Please note: The following contains “spoilers” for both “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Billy Budd, Sailor. But since the actual plotlines of these works seem to me among their less interesting aspects, knowing them beforehand is unlikely to detract from the experience of reading these works.
Before tackling that monster Moby-Dick, I thought it best to ease myself into Melville’s fictional world with two shorter works – the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener”, written in the early 50s shortly after Moby-Dick; and Melville’s late novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, found amongst his papers in an incomplete state after his death in 1891. Both are works of a startling vision and originality, and, for all the solidity of the prose, seem more elusive the more deeply one peers into them.
The setting of “Bartleby the Scrivener” could not be further removed than the open seas of Moby-Dick: we are in Wall Street, then, as now, the financial centre of America. The narrator seems an affable and kindly gentleman – a lawyer, who deals in deeds, bonds, mortgages, and such-like. This fictional world seems bricked in by walls, and by the minutiae of documents and of articles. Into this world enters Bartleby, the scrivener, whose job it is to copy faithfully these documents which, to any but the most dedicated professional (and even, one suspects, to them) are dreary and dry-as-dust. Bartleby is quiet and undemonstrative, and does his copying diligently, but when he is asked, as is usual, to carry out tasks beyond mere copying, his answer, though quiet, is firm: “I would prefer not to.” And this simple little formula – “I would prefer not to” – seems to become a sort of motto for Bartleby; whatever is asked of him is met with this response – “I would prefer not to”.
As time passes, Bartleby refuses even to carry out his copying: his refusal, once again, is not demonstrative in any way, but it is firm for all its quietness – he would prefer not to. When even the narrator – a far more gentle employer than he might have been – dismisses Bartleby from his post, Bartleby refuses to leave the office: he would prefer not to. It becomes clear that he has made his office his home, sleeping there at nights, taking there his frugal meals, such as they are. The deadening world of brick walls and dead documents is also Bartleby’s world: it has ground him down, and he wants to take no further part in it: to every question, the answer remains the same – he would prefer not to.
Rather than evict Bartleby by force, the lawyer finally moves his office to different premises, but Bartleby remains fixed where he had been. Finally, the new occupiers do evict him by force, and Bartleby, in prison, effectively starves himself to death. Even his suicide – for such it undoubtedly is – is passive: he does not so much rush to his death, as allow death to come to him. He would prefer not even to live.
What are we to make of this peculiar story? As with the stories of Kafka, it invites interpretation, but as soon as one tries to interpret, one feels one is reducing the story. Is Bartleby merely suffering from what we would nowadays call “clinical depression”? Is there something more to his insistent rejection?
He certainly reminds one at times of Akaky Akakievich Basmatchkin, the downtrodden clerk in Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, but perhaps a more interesting literary forebear is the legal copyist in Bleak House, which was published is serial form shortly before the writing of “Bartleby”. Dickens’ clerk, whose job, like Bartleby’s, was to copy out mind-numbingly dull legal documents, dies in great poverty and distress; and he had called himself “Nemo” – Nobody. A human being reduced to being Nobody, who takes leave of life without leaving behind even a trace of his existence … Could this, I wonder, have been the starting point for Melville’s imagination? Whether or not such is the case, the imagination that produced this remarkable story seems a long way off from that which conceived the infinitely vast fictional world of Moby-Dick.
With Billy Budd, Sailor, we are back at sea. This novella was found amongst Melville’s papers shortly after his death, still in, one suspects, an incomplete form, and wasn’t published till 1924, by which stage Ulysses, “The Waste Land”, and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu had already defined what we can now recognise as the high-water mark of modernism; and the posthumous publications of The Trial and The Castle were just round the corner. These were exciting times for literature, and I do not know how much of an impact was made by the publication of a newly discovered work of a writer associated with what must have seemed by then a long bygone age. And yet, Billy Budd, Sailor, seems as startling in its vision as those products of the heady days of modernism.
There is, once again, a precision, a solidity, to the prose, resonant as it is with Biblical phraseology and images; and yet, as with Kafka, the more solid the representation, the more elusive seems that which is represented. The action, which takes place on a British battleship at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is very simple: Billy Budd, the innocent, is victimised by John Claggart, and when Billy unintentionally kills his tormentor, the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, insists that Billy be hanged, even though he knows Billy to be innocent. Once again, this story invites and at the same time rejects interpretation.
What is the cause of Claggart’s evil? Melville, who comments on the action throughout, suggests that Claggart had been born with it. Not for Melville the Wordsworthian view of humans born in innocence, and of Evil as a force that enters our being only as we become older:
…in [Claggart] was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short “a depravity according to nature”.
Neither is Billy’s innocence entirely admirable: innocence is merely the absence of the awareness of evil, and in this world, such naiveté is not an admirable quality.
And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.
But not in Billy case. He has remained a child, but the innocence which characterises the child is not an admirable trait: it is a consequence merely of a lack of intelligence, and, in Billy’s case, intelligence has not waxed. His innocence is, indeed, a danger.
And it is Vere who has to bear the responsibility of it all. Vere sees himself almost as a father to Billy, but it is his sworn duty to maintain order on the ship. And, at a time like this, in the wake of naval mutinies and at war with a dangerous enemy, Vere feels he has no choice but to sacrifice Billy, whom he loves. Billy seems to accept his fate with equanimity: such innocence as his, indeed, such ignorance as his, has nothing to fear. But it is the more knowing Vere who has to take upon himself the burden of the tragedy. Shortly after Billy’s execution, Vere himself dies after being mortally wounded in a conflict: his last words are “Billy Budd”. The physical agony may have been Billy’s, but the mental agony is Vere’s.
The above is a gross simplification of a deeply complex story – a story complex not in its outline, but in its implications. It is not, it seems to me, about the problem of Evil: rather, it is about the problem of Innocence. That Melville sees Innocence as a problem is in itself startling, but the conclusion seems inescapable: Vere could have dealt with the Evil that was Claggart, but dealing with the Innocence that is Billy is another matter. If we are to live together in this world, and prevent it sinking into anarchy, Innocence itself is a danger, and must be suppressed. Such, it seems to me, is the deeply pessimistic final testament of Melville.
And yet, such an interpretation leaves open many questions. Why is Vere in such a haste to convene a drumhead court in which to condemn Billy? Why could he not have deferred the case to the higher authorities? Presumably, Vere does not wish to abjure the responsibility he has voluntarily undertaken, but the fact of Vere’s haste is one of the many knots in the wood that refuse to be planed away. And what is one to make of the miraculous absence in Billy, after the execution, of rigor mortis, or of the erection that accompanies a hanging? If this is to be regarded as Nature’s vindication of Billy’s innocence, should it also be regarded as Nature’s condemnation of Vere’s justice? I think, at this stage, we find ourselves in deeper waters than I, for one, am capable of navigating. Perhaps there are some questions which we are not intended to solve.
Billy Budd, Sailor seems to me one of the finest masterpieces of fiction. The simplicity of the story it presents on the surface is at odds with the dizzying depths that lie below.
Right, now I am ready – or as ready as ever I can be – for Moby-Dick.