All individuals search for a purpose, an identity to make sense of the world. The gravity of modernity intensifies the strain of societal repression on humanity, making people inclined to seek a new way of handling the severe effects of a changing society. Herman Melville observes this phenomenon, and the spiritual symptoms that occur as a result, in “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” J.D. Salinger’s “Teddy” also identifies a generation in America that searches for alternative choices that differ from the status quo. Both Bartleby and Teddy experiment with a new spirituality to escape and resist their era, but Bartleby embraces the emptiness of both physical and spiritual life, and the existence-less purpose, while Teddy embraces his death because he sees the essence of death and believes in reincarnation to a grander world.
Before the protagonists’ struggles occur, they experience Sisyphean-like lives and are surrounded by the “American dream.” This belief, or doubt, in the American dream begins when Bartleby works in the dead-end mail job, a task of the destruction of mail that contains “hope for those who died unhoping.” Bartleby, representing the petty middle-class of his era, is responsible for copying documents of laws, subsections, and cases. These duties create a person who doesn’t seek a higher purpose in life due to a lack of self-realization and creative pursuit. He transforms into a vessel of hopelessness and emptiness, and hopelessness allows him to purely reject everything.
Similarly to Bartleby, Teddy is also repulsed by his society around him. He tells Nicholson, his former teacher, “my father thinks I’m a freak” and that it’s difficult to “live a spiritual life in America.” Teddy regards his family as unaccepting and his physical setting as a punishment. To find purpose, Teddy internally rejects the American family, culture, and lifestyle. He searches for a different, non-material, metaphysical purpose: the non-American spirit. Both protagonists are overwhelmed by the expectations of the people around them, and they try to reject their environment by looking for alternative approaches in order to find alleviation.
Although they don’t accept their environment, both Bartleby and Teddy submit to their surroundings and avoid interference. Bartleby accentuates his defiance to society by proclaiming, “I would prefer not to,” but doesn’t specify any alternative to society, thereby accepting the current situation. He prefers not to participate in productive activities and, instead, chooses to occupy space, ignore the requests of his boss, and separate himself from his surroundings.
Contrariwise, Teddy is not defying the demands of society although he rejects the ideal of a heteronormative American lifestyle. Instead, he obeys the wishes of his parents and allows his community to nurture and direct him. Teddy clarifies to Nicholson, “I’d just be doing what I was supposed to do, that’s all.” The clarification illustrates Teddy’s submissiveness to the requests of society but also the lack of significance he associates to following societal norms, as identified with his jaded tone.
The struggle of these individuals against society is unbroken and persistent, but their actions are different: Bartleby withstands societal pressures by refusing whereas Teddy refutes this same pressure by passively accepting it while only maintaining a divergent integrity. Both represent a widespread approach for voicing one’s civic duty. Bartlebyians reject their institution around them and refuse to co-join until their vision is achieved. Teddyians accept their institution and only define their success when escaping their known world. This duality reflects our two prominent methodological approaches, currently, within all ideological camps: total rejection, with little compromise, or total acceptance with the hope that a better world may be coming. Paradoxically, the only effective civic participation requires both acceptance and rejection.
The philosophical context of these American stories includes existentialism philosophy, or spiritual emptiness, and the Eastern philosophy of spiritual incarnation. Describing Bartleby, his boss says, “I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery.” Bartleby’s boss describes a person who refuses to perform and embraces the emptiness of existence, life, or death. Bartleby retorts, “do you not see the reason for yourself?”
Whereas Bartleby has no purpose, Teddy has a spiritual purpose. Nicholson recognizes Teddy’s tendencies and says, “you hold pretty firmly to the Vedantic theory of reincarnation.” Teddy’s conviction that he doesn’t “see what [emotions are] good for” makes him embrace his philosophy where death isn’t an issue. Teddy readily embraces the cycle of reincarnation because it provides hope of escape from his current state.
This duality reflects our two prominent methodological approaches, currently, within all ideological camps: total rejection, with little compromise, or total acceptance with the hope that a better world may be coming.
Unfortunately, today’s society cannot embrace either Bartleby or Teddy. If total rejection or blind acceptance is the method to express desires for the future, only those who actively participate will direct society. Many creative forces in society gave up hope for the future by grumbling silently or loudly, and hoping that their surroundings will eventually change. Both Bartlebyians and Teddyians are not afraid of death, believing their path will rescue them; however, instead it leads to self demise. If Bartlebyians and Teddyians thrive, stagnation will proliferate and hope will be an illusion, instead of a drive.
Resistors are not always on the right side of history. This blind resistance that Bartleby and Teddy conveyed is visible today and should be a warning sign for all. Both of the characters die due to lack of direction after resistance. They escape the clutches of the American life without redefining a new America. Any generation who wants to effectively mold their society cannot just reject or accept norms. Any person who decides to fully detach himself or herself, or jadedly participate in civic society will find his or her voice lost in the echo of political change. Protesting without a conversation or blind faith in the future will end the ability to be humane. Because keeping one’s chest high while marching into the abyss would keep the old. But by pushing and pulling from within, without total rejection or acceptance, hope for a better future can materialize.
By Orr Chalamish
Orr Chalamish, a Former Liaison Officer for Peacekeeping Operations, is a Finance Major. This paper was written for ENG 2150, taught by Professor Carolyn Cooper. The paper examines lessons of literature from two different centuries in order to strengthen our current 21st-century society.
Cover Art by Goldie Gross
Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, 1853. Minneapolis: Indulgence, 1995. Print.
Salinger, J. D. “Teddy.” Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. N. pag. Print.