My students, especially in introductory literature courses, have been familiar with "blueprints" for decades. I have produced these in an attempt to guide them to certain interpretations of certain works because I firmly believe that they can learn to write well only when they learn to know "what they are talking about." The papers produced as a result of these "blueprints" were usually very good. As the example here will suggest, I took no chances when it came to spelling out for my students what they should see in a given story. In this case, however, the interpretation suggested is "original" enough for me to offer it to the Internet not as a "blueprint" for a paper, but as a reading in its own right. I also offer its sequel, "Whose Interpretations is it Anyway?" as further food for thought.
[Page references to "Bartleby" are to the Signet Classics edition of Melville's Billy Budd and Other Tales]
A Blueprint for Melville's "Bartleby"
Steven C. Scheer
There is no method except to be very intelligent.
Preliminaries:The Greek precept concerning a sound mind in a sound body applies to writing as well, where you may think of the mind as the message and the body as the medium. There is a sense, of course, according to which the medium is the message, so try to write as well as you can. Even the best of points will suffer if and when they are badly written. However well or badly you may write, though, try to keep the following in mind: (1) Scheer's Law of Writing: "Write to that part of you that doesn't understand what the writing part of you understands, that is, explain as clearly as you can all that you would have to have explained to you in order to understand what the writing part of you understands." This law (named in utter humility) applies to all writing (I use it, humbly, in Freshman Composition), even to writing about literature. But writing about literature has its own conventions. I shall say more about these in a moment. Right now, let me impress upon you the reason why you should avoid writing plot outlines. Since you have read the story, you know what "happens," right? Then there's no reason to tell yourself what has happened, right? Formulating the meaning/significance of what "happens" is what you want to do, since it is only by "saying" what you really mean that you will know what you really mean in the first palce (another thing to think about tomorrow at Tara . . . ) (2) One of the conventions of writing about literature involves the use of the present tense. Stories use the past tense (as if they were describing things that have really happened), but since they exist in a world of their own (so to speak), what happens in stories is always already happening in stories. Thus, Huck Finn is always teaming up with Jim for a journey down the Mississippi, and Captain Ahab is always already chasing Moby Dick, and so on. (3) The "egotistical sublime" (everything should have a name) requires that when one writes about literature one assume that one's reader knows the story one is writing about but does not understand it. This really is the most important point so far. Let me explain: what one does when one writes about a story is explain its meaning to one's reader. But didn't I just say something about your not knowing what you mean till you have, in a sense, explained it to yourself in the first place? Yes. Now here's why these two statements are complementary rather than contradictory: I am sure you have heard it said that it's not until one teaches that one really learns. We learn by teaching. Paradoxical but true. To learn, therefore, you must, in a sense, teach yourself. The same thing happens when you write. Though ostensibly you are writing for the benefit of your reader, you are really (always already) writing for your own benefit - for yourself, if you will. That is, it's not until you imagine yourself as your own reader and tell "yourself" what you know has to be said in order to understand whatever it is that you understand that you yourself will come to understand what you understand. You understand? I know, I know. This sounds kind of complicated, but it's really very simple. Consider, then, the following scenario: You read a story (say, "Bartleby"), you find something interesting and intelligent in it, you think about it, then you sit down to explain it to some "reader." In your attempt to explain it, you discover why the story struck you as interesting and intelligent in the first place. And so on. Perhaps applying these principles to the "blueprint" will help.
The Blueprint: You should read the story carefully, perhaps more than once. Then you should think about it in terms of this blueprint. By then you will surely understand something interesting and intelligent about it. Once you understand, you will want to write out that understanding for the benefit of your reader (knowing all along that you are, in the end, your own beneficiary, so to speak).
Since "Bartleby" is a complex story, I am going to zero in on one particularly interesting and intelligent aspect of it. Even this one particular aspect will be complex, of course. Please note, first of all, that the story has a first-person narrator. The narrator, an anonymous lawyer, is in fact a major character in his own right, although (ostensibly) the story is really "about" Bartleby. Note, in fact, that what the story is really about, in a sense, is the effect Bartleby seems to have on the narrator. Note, in fact, that though the story is ostensibly about Bartleby, we don't really learn all that much about him. Instead, we learn a great deal about the narrator, about where he is coming from (metaphorically speaking, of course), and so on, but even more importantly, we see him undergo several rather significant changes. We see what he means when he calls himself "an eminently safe man" (104, italics Melville's) in the beginning, for example, and we also see that this question of safety somehow becomes a question of salvation in time. But I may be jumping the gun.
Please note, then, that in the beginning the narrator doesn't fire Bartleby because it would be too much trouble to do so. In time, however, he undergoes a change. The change is writ large in the following passage:
Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase some delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. (115)
At this point the narrator appears to have become charitable towards Bartleby, but this charity is not yet of the truly virtuous kind. As time goes by, however, his feelings for Bartleby become more and more authentic. On the Sunday on which he discovers that Bartleby has been living in his office all along, for example, the narrator's tone becomes very different: "For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresitibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam" (120). [Note, in passing, by the way, that there is a misprint in your text on page 120 where the word in line 6 should be "friendlessness" and not "friendliness."] Later still this authentically charitable frame of mind intensifies:
Some days now passed during which, at leisure intervals, I looked a little into "Edwards on the Will," and "Priestley on Necessity." Under the circumstances, those books induced a salutary feeling. Gradually I slid into the persuation that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom. Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestinated purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact, but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office room for such period as you may see fit to remain. (130-31)
In the end, the narrator goes so far as to invite Bartleby to his home, but Bartleby refuses to comply. What we notice here, therefore, is a series of rather significant changes not in our main character (ostensibly the main character is Bartleby) but in our narrator. The fact that "this blessed frame of mind" (131) doesn't remain stable is clear. There are several explanations for this in the story (see, for example, pages 121 and 131), but are they the best explanations possible? If not, then perhaps the best explanation is one even the narrator doesn't know about. Let's see if we can do better.
I am now going to bring your attention to certain intriguing aspects of the text. Early in the story the narrator speaks of Bartleby's "advent" (105). Still early on (and I am going to take these words out of context, as it were), he speaks of the "third day" on which a certain "necessity had arisen" (111). Then, in one fell swoop, so to speak, we encounter the following passage: "But when this old Adam of resentment rose in me and tempted me concerning Bartleby, I grappled him and threw him. How? Why, simply by recalling the divine injunction: 'A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.' Yes, this is was that saved me" (129-30, italics mine). Though the story is ostensibly not particularly Christian, don't these passages insinuate something along irresistibly "Christian" lines? The first two clearly imply that Bartleby is somehow Christ-like. The last passage, on the other hand, seems to incorporate the whole Old and New Testament bit in, as I said before, one fell swoop ("old Adam," "new commandment"). At the very end of the story we get even more convincing clues. There the narrator speaks of "dead letters" and of "good tidings." "Dead letters." Doesn't the phrase bring to mind the whole letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law thing? And doesn't the letter kill? And what about "good tidings"? Isn't that phrase synonymous with "good news," the meaning of the word "Gospel"? You bet. It seems, then, that Bartleby is somehow or other to be taken as a Christ figure. Yet he doesn't resemble Christ. The only similarity I can detect between Bartleby and Christ is that Bartleby, like Christ, refuses to defend himself. What should we do then with the textual evidence that we have been uncovering here?
Perhaps we should look to the structure of the relationship between the narrator and Bartleby. Isn't this structure somehow reminiscent of the relationship between humankind and Christ? The narrator is a lawyer, by the way. Isn't Judaism a rather legalistic religion? Didn't Christ challenge this legalism? Doesn't Bartleby challenge the narrator's? Isn't the narrator quite willing to "convert," as it were? This is why I have emphasized his change from safety, so to speak, to authentic charity (a kind of salvation, as I said before). But something is still puzzling, is it not? Why does the story end unhappily, so to speak, and why can't the narrator maintain his blessedly charitable frame of mind? What is the real explanation, the explanation that he himself seems to remain ignorant of? I think it's time to bring Melville into the picture. What is Melville really trying to say? Isn't he trying to say that CHRIST IS A DOUBLE CROSSER? (I think there is a pun there somewhere that I wouldn't want to touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole.) In what sense is the DOUBLE-CROSSING CHRIST the deep meaning of the story? How would you formulate it? If I were you, I would pay close attention to the following: Doesn't the narrator, when he becomes truly charitable (thanks to Bartleby/Christ) try to practice his newfound charity on Bartleby? And doesn't Bartleby refuse? Doesn't he, in fact, frustrate the very charity he has, in a sense, awakened in the narrator in the first place?
Afterword: Well, there you have it. A chance at a brilliant (if I say so myself) interpretation of Melville's famous story. What you should do is really simple. Read the story and, with the help of this blueprint, come to really see and understand the interpretation I am suggesting here. Then simply sit down and write out that understanding for the benefit of your reader. The order of magnitude is approximately 5 type-written (or word-processed) double-spaced pages. Remember to stick to the main point(s). The idea is to understand the meaning of the story and to expain it to your reader. Don't worry about your interpretation, just make sure it makes sense to you, then make it make sense to your reader. Good luck. And don't forget to have fun either. And, of course, don't forget to write.
I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness; the consciousness of another, no different from the one I automatically assume in every human being I encounter, except that in this case the consciousness is open to me, welcomes me, lets me look deep inside itself, and even allows me, with unheard-of license, to think what it thinks and feel what it feels. (Poulet 57)
Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling deals with the existential and "absurd" implications of the biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. The title in question could, with equal justice, appear on the cover of a book dealing with the way students feel about writing papers, though students who do experience something like fear and trembling when they contemplate the awesome task of the writing of a paper are, to a certain extent, justified to feel the way they do. To write a paper, especially a decent paper, is no easy task. Writing a paper is nevertheless the best, in a sense the sole truly acceptable, test of a student's competence in the field of literary interpretation. Writing about literature is what real students of literature do. By real students of literature I mean, of course, men and women who devote their entire lives to the study of the field in question. Such "students" are frequently professors, though not all professors are real students of literature, since not all professors write and publish (at least some of) "their" interpretations. To "test" students by asking them to write papers, then (which means asking them to do the real thing), is to respect them enough to treat them as potential equals. Which doesn't mean that the professor giving the assignment should evaluate the students' performance on an equal (or strictly professional, if you will) basis. Few students would ever pass if they were held to such demanding standards. That's why, many years ago, I have invented the "blueprint." It allows beginners to act as if they were advanced, thus it actually gives them a chance to advance rather quickly, which makes it a rather effective and efficient pedagogical tool, if I say so myself. Isn't such advancement, after all, the point of teaching? And isn't the teacher (always already) in the business of making him/herself obsolete? But I may be getting ahead of the story . . .
"I am someone who happens to have as object of his own thought, thoughts which are part of a book I am reading, and which are therefore the cogitations of another. They are the thoughts of another, and yet it is I who am their subject. The situation is even more astonishing than the one noted above. I am thinking the thoughts of another. Of course, there would be no cause for astonishment if I were thinking it as the thought of another. But I think it as my very own." (Poulet 59)
I have decided to produce this handout as a supplement to the "blueprint" because I sense that many of you are still too much in the grips of a kind of unproductive fear and trembling to approach your task with the calm excitement (oxymoron intended) which spells success. Furthermore, I sense that some of you are especially "hung up" on the notion that what I am asking for is a version of "my" interpretation of "Bartleby," as if it were an unseemly "game," some kind of "ego trip," or the capricious whim of a "tyrannical teacher." Instead of welcoming the chance to come up with a truly good interpretation of "your own" (which is precisely what the "blueprint" lets you do), some of you seem to keep resisting your own advancement by feeling, somehow, violated: "yes, but he wants us to do his interpretation." No kidding! Since I am too nice a guy to leave you in such a lurch, I am going to put this whole thing in the proper perspective.
" . . . for how could I explain . . . the astonishing facility with which I not only understand but even feel what I read. When I read as I ought - that is without mental reservation, without any desire to preserve my independence of judgment, and with the total commitment required of any reader - my comprehension becomes intuitive and any feeling proposed to me is immediately assumed by me."(Poulet 60, italics in original)
A person by the name of George Whalley published a splendid little article called "Scholarship and Criticism" back in 1959. In this article Whalley says that "[t]he end of criticism is knowing: the end of scholarship is knowledge." That's a splendid distinction between the two components that make up "literary interpretation." Whalley then goes on to say the following: "The unpardonable sin of scholarship is to be wrong; one could say that in criticism the unpardonable sin is to be right" (10). To make a potentially long story short (without, however, shortchanging its plot) let me say that knowledge has to do with "facts" (about which one shouldn't be wrong) while knowing has to do with "fictions" (about which one probably can't ever be absolutely "right"). But just as the relationship between facts and fictions is closer than one would think, that between scholarship (knowledge) and criticism (knowing) is also fairly close. For Whalley, no critic can be a good critic unless he/she is also a good scholar and vice versa. Nevertheless, I am more interested in your criticism than in your scholarship. This means that in this course (as in most literature courses nowadays) we emphasize criticism as opposed to scholarship. You might think of the two in this way: criticism is philosophical (loosely) whereas scholarship is historical (loosely/tightly). Interestingly (and paradoxically, of course) enough, though, once one knows about a particular piece of criticism (that is, once one knows a particular interpretation) one's knowledge of it is also historical (that is, scholarly).
"Indeed every word of literature is impregnated with the mind of the one who wrote it. And he makes us read it, he awakens in us the analogue of what he thought or felt. To understand the literary work, then, is to let the individual who wrote it reveal himself to us in us."(Poulet 61, italics in original)
In any case, whenever you write an interpretive paper (which falls under criticism, of course), you are presenting a way of knowing. You come to know, if you will, a certain way of knowing (in this case) "Bartleby." The idea is to be able to develop ways of knowing of your own. You can't really do this without knowing ways of knowing, of course. (Just as you can't learn to drive, for example, without knowing what driving is.) Every time you hear/read a piece of literary interpretation, then, you are in fact re/tracing the critic's way of knowing in order to know it. Thus, knowing criticism (which is itself "knowing") becomes "knowledge" (scholarship). But I said that (always) already. Perhaps I keep coming back to this distinction because I want to collapse it. I still want, however, two different piles of rubble. One of these (I will maintain) should be labeled "criticism" (a kind of knowing) while the other should be labeled "scholarship" (a kind of knowledge). In this way our collapsed distinction will remain re/erectable. Never mind. The point is that at a certain point ways of knowing (which should never be considered absolutely right) meet knowledge (which should never be wrong). But let me not tantalize you with what may appear to be (it isn't, really) a "mere" play on words.
"The work lives its own life within me; in a certain sense, it thinks itself, and it even gives itself a meaning within me." (Poulet 62)
Having seen the larger context within which literary interpretations unfold, we may re/turn to the real question of this handout: whose interpretation is, say, a brilliant interpretation anyway? More precisely, whose interpretation (that is, way of knowing) is the "blueprint" asking you to re/produce? In a sense you would be right if you said that the blueprint for an interpretation of Melville's "Bartleby" is asking you to re/produce Scheer's interpretation of the story in question. Notice that I said "in a sense." For the real truth is that the interpretation is never the interpreter's! Nor is it finally the author's. The interpretation belongs to the story itself (or the poem or novel or play). That's why D.H. Lawrence was right when he said "trust not the artist, trust the tale." And that's why I was right when I said that "my" interpretation of Lionel Trilling's "Of This Time, Of That Place" was better than the one Lionel Trilling himself suggested outside the story, in an essay about it. The reason why I was right, even though Lionel Trilling wrote the story in the first place, is because "my" interpretation makes the story a much better story. A "brilliant" interpretation, then, is a testimonial not to the brilliance of the interpreter, but to the brilliance of the story itself (all the interpreter can do, after all, is produce a brilliant reading - the brilliance itself always already resides in the writing which the interpreter "merely" reads). Sophisticated literary critics know (not all literary critics are sophisticated, by the way) that an interpretation is part of the text, not something superimposed on it. Isn't this implied by the very metaphor of "reading" (as in interpretation = reading)? And isn't reading in some sense a repetition of writing, a repetition of the act of writing during the act of reading in the mind of the reader?
"I am a consciousness astonished by an existence which is not mine, but which I experience as though it were mine. / This astonished consciousness is, in fact, the consciousness of the critic: it is the consciousness of a being who is allowed to apprehend as its own what is happening in the consciousness of another . . . [C]ritical consciousness . . . [then] does not imply the total disappearance of the critic's mind in the mind to be criticized [i.e. interpreted]." (Poulet 63)
So the interpretation I have suggested that you see in "Bartleby" belongs to the story itself. I have certainly taken all "my" evidence for it from the story itself. The fact that "in some sense" the interpretation in question is still "mine" owes itself to the simple fact that I happen to be the one who happens to have seen this particular interpretation in the story in question. And this is true of all published interpretations of all works of literature for which we have published interpretations. But only if the interpretations are valid. Some interpretations are clearly "wrong" (even though no interpretation can be "right," which means that no interpretation can reasonably claim to be the only right interpretation there is! I take it that José Ortega y Gasset was "absolutely" right when he said that "the sole false perspective is that which claims to be the only one there is" ).
"The field of the writer is nothing but writing itself, . . . [f]or literature is itself a science, or at least knowledge, no longer of the 'human heart' but of human language. . . . [W]hat is characteristic of our own time is that literature has become deliberately, consciously, the criticism of language." (Barthes 144-45, 146)
This business of "mine," by the way, applies to the entire course. This entire course is "mine" in the same way in which the interpretation I am suggesting in the blueprint for Melville's "Bartleby" is "mine." A teacher can only teach you, after all, what he/she knows. And I can only teach you my own ways of knowing the various works we happen to cover in this particular course. In a way the course is what I say about the works, not what you think about them. This is true of all courses in all fields. The student's task is always already to take what a course has to offer. If some literature courses, for example, are better than others it's because some teachers offer better interpretations than others. Not all interpretations are equally good. The best interpretation is that which makes the story (or the novel or play or poem) the best possible story (or novel or play or poem) it can be. Which brings us right back to the immediate issue: by cooperating with the blueprint you will see a good interpretation of Melville's "Bartleby," one that is probably better than any you could have seen without help or assistance from the blueprint. It is, by the way, a valid, a professionally respectable interpretation, one that is (really) of publishable quality (I know whereof I speak since I have two books and seven or so essays published so far with, I hope, many other publications to follow these). So what the blueprint allows you to do is to re/create a good, a valid, and a professionally respectable interpretation of potentially publishable quality. You will have a chance to do "your own thing" (notice quotation marks, please) for the second paper you will write in this course. I know from experience that, thanks to the first, you will have an easier time of it the second time around. Once you have written a "decent" interpretation of "your own," you will be in an always already better position to repeat the performance. (The hidden value of the blueprint is that is lets you concentrate on what is relevant to the interpretation in question while it lets you ignore what is not relevant to the same. Beginning writers usually have the greatest difficulty with knowing what to include and what to leave out, period.) So stop the fear and trembling and start the calm excitement of knowing what you are doing because you have been shown the way. The journey is still your own, it's just that you have a well-defined destination, and a map to get you there safely and soundly.
Barthes, Roland. "To Write: An Intransitive Verb?" The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man: The Structuralist Controversy. Ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970. 134-145.
Poulet, Georges. "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority." The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. 56-72.
Ortega y Gasset, José. The Modern Theme. Trans. James Clough. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
Whalley, George. "Scholarship and Criticism." The Practice of Modern Literary Scholarship. Ed. Sheldon P. Zitner. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1966. 2-13.
Send e-mail to: