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Bartleby the Scrivener & Life in the Iron Mills

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2238 words Published: 28th Sep 2017

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English Exam – II Bartleby the Scrivener & Life in the Iron Mills

The two books up for analysis are Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis. Neither work can be called a Novella, as both are short stories. Explicit similarities and differences highlight the superficial aspect of both stories. The more implicit ones underline the actual meat of the stories. Both works were produced at around the same period of the late 19Th century, and both feature plots both engrossing, yet unconventional, but contemporary (in the case of Bartleby, the Scrivener).

In order to write a comparative analysis, required are comparisons between Bartleby and Hugh as workers, their working conditions in their respective jobs, and the moral responsibility of other characters in the stories towards the respective two protagonists.

To begin with, the setting of both the stories plays an important part in explaining the job and the working conditions each protagonist faces. Herman Melville’s story takes place in the bustling New York City, which is still up-and-coming during the 19th century.[1] The setting in Life in the Iron Mills was influenced by the mills nearby in Wheeling, Virginia on the Ohio River during the factory world. Another major influence is the ongoing Industrial Revolution.[2]

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Life in the Iron Mills tells us the story about Hugh Wolfe, a young labourer in the Iron Mills of Wheeling.[3] Hugh is a poor Welsh descendent who turns pig iron into wrought iron by a process called puddling.[4] Along with several other labourers, that’s his main job there. But, Hugh is also highly gifted in the art of sculpting, and in his spare time, sculpts a woman out of Korl, the refuse from iron smelting. His cousin, Deborah-who loves him dearly-brings him dinner every day, forsaking her own meal. She is a hunchback, and the other workers make fun of her relationship with Hugh. Hugh’s working conditions weren’t exactly too habitable. As was the ‘custom’ during the Industrial revolution, immigrants working in factories and warehouses would be exploited by the owners. Low paying jobs, horrible living conditions just contributed to their misery. Hugh’s life in the Iron mills was no different. He had to toil day in and day out, with barely any time to even eat. In all the ‘darkness’ surrounding his life, the only source of ‘light’ was his Korl figure, which distinguished itself from his other creation, the crude, dark Iron from the smelter.

Bartleby’s world is New York City circa 1860. And in utter contrast, though, during around the same time as Life in the Iron Mills, he works for a lawyer on the booming Wall Street of Manhattan. The difference between Bartleby’s and Hugh’s working conditions is so substantial, that, at first look, it’s almost ludicrous how Bartleby refuses to do a lot of work tasked to him, in spite of his grade-A working conditions. Bartleby is a scrivener, a copier, who, at first completes his task with utmost dedication. His eating habits are peculiar. He just eats snacks-specifically Ginger-nut cakes- and skips dinner and lunch altogether. His polite refusal to do a small task intrigues the lawyer, and he gradually discovers that Bartleby’s work rate diminishes to the point where he literally doesn’t do any work, and just sits around the lawyer’s office.

One point which can be made exclusively for the comparison of both stories is the American Dream. Though it’s not the main theme in either of the books, I can’t help but define Hugh’s actions to be solely for the purpose of achieving the American dream, to be wealthy, to make a name for himself. As for Bartleby, he works in the city of endless opportunities – New York. It’s Ironic that the American dream is closer within his grasp than it is in the case of Hugh in the Iron Mills, and yet he does naught about it. But then again, that can be explained too, after the revelations at the end of the book. Both are completely different kinds of workers. Hugh, a hard-working yet unsatisfied one, whereas, Bartleby a mentally affected one, which makes his work sloppy as time passes.

Endings of both stories are quite similar. Both end on a morose note, and that’s where a major point of comparison comes into light. Bartleby, due to being a liability on the author is arrested and jailed. The lawyer isn’t exactly too excited to have put him behind bars, but he did it anyway to protect his business. At the end of the story, the lawyer visits Bartleby in jail for the second time, only to find him dead. One can perceive his death to be induced by the lawyer’s actions, and the same can be said about Hugh Wolfe. Deborah steals a wealthy man’s wallet while he is visiting the Iron mills and hands it over to Hugh. Not knowing what to do with it, he eventually succumbs in his greed for money. When the man finds out about the theft, he has Hugh arrested and jailed. This causes Hugh to slash his wrist one day, and commit suicide. In my personal opinion, the deaths of the protagonists in both stories would not be directly, and intently because of the actions of other character. And as such, I would believe that Hugh’s death was caused by his own greed, or selfishness. Although Deborah was the one who stole the money, Hugh had a choice to either take it, or refuse. He took the check, and his dream of having a better life, of being in a better social standing caused his greed to get the better of him. Considering that a large sum of money was stolen, Mitchell obviously wouldn’t allow that to go unnoticed and unpunished. His moral obligation towards Hugh is little, or none. It is only fair that he wished to see Hugh punished for the theft of his money. Though, if only he would have known that Deborah was the one who stole the check, then probably he would have been wrathful towards her instead of Hugh. The only error Mitchell committed was the misdirection of his finger. Maybe, the story would have ended differently if the theft would have been thoroughly investigated.

In the case of Bartleby, I would think that the lawyer was not responsible for his death. As the story tells us, Bartleby had started to become a burden on the lawyer. He spent all of his time, quite literally too, in the lawyer’s office doing nothing. His customers remarked upon that, and the lawyer realised that Bartleby was bad for business. And that is only fair of him. He has no moral obligation towards prioritizing Bartleby’s well-being instead of his business. He shifted his office, but the workers still complained of Bartleby, and finally he had to-albeit reluctantly-turn him in to the police. Bartleby died in the jail. The lawyer hears a rumour about Bartleby having worked in a dead letter office, and maybe Bartleby was mentally affected due to the extremely sad nature of his work there. And maybe that does justify his actions in the lawyer’s office, but at the end of the day, the lawyer’s business was at stake. I would believe that the lawyer was in no way morally responsible for Bartleby’s death.

To analyse, are three literary works – The narrative of Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass and the Scarlet Letter. All three works highlight their protagonists in various ways, using different themes and settings. They were written in around the same time period as well, the late 1840s and 50s.

The main protagonists have an unconventional livelihood for some part of their life, and this is most often reflected in their stories. In the case of Frederick Douglass and Henry Thoreau, this unconventional life of theirs forms the basis for their narratives. After reading all three books, the readers can make out the fact that all three protagonists disagree with some aspects of their society, and it’s this disagreement that forms the basis for this analysis. Henry Thoreau is repulsed by the materialism in the society then, and Douglass strongly disagrees with slavery and its social, economic and moral effects, whereas, Hester Prynne is shunned, or deemed as an outcast by the society. This is the major similarity between all three protagonists – Isolation from conventional society.

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Frederick Douglass’s narrative is set in the America of the early 19th century. Before and during the American civil war, when slavery was rampant the country. Douglass was probably the son of Captain Anthony, a white slave owner, who was also his first owner. Throughout his life as a slave Douglass is looked down upon as inhumanely as possible by his white slave masters. He is inhumanely treated, beaten, and deprived of the basic necessities in life. From his very birth, he is labelled as a ‘slave’, throughout a long period of his life, he remains one. He is a unique character in his story, as he doesn’t fit in the regular description of both the social standings at that time – The slaved blacks, and the free citizens. He is not free only in his mind, and not physically. And he takes an interest in reading and writing, after he learns from Sophia Auld. He takes it upon himself to continue reading and writing after Sophia cruelly stops teaching him. Most slaves weren’t literate then, and that’s what set him apart from them. The constant mistreatment he suffers sets off a spark in him, a spark of deep hatred against slavery, it leads him to devise plans to escape, to find his way to more liberal parts of the country. He creates his own opportunities. Opportunities to create, and increase awareness about anti-slavery. He becomes an eloquent writer and orator, recording his life in his narrative, his beliefs and his thoughts about the evils prevalent in the society. Douglass, exercising his new-found skill becomes actively involved in the abolitionist movement, doing what his deepest wish was to.

When comparing Douglass to Hester Prynne and Thoreau, the readers can notices that there is no physical restriction applied to the latter two protagonists. It’s rather social and psychological. But like Douglass, Hester Prynne too does not fit in the society. She married an elderly man in England who sent her to America, where she lived in a puritan settlement in Boston. The reason why she is held like an outcast in the society is because she had an affair with a young minister – Arthur Dimmesdale, and had a child out of wedlock. The society frowned upon this incidence and Hester Prynne was an outcast, who was punished for her sin and secrecy. She had to wear a Scarlet coloured letter ‘A’ on her breast. It was a symbol of adultery, one which she bore throughout her time in the society. She was never a regular citizen, and lived her life in isolation in small cottage with her daughter Pearl. When her husband surfaced in the puritan society, he was malevolent towards her former lover Dimmesdale, which eventually caused them to plan to flee to Europe and settle there as family. But before they could do so, Dimmesdale kills himself due to the anguish caused by Chillingworth (who wanted revenge against him).[5] Hester and Pearl do escape the society, but only after Chillingworth’s death a year later.

As a result of her experiences in the puritan society, she becomes a kind and compassionate figure, caring the poor and wounded. Her charity work eventually makes her a mother-figure in the society, and when she returns back to Boston from Europe, the scarlet letter which she still wears is no longer a sign of shame.

Like Douglass, Hester contemplated about the evils present in the society, the treatment of women in general, and the society’s outlook towards her. She made a better person out of herself as a result, and forged a better future for herself and her daughter just like Douglass did.

Henry David Thoreau lives an isolated life for two years. Similar to Hester Prynne, he is fairly cut off from civilization in Walden Pond, except for the occasional visitors (and the fact that concord is of walking distance). The reason why Thoreau went to live in this recluse of his is because he wanted to experience more of his life. Unlike, Douglass and Hester Prynne, his isolation wasn’t inflicted on him due to societal norms and conventions. He chose to live in isolation to find a new side of the society. Henry’s beliefs were mostly critical towards the then modern society. The materialism present in the society thoroughly irked him, and he considered tangible assets and money to be the evils in the society. He believed that every material muse was a burden for the society and that a life in recluse was the purest form of contact with the nature. His almost biased criticism was not only limited to money and wealth, but also to technology.

The main similarity between the three protagonists is their shared beliefs towards the societal ills. Although, their issues are different, they point towards a better version of a society in their mind.



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