as they are taken. No
sooner does he reach out to touch Bartleby, both physically and through
the promise of compassion to come, than Bartlebyat least in the lawyers
eyesretracts even further. He leaves an ungraspable, nearly impercep-
tible, phantasmagoric trace that plays heavily on the lawyer who is won-
derfully touched and disconcerted by Bartleby. At one point he even ad-
dresses Bartleby indirectly through the narrative (the outside): I never
feel so private as when I know you are here. At last I see it, I feel it; I
penetrate to the predestined purpose of my life. I am content (35).
These are not the musings, as some would have us believe, of an insensi-
tive money-grubbing elitist. Rather, they are the ungraspable longings of
an unrequited desire to touch the untouchable. I like to ask the students
if this is a potentially homoerotic relationship and if the potential of
such a relationship places it in the realm of the undecidable. It is relation-
ship not yet realized, but is potential. How, then, does the space relate to
or affect this potential?
Silence and Secrets
Bartlebys silence establishes distance, while at the same time inviting
the desire for proximity. A silence that at once pushes away and calls
hitherattraction unto negligence. This is exasperated at the moment of
silences reiterationwhen Bartleby speaks, his silence calls attention to
itself. In other words, it is at this moment that language calls attention to
itself by highlighting its absence, and it is at that moment that others
want to turn to language to describe the silence, as if silence were a re-
moval of language and not language a supplement to silence.
The Pharmakon
Bartleby appears throughout the story as the consummate specter.
He is a noiseless, strange, sliding, haughty apparition who appears and
disappears from behind his partition, often standing hours-on-end in dead-
wall reveries. He haunts the lawyers space, refusing to leave on even for
the slightest errand (ironically the lawyer asks Bartleby to go to the post
office), and often violently confuses clients through his apparent
unaccountability. It is as if he retains some silent secret by refusing to
exteriorize himself through his nonsadistic movements: worklessness,
anonymity, and his refusal to vacate the premises. His courteous refusal
to exteriorize himself strangely affects those around him. Initially the
lawyer sees Bartlebys sedateness as a remedy to even-out the opposing
tempers of his other employees. However, Bartlebys medicinal charac-
teristics change soon enough in the eyes of the lawyer, situating him in
the realm of the pharmakon: that of poison and remedy. To the lawyer
he becomes a weighty millstone, causing those in the office to become
infected with Bartlebys language. Although the lawyer now sees Bartleby
as a poison, he cannot help but feel that he, Bartleby, is still somehow the
victim of an incurable diseasesomething apparently operating from
the outside of Bartleby, leaving him no possible recourse. What is impor-
tant here is that Bartleby is not bouncing back and forth between two
disparate poles; rather, as pharmakon, he exhibits slippage and play within
them. He is at once poison and remedy. By touching the men in the
office, Bartleby opens up an unlimited field of dismantling social forces
tempers, moods, words, actions, inactions. He does not implicitly invite
them per se, but societal preconceptions incite them. He is rooted in his
very unrootedness, while at the same time seeming to send out rhyzomatic
shoots that touch, usually in an adverse manner, those around him. He is
the touch of the outside.
The Postal Metaphor
Melvilles story also lends itself very well to a discussion of Jacques
Derridas postal metaphor. In The Post Card, Derrida argues that letters
will either arrive at their intended destination, will arrive somewhere else
(perhaps the dead letter office), or will never arrive (get lost). No letter
can be guaranteed a smooth passage from signatory to addressee; thus
every arrival is somewhat accidental; all letters have the potential for non-
arrival. This is the same with speech and writing; when we speak we
assume our words will be received according to our intentions and
believe that every word and text has an intended destination. Every utter-
ance has to arrive somewhere but not necessarily at its intended destina-
tion; every text is destined to go places that exceed the intentions of the
sender. This applies to letters, books, speech, etc. Every word, every let-
ter, every truth is open to the possibility of being misunderstood or
received by someone not intended. Thus, truth is relative; it is contextual
and therefore always open to misattribution and misdirection. The post-
card, then, is occasionalit is written at a certain time and place by a
certain person who intends to say something personal to someone else.
In order to reach the addressee it must be possible for it to be read by
others as well as the addressee. Although every postcard seems to consti-
tute a personal transmission, it is always openboth literally by its very
design, and by possible interceptors.
Bartleby, like the rumor of the dead letter office, is that which never
arrives in any form of quantifiable totality. Seeing Bartleby as a dead let-
ter as the narrator erroneously does, presupposed an origin and destina-
tion which are never reached. Bartleby, on the contrary, is without origi-
nation and trajectory; he is a sequel in waiting, already stamped, perpetu-
ally in a state yet to come. He is instantaneous, unarrivalable. The narrators
inclusion of the sequelmere hearsay subject to disbelief as the narrator
rightly points out himselfis a failed attempt, like most critical analyses
of the story, to summarize, or at the very least, to rationalize Bartleby.
What we are left with is the remnant that persists after (in)completion. A
sequel that remains always already unable to be written, read, and
relayedan effect of indeterminacy itself, that which forbids naming.
Melville, in writing this story, creates something which undoes itself with
every reading, unwrites itself as it is written, erases itself through inscrip-
tion. More simply put, Bartleby does not operate as a closed rhetorical
model, it/he calls into question the nature of writing and existence,
exposing us to something beyond which operates in the realm of the
undecidable. Bartleby, The Scrivener, itself a supplementary text to the
already uncertain sequel of the dead letter office, must remain infinitely
I find that pairing deconstruction with Bartleby, the Scrivener works
very well in that the somewhat nebulous concepts and difficult terminol-
ogy of deconstruction are made more tangible when discussed in light of
a text that itself engages in issues of indeterminacy. Introducing students
to literary criticism in the Introduction to Fiction classroom not only
keeps us from having to read the same tired old essays on male domina-
tion in the late 1800s as seen in The Yellow Wallpaperhowever im-
portant an issue that certainly isby fostering a more complex and criti-
cal examination of the texts at hand, while at the same time adding to the
level of complexity of classroom discussions.
Works Cited
Deleuze, Gilles. Bartleby; or, The Formula. Essays Critical and Clinical.
Minnesota:University of Minnesota, 1997.
Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans.
Alan Bass. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, The
Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 9. Chicago: Northwestern UP, 1979.