Both of the two short stories analyzed in this paper, Bartleby by Herman Melville and Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, focus on unusual characters that seem to be social misfits. Interestingly, these characters are introduced by a narrator that witnesses the events. This detail is important because the characters are regarded from the outside, by the other members of the social world. Bartleby and Sonny do not seem to be integrated into the community they belong to.
Because the stories are written in the nineteenth and the twentieth century respectively, Bartleby and Sonny live in very different social contexts. Nevertheless, they do share a common view of life. They both resist and reject social convention and live outside the accepted social standards. Their rebellion comes from a profounder understanding of human life and of the ultimate uselessness of action.
The main character of Melville’s story, Bartleby, is, at first glance, a quiet and extremely reserved character, with a melancholic disposition. Nevertheless, his peculiarity goes much beyond that and the narrator is faced with it when the character begins to use the phrase which will later become his unvaried, implacable answer to everything: ‘I would prefer not’. At first, Bartelby refuses or prefers not to perform any of the minor tasks he is asked to do in the office, or to go on any of the errands the narrator urges him on.
Then, he prefers not to do even his main employment- that of copying the legal documents; then, when the natural consequence of this refusal would have been his becoming unemployed and leaving the office, he prefers not to leave. Bartleby’s list of refusals and his ‘passive resistance’, as the narrator terms it, is in fact a symbol for what Melville considers to be the dilemma of human existence in general: it is a lesson on the ‘vanitas vanitatum’ hidden in all things, the uselessness of human action.
The best symbol in the story which parallels Bartelby’s denial of action is that of the wall- the setting of ¬ the story is evidently made up of a series of enclosures. Thus, even the name of the street where the office is situated is suggestive- “Wall Street”, and the author carefully draws attention to this name by adding it in the subtitle of the work: A Story of Wall Street. Next, the office itself is enclosed between other walls, the walls being the only view that windows afford, and Bartleby many times remains absorbed in contemplation of one of the walls.
Simply put, Bartleby’s thesis is that human action is useless, and he wraps his thesis in the form of negative preferences, giving to understand that he couldn’t act otherwise precisely because it is not a simple matter of will. He seems absolutely paralyzed in inaction, gradually renouncing almost all occupation. As an explanation to the character’s strange behavior, the narrator recalls that Bartleby’s former employment had put him in charge of the ‘dead letters’ or the letters that have reached a dead man at their destination:
Bartelby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington[… ] Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring: the finger it was meant for, perhaps moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in the swiftest charity- he whom it would relieve nor eats nor hungers anymore…On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity! (Melville, 1997, p. 51) The cry that concludes the story is indicative both of the function that Bartelby has in the story, and of what Bartleby and the story itself mean to the narrator.
The scrivener is here a symbol of the whole humanity, for whom life seems to be nothing more than an errand that finally and inevitably leads to death. The apparent dullness and passivity of the main character is actual a deeper understanding of life and the possibilities it offers to human beings. Like the letters that ¬ speed to a dead end, intention and action are ultimately useless. Although man strives and toils throughout his life in order to gain different things, his struggles prove useless eventually. Baldwin’s story, Sonny’s Blues, has a similar overall theme.
Sonny is a modern Bartleby who is unable to fit into society. The story is told from the point of view of his elder brother, who seems to be much better integrated. He is a teacher and he has a family of his own. Bartleby’s employer was also well-adjusted to his social environment, having a profitable and successful business on Wall Street. If Bartleby openly and plainly rejected making a contribution to society, Sonny does so by taking up a profession that seems idle and unserious. He is focused only on two things, his jazz music and his drug-addiction.
Sonny’s story is told in the form of a nonlinear narrative that captures only brief and isolated moments from his life, all sifted through his elder brother’s perspective. If Bartleby refuses to do anything to the point that he is no longer eating or even moving, Sonny divides his time between music and drugs. He refuses to finish school, feeling that there is nothing for him to learn there, and he cuts off communication with all his relatives. Sonny’s presence in the house of his brother’s wife is conspicuously similar to that of Bartleby in the Wall Street office.
Both young men seem to glide on individual tracks that never actually cross the path common to other people. They inhabit the same space as other people yet they are never able to communicate with them in any way. Bartleby never initiates any kind of conversation and gradually limits his language to a single phrase, ‘I prefer not’. Sonny, on the other hand, lives among his relatives without ever attempting communication. His music is the only means of expression he has. Moreover, both of the characters are a discomfort for the people they live among.
The music that Sonny plays is barely tolerated and completely misunderstood by his brother’s family. ¬ While both Bartleby and Sonny assume the same dead passivity in front of life, they are also different in some respects. First of all, Bartleby never attempts to make himself understood to the others and seems to live in complete isolation into his inner world. Sonny, on the other hand, is equally isolated but he reacts when this private world he lives in is somehow reached from the outside.
When the relatives discover he has been expelled from school and upbraid him severely, he flees home: “And what was happening was that hey penetrated his cloud, they had reached him. Even if their fingers had been times more gentle than human fingers ever are, he could hardly help feeling that they had stripped him naked and were spitting on that nakedness” (Baldwin). Moreover, Sonny is able to communicate through his music, although for the majority of people this music is incomprehensible. Another difference between Bartleby and Sonny is the fact that the latter’s isolation is also motivated in part by the racial problems.
Sonny is black and has lived in Harlem all his life. The racial subtext is revealed through a story told by the two boys’ mother. The parallel between her husband’s young brother, who is killed in a car accident by a group of inebriated white people, and Sonny is obvious. The narrator of Sonny’s Blues intuitively understands that the anxiety that has accompanied his brother all his life springs from childhood and the moments in which the young boy senses, without comprehending, that the world is filled with discomfort, compulsion and sufferance and that no one can escape them:
But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won’t talk any more that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. ¬ The brief moment of darkness and forgetfulness at dusk cannot last. The light that inevitably feels the room and brings back awareness is a symbol for the crude reality that invades the privacy of the subconscious.
While society is the main culprit for Sonny’s blues therefore, Bartleby’s sufferance seems have a metaphysical cause. Sonny’s Blues investigates primarily the relationships among members of the family, among races and among the members of society in general. Prejudice and misunderstanding cause Sonny to enclose himself in his own shell and exclude all the others from his company. Bartleby’s protest however runs against life itself and the condition of the human beings on earth. ¬