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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

'Bartleby' touches a nerve

in anyone who has tried to manage an unmanageable relationship with a parent, child, lover, spouse (employee). Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville: His World and Work, makes this claim, adding: "Anyone who compels our better self to try and try again but pushes us toward cruelty and a final, Enough!"


One student last Thursday said she had not experienced this.

"Really?" I said, wondering if there was a saint among us.

"Not to the point of cruelty," she clarified.

Ah, language and abstractness. All depends on one's meaning of cruelty.

I later relied on my treasured OED for its use of the word: pitilessness, hard-heartedness; a delight in or show of indifference to another's pain.


I think in images and associations. And the other day in class when I said, "Really," I saw a classroom at Napa Valley's Vintage High School in the 1970s. Each department in the school had a separate building (designed to compartmentalize learning!). One multi-purpose room in the English Department's compound had an accordion-pleated divider to open or close, depending on the room's use. Naturally, the sound was heard on both sides. Real architectural genius! I mention this because I see cruelty as pleated like that moveable wall.



In my first teaching position, a junior high in L.A., corporal punishment was allowed. The dean could paddle recalcitrant boys. The Girl's dean was a viper and used tongue only. Parents then were "free" to inflict physical punishment, too. But cruelty in its worst form involves physical abuse and sadistic behavior. Verbal cruelty is more nuanced (popular word these days). The sliding verbal wall runs from loud requests, shouted threats, biting sarcasm, and other cruelty with words. There is the non-verbal realm: to stop seeing humans, to render them invisible. Melville writes: "So true it is, and so terrible, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery, enlists our best affections; but in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not."



To read Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," is to occupy the being of a morally vexed Wall Street lawyer in the 1850s in New York City. With him a reader moves through at least 40 emotional states and actions because his employee, Bartleby, prefers not to do what he is asked to do. This societal representative becomes "the motionless occupant of a naked room," before he is carried off to the Tombs (prison). "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a brilliant, timeless story, comic and deadly serious, as piercing and meaningful now as it was 170 years ago.





Next week: Billy Budd kept in a tin box for over 70 years until rediscovered.




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