A Comparison of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven
Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” are similar in many respects. They possess similar motifs and themes, similar use of symbolism, even coincidences between the two strong enough that one might be motivated to consider them outright connections. In particular, it is the mystery that surrounds both tales that caused myself to search for what they were “about”. Searching for meaning in text can be a sort of default state for readers. However, in these two short stories that drive seems to be stronger. And it’s that desire to search for meaning that is the object of this paper’s explorations. Or, perhaps more specifically, it is an exploration on why we choose to search for meaning in these stories. What about these texts seems to call the reader’s attention so strongly?
I believe it is the sudden occurrence of oddity in both of the stories, as well as the fact that there is an overwhelming amount of symbolism, irony, and cleverly used diction present in the texts. And, most importantly, I believe our desire to search for meaning stems from the fact that the stories themselves involve a character searching for answers.
I’ll begin by establishing the fact that I don’t believe the search for meaning to be outright useless. Nor do I believe the drive to do so is some sort of fault in readers. Indeed, in his appropriately titled essay “The Search for Meaning,” Joseph R. Royce explains in great detail the reasons in which the search for meaning is an innate human desire and loosely defines the search for meaning as something that “ultimately implies an effort to arrive at something irreducible.” (515) But it is this word, “irreducible,” that drives me to call into question the validity of always searching for meaning in a text. “[Arriving] at something irreducible” implies a degree of purposeful ignorance of the rest of the text. It conjures images of gold-hungry miners digging ever deeper into the mountain of text, ignoring the possibilities of the mountain itself.
Nevertheless, the presence of a desire to search for meaning should be considered a compliment for the author. For only an ineffectual text would have this desire be absent. The ways in which this desire for meaning is created is what I would like to focus on, rather than the meaning itself.
The parallels between the two texts are quite numerous. The similar themes are obvious: both titular characters seem to be symbols of, or at least associated with, death. Both say the same phrase repeatedly. But more importantly for our goals here is that both stories are crafted similarly. James L. Cowell and Gary Spitzer analyze the development of mood in the texts. They explain that the change of mood in “The Raven” “which Poe said he intended to range from the fantastic at its beginning (…) to a later ‘tone of the most profound seriousness” mirrors that of “Bartleby” in which the ludicrous descriptions of Turkey and Nippers turn to a sad seriousness as Bartleby slowly grows more numb and isolated (41, “”Bartleby” and “the Raven”: Parallels of the Irrational”).
But while the shift itself is obvious, the reason behind it is enigmatic. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact circumstance that creates such an eerie turn of events. While the change in Bartleby himself is slow and creeping, as he denies more and more tasks until he lapses into a sort of comatose, deathly demeanor, the change in tone seems to happen much more quickly. Suddenly, “the air is unwholesome” and the narrator is moving his office in a desperate attempt to flee Bartleby’s disconcerting presence (par. 173). In “the Raven” there exists an even more abrupt change. The narrator quickly goes from “napping” to being filled with “fantastic terrors” within just two paragraphs (par.1, 3).
It is this unexplained eeriness and oddity that caused me to question and wonder. What is really going on? Not only is the text odd, but it is unexpectedly so. What did I miss? One might be driven to search for the answer to these questions and, failing that, attempt to dig deeper into the mountain.
Both texts possess quite a fair share of symbolism and irony as well. The Raven, knowing nothing but the phrase “nevermore,” perches atop a bust of Pallas, god of wisdom. Similarly Bartleby, a character who says nothing but “I prefer not to,” stares at a bust of Cicero, a figure known for his speaking prowess. Both of these occurrences are interesting, even when not viewed as significant because of their similarity to each other. They speak to a subtext and deeper layers of possible thought.
In addition, both authors’ use of diction is telling. Poe calls the raven a “fowl,” a possible pun on the word “foul.” (9,13) Bartleby is repeatedly described as “cadaverous” and is often depicted “standing in one of those dead-wall reveries”, referring to his blank, corpse-like expression (87, 92, 110, 155). This acts as foreshadowing for his eventual death. The clever use of diction indicates, again, that there is deeper layers to the text. It shows the reader that there is things one can discover upon closer reading. And, after noticing this, a reader is inclined to look for more.
These masterful uses of symbolism, irony, and diction are purposefully created by their respective authors. They were not happy accidents of unintended meaning. They operate, for the purposes of our discussion, as the miner’s metal detector, showing that there is in fact a reason to read closely. There is a mystery, macabre though it may be, to discover here.
In both texts there is an overwhelming sense of rationality clashing with irrationality. The protagonists meet with a character which defies expectation. They are confronted with extremely strange circumstances, yet both characters seem to have been making conscious choices to deal with the least amount of excitement as possible. The narrator in “The Raven” is at home reading “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” while the narrator of Bartleby “has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (Poe, 1; Melville, 3). But the sudden appearance of a talking raven and a zombie-like Bartleby disrupts their calm life and there is no explanation as to the reason of their appearance and demeanor.
Following these perplexing encounters, both narrators attempt to ask for more information from the object of their confusion. One wonders about “what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore / Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore” while the other implores Bartleby to “tell [him] any thing about [himself].” (Poe, 12; Melville, 102) Neither receive a satisfactory answer to their inquiries. I believe this to be one of the primary reasons that a reader might search for answers: the answers are purposefully hidden. The narrators themselves are hopelessly searching for meaning. It follows that a reader might also join in the pursuit, if not consciously.
Royce describes a “barrier between man and ultimate reality.” (518) To the right of this barrier is that which is untestable and unknowable. He describes the desire for people to breach this barrier and guess what lies beyond it, despite its seeming pointlessness, as well as labelling the methods of these guesses. This is relevant to our discussions as the occurrences within the texts are inherently untestable. The interactions within the text are not real and therefore the truth -the ultimate, final truth- of its meaning is nonexistent. This fact is compounded by our presence in a time after the death of the authors, the only ones who might offer us a glimpse of this final truth.
As the narrators of “The Raven” and “Bartleby” attempt to breach their own barrier, across which Bartleby and the raven lie, so too do we attempt to breach the barrier that the narrators themselves inhabit. The narrators can’t reach the gold in the mountain, but perhaps we can. It is inherently futile; the answers are unknowable. But, as Royce posits, the desire stems from the need to question more than the need for actual answers.
These texts are written in such a manner as to cause the reader to search for meaning within them. The abrupt and unexpected eeriness causes one to wonder what it was that produced the disconcerting feeling. The presence of symbolism, irony, and particular diction allows the reader to know that there is things not necessarily apparent on the surface. And finally, the fact that the texts themselves seem to involve such an intense desire for answers causes the reader to do the same.
Exploring the ways in which this desire is created is an important exercise as it, perhaps more than any other, allows one to reflect more intimately on the texts effects on themselves. In other words, discussing what makes us curious allows us to celebrate the author’s craft more directly. By investigating a certain node of attention we discover what about the text created that node. In keeping with the prevailing metaphor, we stop digging for gold and instead appreciate what about the mountain caused us to dig in the first place.