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Bartleby, the Motionless Scrivener and Wakefield the Spouseless Husband: An Exploration of

Mad Mens Identities

By Ral Figueroa


Is a scrivener who does not write, still as scrivener? Analogously, is a husband who is no

longer in his wifes life still a husband? How is someone, who renounces his or her roles and

responsibilities conferred by common usage, defined and integrated into society? In broad

terms, the purpose of this text is to explore the relationship between the roles and (construction

of) identities of the main characters in Herman Melvilles Bartleby the Scrivener and

Nathanael Hawthornes Wakefield. This exploration is of interest since each story can be

interpreted as the narrative of an ordinary man who transgresses his socially conferred roles to

embark on a project identity, which provokes the tag of strange or even mad. I make the

case that both Bartleby and Wakefield claim agency over their identities, resisting subjection to

employment and marriage, two of the most powerful institutions of the United States and British

civil societies during the 19th century. Nonetheless, these transgressions place them in a space of

weirdness. Because of their resistance to these institutions, both characters are perceived as

unreasonable, thus incompatible with the values of society.

In Melvilles story, the narrator is Bartlebys former employer, a Wall Street Lawyer. In

Hawthornes the narrator is not specified; nonetheless, for the purpose of this paper I assume that

it is someone who shares the values of the society which Wakefield inhabited, that is, early

nineteenth century London. Bartleby and Wakefields strange actions are not seen as

completely unreasonable or unrelateble, they are perceived as puzzling because they transgress

the narrators assumptions about proper civic behavior. Both narrators make appeals to the
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humaneness of their characters actions, even if they are puzzled by them. Neither character is

presented as a villain, they are, in many senses, victimized and portrayed as deeming

compassion, rather than rejection. I argue that this interpretation of the main characters actions is

based on the narrators ideologies about unreason and madness. Furthermore, since both

narrators are biased, an analysis of their values and assumptions of civic responsibilities is

necessary to discern whether their assessments of the main characters are accurate descriptions

or myopic interpretations.

Since characterizations of Bartleby and Wakefield are constructed from external sources,

we never receive a clear picture of what their actions meant to themselves. I make the case that

the narrators are unable to see the whole picture and construct their interpretations of the

characters selves based on an interpellation through their internalized perceptions of generalized

social categories. That is, they are unable to recognize the identity/self in Bartleby and

Wakefield; they see subjects constructed in accord, and/or contrast, to the institutions of their

contexts. In contrast to these interpretations, I intend to reconstruct the main characters

identities based on a deeper analysis that considers cultural elements of their contexts. That is,

for Bartleby I pay attention to workers struggles in the first half of 19th century New York and

for Wakefield I draw on the work of Ellen Weinauer to explore the institution of marriage in

the 19th century.

After presenting an analysis of both the main characters and narrators identities, I

explore the instances of confinement in the stories. Bartleby and Wakefield end up confined due

to their eccentricities; by resisting to perform unpaid work (at first), then refusing to work at all

in the case of Bartleby, and removing himself from his household in the case of Wakefield, they

seclude themselves from their previously occupied roles as scrivener and as husband. On one
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hand, Bartleby is confined to the dead space of the Lawyers Wall Street office, and

subsequently to the Tombs, or the Manhattan Detention Complex. On the other hand, Wakefield

is confined in an apartment in the next street to his own. However, their confinement is not

only physical, but also social as they are alienated from human(e) contact through the duration of

their respective projects. I make the case that they are perceived as mad subjects who disturb the

wellbeing of civil society, thus are deemed to be confined.


According to Sociologist Manuel Castells, Identity is peoples source of meaning and

experience, he adds, "by identity, as it refers to social actors, I understand the process of

construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or a related set of cultural attributes,

that is given priority over other sources of meaning (6). Similarly, Nealon and Giroux claim

about the term self, we tend to understand the self as an inwardly generated phenomenon, a

notion of personhood based on the particular (yet strangely abstract) qualities that make us who

we are (37). Both terms refer to sources that provide the frames through which we define

experience, in other words, they refer to the notion that something is about me or something

means for me. In spite of the similarity, the terms will not be used interchangeably; for the

purpose of this paper, I will conceptualize the self as the synthesis of all the identities within a


There is another pair of terms which must be defined in relation to self/identity, that is,

roles and subject. For Castells, roles are defined by norms structured by institutions and

organizations in society (7). Likewise, the subject is always understood in reference to

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preexisting social conditions and categories (Nealon and Giroux 37). Like the self/identity

binomial, I conceptualize the subject as the synthesis of all the roles within a character.

There is one major difference between both pairs of terms, while on one hand, the self/identity is

primary, or an inward source of meaning, that is, for and by the actors themselves. On the

other hand, subject/roles are secondary, or an outwardly generated source of meaning;

conferred by sociocultural conventions. However, as Nealon and Giroux argue, there is no such

thing as a completely unconstrained self, somehow free from its social contexts (39).

There is a dialectic relationship between identity and roles, that is, between an actors

internal definition and source of meaning, and societys interpretation of the individual as a

subject. Althusser termed this relationship interpellation, that is, the process in which the

individual is constructed as a subject. For Althusser, the self is always defining itself and being

defined by the generalized social categories of the modern state (Nealon and Giroux 44).

Nonetheless, as Castells posits,

Althoughidentities can also be originated from dominant institutions, they

become identities only when the actors internalize them, and construct their

meaning around this internalization some self-definitions can also coincide

with social roles Yet, identities are stronger sources of meaning than roles

because of the process of self-construction and individuation that they involve. (7)

Moreover, he specifies the relationship claiming identities organize the meanings, while roles

organize the functions (Castells 7). In other words, identities are psychological, while roles are

social. Considering the relationship of identities and roles, Castells proposes three forms and

origins of identity building: legitimizing identity, resistance identity, and project identity.
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The first form of identity building, legitimizing identity, which is introduced by the

dominant institutions of society to extend and rationalize their domination vis--vis social

actors (Castells 8). In other words, this type of identity building is construed by social roles to

generate, and legitimate the organizations and institutions which constitute civil society. These

identities justify the way things are, that is, they sustain the sources of structural domination and

the values of the current system.

The second form of identity building, resistance identity, is generated by those actors

who are in positions/conditions devaluated and/or stigmatized by the logic of domination, thus

building trenches of resistance and survival on the basis of principles different from, or opposed

to, those permeating the institutions of society (Castells 8). Castells argues this may be the

most important type of identity building since it constructs forms of collective resistance against

oppression. In other words, this type of identity building promotes a more inclusive and

considerate outlook for the plurality of subjects, who are often invisibilized by civil society.

The third and final form of identity building proposed by Castells is project identity, that

is, when social actors, on the basis of whatever cultural materials are available to them build a

new identity that redefines their position in society and, by so doing, seek the transformation of

overall structure (8). This type of identity seeks to create and establish new subjects and roles

for these subjects.

In conclusion, the terms and categories defined in this section will be used to interpret the

identities of both narrators and main characters of the stories. Through a critical analysis of the

narrators discourses, I will justify that both of their selves represent legitimizing identities.

Through a socio-historical analysis of the stories contexts and the narrators descriptions of the

main characters, I make the case that both Bartleby and Wakefield embody resistance identities.
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Moreover, an analysis will be presented to consider if their identities are not only resistance

identities, but also project identities.


The stories narrators share the trait that they represent the values of the societies they inhabit,

that is, they embody legitimizing identities. Nonetheless, they are different types of narrators;

accordingly, their relationships to the events in the stories are significantly different. The narrator

for Bartleby is also a character of the story, narrating his memory of a lived experience; in

contrast, Wakefields narrator is anonymous and the narration provided is a reconstruction of a

story, told as truth that he, or she, read in some old magazine or newspaper. Therefore,

whereas to analyze the Lawyers identity I rely on both an interpretation of his actions as a

character in the story and elements of his discourse as narrator, for Wakefields narrator only a

critical discourse analysis is provided.

Bartlebys Lawyer-Narrator. The Lawyers position towards the establishment of New York

States constitution in 1846, suggests that he shares the values of bourgeois class. While there

was widespread agitation for land limitation and land reform, to the point where the conservative

press would tag the constitutional convention a public danger based on the measures advocated

by land reformers, the Lawyers main concern was the elimination of the Chancery courts (Foley

95). As he declares,

It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose

my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and

outages; but I must be permitted to be rash and declare, that I consider the sudden
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and violent abrogation of the office of Master of Chancery, by the new

Constitution, as a ----- premature act; inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease

of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years. (Melville 1)

Another aspect, which ties the Lawyer to Bourgeois values, is his admiration of John Jacob

Astor, who was deemed the richest man in the United States at the time of his death in 1848. As

Liane Norman states, What the Lawyer likes about Astor, his one-time occasional employer is

the money-like sound of his name: the two men, one daring and adventuresome, the other safe

and prudent, are linked in their love of money (25).

One of the elements of the Lawyers identity as a bourgeois gentleman is his role as a

philanthropist, a role he emulates from the subject created by powerful men like Astor. As Nancy

D. Goldfarb claims, the mutually beneficial relationship between capitalism and philanthropy is

initially depicted in Bartleby through the lawyers connections to John Jacob Astor (239).

Andrew Herman characterizes philanthropy as a rhetorical machinery whereby the financial

worth of wealthy men is constructed as the symbolic equivalent of moral worth (Qtd. in

Goldfarb 235). Therefore, the Lawyers charity is self-serving, as is demonstrated when he

states, here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor

him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up my soul what will

eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience (Melville 8). Goldfarb identifies three

underlying assumptions around the role of philanthropist two of them present in the statement

bestowed above, they are: (1) there are tacit conditions to gift-giving that make the interaction

less of a one-way transfer and more of an exchange;(2) that the gift exchange is defined by the

donors willingness to give rather than by the needs of the recipient(3)that the recipients need
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for charity is expected to end, even if the gift does not address the underlying cause of the

problem (238-39).

The third assumption is also portrayed in the story, particularly after the Lawyer finds out

about Bartlebys poverty and loneliness; he decides that

I would put certain calm questions to him next morning, touching his history and

if he declined to answer then openly and reservedly (and I supposed he would

prefer nor), then give him a twenty dollar bill over and above whatever I might

owe him and tell him his services are no longer required; but that if in any other

way I could assist him, I would be happy to do so, especially if he desired to

return to his native place, wherever that might be, I would willingly help to defray

the expenses. Moreover, if, after reaching home, he found himself at any time in

want of aid, a letter from him would be sure of a reply. (Melville 12)

The Lawyers priority is not to resolve Bartlebys ailments, he does not even understand them

and does not expect Bartleby to share them. His Charity is used to facilitate getting rid of

Bartleby, in other words he has a utilitarian perspective on charity as he clearly admits, Mere

self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered

men, prompting all beings to charity and philanthropy (Melville 18).

The Lawyers utilitarian identity not only shapes his approach to charity; it shapes his

relationships with his employees. By utilitarian I refer to a perspective which argues that

investment on a role, or particular action, is determined by the pleasure or displeasure derived

from the actions involved (Rothbard and Edwards 700). When the lawyer describes his

relationships with his workers he focuses mostly in two things, their eccentricities, and what they

add to the workspace in spite of those eccentricities. For instance, referring to Nippers and
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Turkey the narrator states, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time. Their fits

relieved each other like guards. When Nippers was on, Turkeys was off; and vice versa. This

was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances (Melville 4). Moreover, when Bartleby

comes into the picture, he thought it might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of

Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers (Melville 5). Nonetheless, as Bartleby starts refusing to

work he is no longer useful and becomes a problem as stated by the Lawyer in plain fact, he had

now become a millstone to me, not only useless as a necklace, but afflictive to bear (Melville

15). Therefore, the Lawyer subjected his employees to their roles in the office; they were his

tools to fulfill his role as Master of Chancery.

Wakefields Narrator. Unlike the Lawyer in Bartleby the narrator in Wakefield holds no

direct relation to the story; nonetheless, in some instances we can observe moral judgments from

the narrator on Wakefields actions. These judgments reflect the common sense naturalized in

early the 19th century urban contexts. For instance, when the narrator first mentions Wakefields

project, that of abandoning his home to move to an apartment next to his and observe his wife for

20 years, he/she tags it as the strangest instance, on record, of marital delinquency; and

moreover, as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities

(Hawthorne 1). Nonetheless, the narrator does not present Wakefield as a delinquent or ill-

intentioned man; he is presented like a victim of a system.

The narrator often comments that Wakefield must be in some way mad. For instance,

after Wakefield spends his first night at the next door apartment the narrator describes, Such are

his loose and rambling modes of thought, that he has taken this very singular step with the

consciousness of purpose, indeed, but without being able to define it sufficiently his own
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contemplation. The vagueness of the project, and the convulsive effort with which he plunges

into the execution of it, are equally characteristic of a feeble-minded man (Hawthorne 2).

Moreover, when [t]he latent feelings of the years break out; his feeble mind acquires a brief

energy from their strength; all the miserable strangeness of his life is revealed to him at a glance;

and he cries out, passionately Wakefield! Wakefield! You are mad! (Hawthorne 4). In other

instances, the narrator makes reference to his poor brains and him being spell-bound, all

indications that the narrator perceives Wakefield as out of his mind.

What the narrator seems to suggest is that his strangeness is derived from the pressures of

living within a system. As is presented in the concluding paragraph of the story Amid the

seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and

systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes

himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever (Hawthorne 5). Moreover, reflecting upon

Wakefields actions the narrator states, The singularity of his situation must have so molded

him to itself that, considered in regard to his fellow-creatures and the business of life, he could

not be said to possess his right mind (Hawthorne 4). Therefore, when we interpret the narrators

reflections, the ideology which posits that deviators of the norm, outliers of the system lack

reason, is revealed. For the narrator, no alternative identities are possible, thus none are

considered, to explain Wakefields endeavor, either you subject yourself to the system or you are

out of your right mind.


Bartleby and Wakefields identities are not given in the stories; the authors chose to let readers

construct their own interpretations of the characters selves. Consequently, I propose two routes
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to (re)construct Bartleby and Wakefields identities, based on the information provided by the

authors. On one hand, their actions can be interpreted, as organized by a resistance identity in

which they have a project for transforming societal conditions; on the other hand, the characters

can be perceived as unreasonable, or mad, and thus are treated as insane subjects.

Wakefield, the Spouseless Husband? We barely get descriptions of Wakefield from the storys

narrator. As Weinauer comments, the story raises questions like Why is he there [at the next-

door apartment]? Why has he left? And more importantly, why does he remain absent? (98).

The narrator does not delve into those questions; rather they are somewhat implicitly answered

by the assumption that Wakefield is mad. Nonetheless, if we reject that assumption, we are left

with the task of reconstructing Wakefields identity. In the text, as well as in the context in which

the text was written and published, there are certain hints which can aid in the (re)construction of

Wakefields identity.

Wakefield is a story about the strains imposed on mens identities by the institution of

marriage. Marriage, in general, was a vibrant topic at the time of the storys publication as

Weinauer states, The story emerges as very specific debates about marriage, and marital unity,

were moving to the center of public discourse. It serves as a complementary to the discourses of

women like Elisha Hurlburt and Jane Swisshelm, who wrote about the strains marriage imposes

upon women (Weinauer 107).

While women were subjected to be the wife and lost all their legal personhood and

properties, men were subjected to be husband thus having to take on the roles of protector

and representative. They were responsible of using their resources to provide for the physical

needs of the wives and any children who came out of the marriage (Weinauer 96). It would be
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quite reasonable to assume that Wakefield left his house fleeing from the burden of this

responsibility. He moves to an apartment alone, he does not immerse himself in a new

relationship; he becomes free of providing or caring for his wife. A point that sustains this

interpretation is his inaction when his wife becomes sick, he sees the physician enter his house,

and interprets it as perchance the herald of a funeral; yet he remains away with the justification

that she must not be disturbed at such juncture (Hawthorne 3). Maybe Wakefield needed a

break from his roles as protector and representative, embarked on a vacation from his marriage

and things got out of hand, we can only speculate.

Another possible justification for Wakefields project is that after a marriage of ten years,

he felt constrained of having a shared identity with his wife. As Hendrik Hartog notes the words

transformation and unity were central to the nineteenth-century understanding of marriage

Marriage transformed men and women into husbands and wives, changed them fundamentally.

Marriage united wife and husband, gave them a singular identity (Qtd. in Weinauer 95).

Moreover, Weinauer notes that in Hawthornes writing about marriage, there is tendency of

exploring the topic of identity from a gothic perspective, that is considering the themes of self-

erosion, doubling, and encroachment (97). Therefore, to consider Wakefield as a person

who let his resistance identity, one that refuses to merge with his wifes, take over his self, makes

perfect sense.

Bartleby, the Motionless Scrivener. If we contextualize Bartlebys actions within the frame of

1840s class struggles discourse, a consideration Barbara Foley describes as indispensable to a

complete understanding of Bartleby (88), we can see his actions as reasonable forms of protest.

For instance, the first and second time Bartleby employs his famous phrase I would prefer not
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to is to the lawyers request of reviewing a paper, this work is done for free out of common

usage since scriveners were paid four cents a folio (one hundred words), time spent reviewing

documents is time wasted from copying. The same is true for the third time he employs the

phrase; this time he is asked to go to the post office, another task the lawyer expects he performs

without pay due to him seeing his employees as tools at his disposal.

At a later point, to the puzzlement of the lawyer he stops working altogether, declines

when asked to talk about himself and refuses to leave the office. This is after the lawyer finds out

that he is living in the office, and recognizes the state of his poverty. It is probable that Bartleby

noticed that the lawyer went through his belongings and felt disrespected. Norman argues, The

Lawyer makes free with Bartlebys desk on the grounds that it is his property. What he finds

inside is less significant than that he looks. His sympathy and fellow feeling have not extended

far enough to include respect (32). This would provide a justification for his decision to refuse

talking about himself out of preserving his dignity. Furthermore, regarding his decision to stop

working, at first he was physically unable; subsequently, he just occupied the space. Foley

claims that squatting, a time-honored practice in rural Anti-Rent movements, was also, it would

appear, a weapon in the arsenal of urban radicals (95). Squatting refers to occupying

unoccupied spaces to live in them, and though the Lawyers Wall Street office was occupied, it is

often described as a space lacking life.

Another interesting detail, which may provide insight into Bartlebys identity, is his

previous employment at the Dead Letters office. There are at least two aspects about his

employment there which are relevant to a reconstruction of Bartlebys identity, (1) having

worked at that office meant that he was a man of certain status. As Richard R. John explains,

clerkships in the dead letter office were almost never bestowed upon socially or politically
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marginal men (633). This may explain why the Lawyer describes him as pallidly neat and

pitiably respectable, (Melville 5) that is, in spite of being a sad character, he was a man of

status; (2) unlike scriveners, clerks at the Dead Letters office enjoyed a good income; therefore,

his initial output described by the Lawyer as an extraordinary quantity of writing (Melville 5)

might have been an attempt to match his former income. However, John claims, yet even had

Bartlebys eyesight not given out, he would never have come close to matching his former

income in his present position (634).

When these assessments of Bartlebys actions are considered, we can clearly state that he

performs a resistance identity. Furthermore, when we consider the effects Bartlebys resistance

identity had on his peers and the Lawyer, we can also state that his identity is a project identity.

As Norman states, His deviation from the Lawyers expectations is a fundamental one: whereas

in the other cases, the Lawyer has had to put up with no more than fluctuating moods. In

Bartleby, he is confronted with another mans decision not to accommodate himself to the

lawyers fundamental assumptions (27). By staying firm in his protest, he seeks to dismantle the

Lawyers doctrine of assumptions. He reveals how economic forces alienate workers and

shuns assumptions of the employees roles. Even if Bartleby did not have a plan, or any

grandiose project for his life, he just preferred not to be disturbed, not to comply to imposed

social obligations, providing a model to whom readers can relate. This is portrayed in the

humorous scenes where both the Lawyer and his employees subconsciously start using the word

prefer. This demonstrates that Bartlebys identity as a more a man of preferences than

assumptions, (Melville 16) is transformative of his surroundings, thus a project identity.

Bartleby tests the degrees to which individual differences are permitted in society, how

the other is seen as a threat, Bartleby represents resistance, maddening because it has no
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apparent purpose [to the Lawyer]. He simply prefers not to fit in, not to cooperate with, not to be

subdued by common usage (Norman 25). The perception of Bartleby as moonstruck or

luny, in other words, mentally and/or morally impaired will be explored in the next section.


Bartleby and Wakefields challenged two of the pillars of 19th century society. On one hand,

Wakefield challenged marital unity, a principle that was viewed as foundational not just to

antebellum marriage but to the whole fabric of the nation (102). On the other hand, Bartleby

challenged the assumption that the employer has the right to subject his employees to his own

assumptions, an important element of capitalist production. By disrupting the harmony of the

system they were tagged as luny, feeble minded, and/or mad.

But was their madness a biological or a moral disorder? If it was a biological disorder,

then it would have to be dealt with through a medical-technical approach; whereas, if it is a

moral disorder, it would have to be dealt with through an ethical-political approach (Szazs 109).

There is evidence in the texts to support that both narrators see the characters madness as a

moral issue. In Bartlebys case the Lawyer reflected, What I saw that morning persuaded me

that the scrivener was the victim of innate incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but

his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach (Melville

12). In Wakefield the narrator suggests that the characters ailments are the product of his

relationship to the system, therefore, not biological.

In Wakefields introduction, the narrator wastes no time exposing the scandalous

nature of the main characters behavior, though far from the most aggravated, is perhaps the

strangest instance, on recorded, of marital delinquency as remarkable a freak as may be found

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in the whole list of human oddities (Hawthorne 1). Similarly, the Lawyer, who was an

eminently safe man, interpreted Bartlebys behavior as scandalous; in fact, this was the main

reason why he wanted to get rid of him. The lawyer states he would have let Bartleby stay but

the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks conferred by his professional friends who visited

the room pressured him to get rid of Bartleby (Melville 19). He feared that it would scandalize

his professional reputation; furthermore, after he moves from the office, he goes back to talk

with Bartleby with the same fear, that of a scandal.

Foucault claims that, historically, those identified as insane, alienated, deranged,

demented, and/or extravagant have been confined to avoid scandal (117). In both stories the

symbolism for confinement is present. Interestingly, in both stories physical confinement is, at

least at first, voluntary, then is reinforced. On one hand, Bartleby is first confined in the dead

space of the lawyers office; then, he is taken to the Tombs. On the other hand, Wakefield leaves

his home voluntarily, but then cant find the courage to come back. Nonetheless, while this is

only the type of confinement evident to the narrators, there is another, more abstract, type of

confinement, that of subjection to social roles. Bartleby and Wakefield give up physical space to

make room for their identities.

To conclude, in abstract terms, the subjection of an individual to the label of being Mad is

often an attempt of the system, operating through individuals who have adopted legitimizing

identities, to confine those who have demonstrated resistance identities to a space of otherness.

This space could be material or abstract, but ultimately, it aims to suppress a project which may

jeopardize their position of privilege.

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