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The Walls That Define Us


Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” tells the story of Bartleby, a man living in the lower-class of nineteenth century New York City, who secures a job copying legal documents. Unlike the other employees’ eagerness to work, Bartleby remains behind his “green screen” that demarcates his office space and repeatedly responds “I would prefer not to” when asked to complete a task.

Most readers and critics alike interpret Bartleby’s behavior as a mode of passive resistance against his boss and the larger institutions of Wall Street and capitalism. However, through close reading, I instead view Bartleby’s rejection of work as compliance to his boss’s imposition of a physical barrier—that instead the physical walls that confine Bartleby subsequently impose psychological walls, or, mental illness.

Next, pairing Bartleby’s experience with physical and psychological walls with historical context, such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, sheds new light on the matter. A pertinent wall that affected a significant fraction of the lower classes, and most likely Melville and his fictional characters, was the tenement houses of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Beginning in the 1830s, the growing immigrant and lower classes were herded into tight quarters for a big buck out of a lack of safer and more affordable options. As Riis explains, the precarious construction and hazardous conditions of these buildings not only altered their inhabitant’s physical states, but psychological states as well. From the crippling disease and infection, immense poverty, crime, and manipulation invoked by tangible confines, many forms of psychological distress arose.

Through close reading and its alignment with pertinent historical contexts, such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, I argue that figurative and literal physical walls, regardless of the intentions behind their establishment, result in devastating and lasting psychological walls within their victims. Bartleby’s story as well as the thousands of stories of the residents of the tenement houses illustrate that as figurative and literal physical barriers are erected, those confined can lack the ability to overcome limitation and instead can absorb into and become the limitations which surround them. Although Bartleby and the tenement house residents were subjected to these barriers, many exemplified resilience and triumph in these difficult times.

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