Conformity and rebellion are evil twins that humanity has been nourishing since the beginning of civilization. As we conform to the social norms that surround us everyday, we are trapped inside of this overwhelming system where we easily lose ourselves as individuals. On the other hand, the urges of rebellion that live in our ego compel us to break from the state of our bondages. Yet, our superegos are trying to keep us in a reasonable threshold, and enable us to stay in the system. As a result, people are fighting a constant internal battle of conformity versus rebellion. As Herman Melville describes in his story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” humanity is hopelessly struggling between conformity and rebellion. He presents us with images of entrapment and death to address his concerns for the issues of conformity and rebellion.
The images of entrapment are evident throughout the story. From the “lofty brick wall” outside of the office window to the sound-dividing prison walls which Bartleby died within, the narrator traps the readers in his dark replica of reality. Looking out the office windows, “the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome.” The physical confinement of their dark and depressed office space is apparent through the images of the dim lighting and restricted view. For Bartleby, the confinement is no longer physical but psychological. “From his long-continued motionlessness, that behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall reveries of his.” This unusual behavior is a common act of such character.
It is not the act of boredom but desperation and hopelessness that disintegrates from within and disables him from engaging in any productive activates. As the narrator takes the readers to the final resting place of Bartleby, he portrays the ultimate human confinement, the prison. The extreme thickness of the prison walls “kept off all sound behind them.” The images of entrapment are clear, that the inescapable prison walls trap any living souls inside of their boundaries. However, to Bartleby it is just another empty place, for his soul has already died long ago. The walls only keep off the outside world from him rather than restricting the already seized motions of Bartleby’s. It is the place where Bartleby chooses to escape from all, and rest for an eternity “with kings and counselors.”
Images of death come as a natural companion of entrapment. The character of Bartleby appears ghostly and lifeless. He is “a motionless young man,” who works quietly like a machine in his dark and confined space. Unlike the way the narrator describes the other three employees of his, Bartleby has no anger, no ambition, and almost nothing human about him at all. The “idly cadaverous” response, “I would prefer not to” from Bartleby, implies that this man’s spirit has died long before his physical death. There is nothing in this world excites him or motivates him, leaving him only dreaded depression.
This emotional emptiness must drive Bartleby to insanity, to the extent that he gives up all life burdens including basic biological functions such as eating and sleeping. Later in the story, Bartleby is sent to the “Tombs,” because of the uncooperative nature of this man. The name of the jail “Tombs” carries a symbolic meaning of death. In the narrator’s description of the interior of the jail: “the Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom,” he reinforces the indestructible and inevitable power of death with these chilling images.
The images of entrapment and death are excellent representations of to the concept of conformity and rebellion, whereas Bartleby lives with the entrapment of his unfulfilling life, and finally chooses death as his ultimate rebellion. The narrator, Herman Melville, constructs the abstract character, Bartleby, to extract and speak for his desperation and hopelessness feeling towards the fate of humanity as a whole. Quite like the dilemma Melville brought to our attention a half century ago, societies today are still struggling with issues of conformity and rebellion. We are so driven by the “errands of life,” and rarely stop and think about the reasons of our very existence. As the train of life speeds us to the final destination, we realize that we have traveled the exact same track as everyone else did.