Critical Essays The Motif of the Imprisoning Microcosm

Bartleby, who loses his job at the Dead Letter Office, chooses a law firm as his next place of employment. A valuable low-level worker who at first seems “to gorge himself on [legal] documents,” he inexplicably begins to build an invisible prison about himself as he avoids fraternization with his fellow workers, Ginger Nut, Nippers, and Turkey. As his mental condition worsens, he abandons the standard behavior of a copyist; instead, he begins staring at a blank wall and refuses to proofread his work. He erects an “austere reserve.”

As Bartleby becomes more eccentric and less amenable to direction, the lawyer ponders how to dislodge him from his “hermitage,” from which he never ventures, even for the normal procurement of dinner, drink, reading material, or other diversions. On the Sunday morning when the lawyer returns to the office to while away time before services at Trinity Church, he discovers Bartleby’s imprisoning microcosm — the small, inclusive milieu which Bartleby has adopted as his bounds. Outspoken in his desire to maintain privacy, he instructs his employer to “walk around the block two or three times, and by that time, he would probably have concluded his affairs.”

The office, serving as a gloomy, protective shell with his horizonless view and intrusive, moveable screen, insulates Bartleby from the nameless fears which shadow his mind and perceptions, inhibiting him from normal human contact and, eventually, from work. His desk and its pitiful collection of personal effects serve as his link with reality. His worldly fortunes are all bundled up in a homely bandanna, symbolic of the mental enclosure which lessens Bartleby’s contact with the outside world.

The lawyer tries to deal effectively with his deranged copyist, reorders his own relationship to Christian principles, but is limited in his understanding of neurotic withdrawal and unable to fathom the “dead-wall reveries” which later fetter Bartleby to his place. Repeatedly, the lawyer concludes that Bartleby, the “victim of innate and incurable disorder,” suffers an involuntary malady and deserves kindness. When application of biblical texts fails to improve the situation, the frustrated lawyer moves to new quarters, leaving his burdensome albatross behind. With no room to nest in, Bartleby becomes a benign residential ghost, harmlessly “haunting the building generally, sitting upon the banisters of the stairs by day, and sleeping in the entry by night.” The lawyer, driven by compunctions of charity, returns to the scene and offers his own home as an alternative to the hallway, but Bartleby, who clings to the banister and overrules all suggested employments, prefers “not to make any change at all.”

The story’s third imprisoning microcosm results from the abrupt end of the second: the outraged tenants insist that Bartleby vacate. As the lawyer later learns, the demented copyist is forceably dislodged from the hallway. Encased in his private retreat, he maintains his autonomy by marching uncomplainingly “through all the noise and heat, and joy of the roaring thoroughfares at noon.” Whatever the nature of the surroundings on Wall Street, he is too confined by mental shackles to notice the bustling outside world as he enters the last imprisoning microcosm, appropriately named “the Tombs.”

Ironically, Bartleby’s final microcosm, which is properly known as the Halls of Justice, affords him an expanded freedom from the dismal hallway in the form of regular contact with a small green courtyard, separation from the criminals who share his milieu, and a choice of dinners, paid for by his Good Samaritan. In the minuscule prison world, his immediate wants supplied by the state and by the grub-man, he purposely constrains himself with an even more prohibitive punishment by refusing to interact with others, especially his former employer, whom he holds accountable for his imprisonment. Just as Bartleby spent his days in the office, he lives out his final hours in sight of a wall and dies with staring eyes still examining the grim, unyielding masonry, as though looking for answers to some unexpressed question.

It is not until months after Bartleby’s death that the lawyer acquires a clue to his copyist’s limitations. By personalizing the defeat that Bartleby must have felt in his job of consigning undeliverable letters to the flames, the lawyer empathizes more fully with his employee’s “pallid hopelessness.” By envisioning the remnants of human communication — folded pages, a ring, a banknote — he connects with the stultifying reality of the dead-end job from which Bartleby was ousted. Like the copyist, whose constrained conscious state forced him further into his private world, the letters, “on errands of life,” sped to their deaths in the furnace.

Don Benito’s Microcosm

Similar to the microcosms of Bartleby’s office and prison cell is the setting of Benito Cereno, where the title character is confined not only in a minutely delineated environment but also in an even more restrictive emotional charade. The major difference in Bartleby and Don Benito is that Bartleby’s primary jailer is mental illness, whereas Don Benito suffers a more complicated custody, the outgrowth of the greed and immorality that fosters slavery. In both cases, the central figures suffer fatal emotional damage, which inhibits them as surely as a cage confines a sparrow.

As Captain Delano draws near the floating prison which holds Don Benito captive, he must decipher the physical clues that enshroud the mystery ship. There are no identifying colors to mark the “whitewashed monastery,” from which peer dusky faces cloaked in dark cowls. Within the fervid, pent-up environment of the San Dominick, a chattering throng rushes to envelope the visitor. Like an interloper in a medieval fortress, Captain Delano finds himself beset by a strange progression of details: the ship itself is poorly kept, the crew projects unreal gestures and faces, yet the captain, Don Benito, presents himself in a spruce, richly decorated velvet uniform and accompanying silver-mounted sword, which is a deceptive cover for the ramshackle state of the ship’s governance.

Because Delano trusts his own world, where he maintains order by following naval protocol, he believes that his philosophy of shipboard behavior will suffice on the San Dominick. Applying standard manners and expectations to his meeting with the aristocratic Don Benito, Delano fails utterly to connect the slovenly atmosphere and lax shipboard discipline with the terrible mutiny that preceded his visit. Innocent to a fault, Delano does not question the unlikely behaviors and relationships of the Spaniards and Africans aboard the slave ship, where blacks wander at will, apparently without causing harm. Although he briefly considers the possibility that the ship may be a freebooter, he shoves suspicion from his thoughts and concentrates on philanthropy.

Within sight of his own cheerful, efficient environment, Captain Delano, like the altruistic lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” concludes that the situation calls for sympathy toward the moody, skeletal Don Benito and for charity in the form of fresh water, fish, bread, sugar, cider, and pumpkins. When Don Benito draws to one side to confer in private with Babo, Delano, who is uncomfortable with such shabby manners, takes the opportunity to venture from the poop deck and familiarize himself more fully with the ship. He surveys the crew — the “old Barcelona tar,” the oakum-pickers, the sleeping black woman with her naked infant — yet he never surmises their true role.

Wandering about Don Benito’s imprisoning microcosm, Delano enters the starboard quarter-gallery, where he finds doorways caulked and sealed. Seized by a “dreamy inquietude,” Delano leans against a carved balustrade and breaks through hidden decay, which causes the wood to splinter, nearly dumping him into the sea. His close call with the rotted wood — symbolic of the decadence which brought disorder to the ship, mayhem to its European inhabitants, and the curse of slavery to the New World — leads him to a false conclusion: that Don Benito is only pretending to be indisposed while he hatches some fiendish plot. With well-meaning, carefree banter, he banishes his misgivings: “Who would murder Amasa Delano? His conscience is clean.”

The atmosphere changes as the Rover draws alongside. The busy thoroughfare of the main deck becomes a mob scene as blacks clamor for fresh water and food. Delano, to keep down further confusion, requires his men to remain on the Rover, thus keeping the hellish microcosm of the San Dominick intact. He returns as the only outsider to observe the perverse shaving scene, followed by a sterile, uneventful lunch. His perceptions are clouded by prejudicial notions that blacks are “natural valets and hair-dressers,” good-humored musicians and comedians, and congenial companions, like “Newfoundland dogs.” At no time does he approach the truth: that Don Benito is a prisoner of the servants who appear to dote on his every need and whim.

With the approach of evening, Delano concludes his day no wiser than when he first sighted the San Dominick. His internal musings continue at a heightened pace as he exits Don Benito’s microcosm and takes his seat in the stern of the Rover. At this point, Don Benito grasps his only chance at freedom from Babo and leaps over the bulwarks. As though striving toward a new world, three Spanish sailors, following his lead, make a similar break and swim toward the Rover. At this point in the story, Delano looks back at the San Dominick and perceives its true nature — it is the imprisoning microcosm that has forced Don Benito and his surviving crewmen to perform an elaborate hoax.

The Subconscious Microcosm

Although Don Benito is physically free of his detainment cell at this point, he is no closer to freedom of the spirit. Delano’s coming to knowledge leads to a forceful assault on the Spanish slave ship, the evil milieu which, without its hostages, brandishes no threat against the Bachelor’s Delight. Don Benito, still weak, but alert enough to express grafitude for his release, discourages his savior from further endangering his life by returning to the doomed ship. By moonlight, the mate leads a heated battle, which ends in the subjugation of the black mutineers. Within two days, the San Dominick is ready for the return trip to Conception (Concepcion) and on to Lima, where the mutineers face justice.

In light of the court’s findings, Captain Delano, still unperceptive of Don Benito’s dark emotional journey, labors to comprehend his fellow captain’s dismal mood. He points to the outward signs of nature — “yon bright sun . . . and the blue sea, and the blue sky” — but is unable to pull Don Benito out of his despondency and into the real world. Like Bartleby, Don Benito is unable to grasp his freedom. Gathering his mantle about him like a shroud, he remains locked in a prison of his mind’s own making, a prison he describes with a single phrase, “the negro.”

The Significance of the Microcosm

In “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Benito Cereno, as in other of his fictional works, Herman Melville limits the settings to carefully delineated environments, in which the forces of despair and revenge devour two frail human spirits. In Bartleby’s case, a minor civil servant loses hope and recedes inward as his only retreat from a harsh, insensitive universe. Don Benito, on the other hand, carries the full load of guilt for a nation founded on the twin transgressions of racism and slavery. Punished by the horror of seeing other men drowned and dismembered and the meatless skeleton of his friend Aranda impaled on the prow, he remains alive as a living figurehead.

In each fictional work, the actors, like puppets on a tiny stage, play out their roles in a sparsely populated world. By controlling the amount of outside interference in the telling of his tales, Melville remains more fully in charge of the intense emotions that he unleashes in the abnormally limited environments. This autonomy over variables is one of the elements which allows Melville such complete mastery of his material. For the reader, he leaves the task of applying the lessons of the microcosm to the world at large, where despair and revenge, for whatever reasons, stalk all people.