English Short Story Term Paper

Length: 5 pages Sources: 5 Subject: Literature Type: Term Paper Paper: #4244884 Related Topics: Story Of An Hour, Short Story, English Literature, Short
Excerpt from Term Paper :

Willa Cather and Herman Melville both explore themes of psychological and social isolation in their short stories. In Cather's "Paul's Case," the title character is a vibrant young man whose passion and creativity is constrained by his pitiful life in Pittsburgh, where his only solace is his work as an usher. Melville's protagonist Bartleby in "Bartleby the Scrivener" lacks the joie du vivre that Paul possesses. However, both of these protagonists plummet toward death as the only foreseeable relief from the terrible injunction of life. Their approaches to death are different, though. Bartleby is wholly unlike the young Paul, who feels regret the instant he realizes the "folly of his haste," (Cather para 65). On the contrary, the senior Bartleby remains fully resigned to self-abnegation throughout his adult life. Whereas Paul believes that if he only had money, he could be free from the clutches of his past and embrace potential futures, Bartleby has no hope. He is practically passive and powerless, and has succumbed fully to depression and near-catatonia. Both Paul and Bartleby actively fulfill the Freudian death wish. Although Paul would have preferred to live and pursue his dreams, Bartleby might have preferred to die a long time ago, when his dreams first perished.

The reader is never privy to Bartleby's inner world, because the story of Bartleby the scrivener is told from the perspective of the Wall Street office manager, who meets Bartleby when both men are senior in their years. Bartleby piques the narrator's curiosity to a great degree, which is why he feels compelled to tell his story. "I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature," (Melville para. 1). Melville's irony in this passage underscores the importance of Bartleby as a symbol for collective human suffering. Moreover, Bartleby's ironic passivity remains a core theme of the short story. He becomes a Gandhi-esque figure in that his form of political protest manifests as non-violence, peaceful resistance, and civil disobedience rather than aggressive action. Doing nothing, such as refusing to work and refusing to eat, become paradoxically active behaviors. Bartleby hastens his own death, rather than throwing himself in front of a train like Paul does.

Cather does present the reader with considerable insight into Paul's case, which is told from the point-of-view of an omniscient narrator sympathetic to Paul's situation. Unlike Bartleby, Paul has his whole life ahead of him. He has yet to be completely broken down by the system as Bartleby has become. Paul "bounded up with a start" in the mornings and felt "everything was quite perfect" during his new life in New York City (Cather para. 46). Furthermore, Paul was never depressed, except for when he was forced to conform to the dreary reality of his high school. Even though he was on his own, he "was not in the least abashed or lonely," (para. 52). Paul retains his naivete and idealism, which is why he makes some of the rash choices he does, including stealing money, running away to New York, and jumping in front of a moving train on purpose. It is highly likely had he not killed himself and had his father succeeded in bringing Paul back to Pittsburgh, that Paul would have ended up much like Bartleby: a broken man with broken dreams.

Their different approaches to death stem from the differences between Paul and Bartleby's approaches to life. For Paul, life is vibrant and full of potential. That potential seems out of reach for someone without money, though. Paul learns of the "the omnipotence of wealth," and views money as his primary obstacle; "money was everything, the wall that stood between all he loathed and all he wanted," (Cather para. 48; 61). Money means little to Bartleby, who has been utterly stripped of the will to live. The narrator paid Bartleby even when he stopped working, and this did nothing to prevent Bartleby's decent into despair.

Somewhere in Bartleby's past, the man cultivated...


The narrator of Bartleby's story is keenly aware that his strange charge must have become the "strangest" person he met due to some past experience or traumatic event (Melville para 1). After all, Bartleby is far from being boring even if he never talks. He is "one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable," (Melville para 1). In this sense, Bartleby and Paul are alike, for Paul's teachers believe "There is something wrong about the fellow," (Cather 7). Both characters symbolize nonconformity and rebellion against the established norms of society, and their deaths offer superficial yet symbolic release.

The symbol of death functions similarly in "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Paul's Case." In both cases, death is used as "a literary device…as a symbolic representation of the decay of society," (Skelton 211). The main difference between the way Paul and Bartleby deal with death is that the former had not been conscious of his own death drive, whereas Bartleby seems fully aware of his. From a Freudian perspective, death in literature serves as an explicit means by which to explore the psychology of the death wish. "The death-drive is obsessive, compulsive, repetitive, undeviating, monomaniacal, and so forth," (Smith xv). Only Bartleby embraces his death wish. Starving himself to death means that he spent day in and day out feeling the pangs of hunger and was never interested in satiating himself. Paul is the opposite; he lives life to the fullest and completely in the moment. His spending sprees in New York City are the polar opposite behavior of starvation. Moreover, Bartleby does embody what Smith calls the "obsessive, compulsive, repetitive, and undeviating" nature of the death wish manifest in literature (xv). Bartleby pursued the most monotonous, repetitive job he possibly could find as a scrivener, and his one-line phrases are the epitome of repetition and monotony as well. "I would prefer not to," is Bartleby's catch phrase, and is about all the man says during the duration of the narrative. The phrase "I prefer not to" signifies Bartleby's ironic but active flirtation with death. Although the reader never knows his inner thoughts, it is highly likely that Bartleby was as aware of his pending demise as Paul was when he started to contemplate suicide.

Paul contemplates suicide twice. The first time Paul contemplates suicide is when he has a revolver. "He saw everything clearly now. He had a feeling that he had made the best of it, that he had lived the sort of life he was meant to live, and for half an hour he sat staring at the revolver," (para. 62). When that half hour had passed, Paul decided, "that was not the way," para. 62). His decision to refrain from using the gun was not a decision to not kill himself; rather, it was Paul deciding that it was not the right way, or method, to kill himself. A dramatic and passionate person, Paul wanted his demise to be more theatrical than that, which is why he leapt in front of the train. The train is symbolic in "Paul's Case" for several reasons. It represents the connection between New York and Pittsburgh, and the means by which he escaped. It also represents the means by which he would have to travel home had his father fetched him. Therefore, the train is both life and death. The train serves a deeper and more Freudian function for Paul, which is its directly representing death imagery. Freud wrote, "Death is replaced in the dream by taking a journey, riding in a train," (para. 12).

Death liberates both Bartleby and Paul from their repressive lives. Towards the end of his life, Bartleby was imprisoned in a literal and figurative way. When the narrator sees him in the Halls of Justice, aptly dubbed The Tombs, Bartleby is in nothing less than a prison for dangerous felons, obviously where he does not belong. "From the narrow slits of the jail windows, I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves," (Melville, para 218). Bartleby has been labeled as a deviant, much as Paul has been by his parents and teachers. Being labeled as deviants is what ultimately causes their death wishes to manifest. Paul teeters on the brink of remaining alive, but has no hope. He has no idea how he would survive on the streets of New York and becomes resigned to his fate. Yet he does have second thoughts: "The sound of an approaching train awoke him, and he started to his feet, remembering only his resolution, and afraid lest he should be too late," (Cather 65). Unlike Paul, Bartleby never has second thoughts because he continually refuses to eat. If he had any second thoughts about being able to change his life or to alter his circumstances, he might have already done so. Bartleby and Paul both accept reality for what it is, and choose…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Cather, Willa. "Paul's Case." Retrieved online: http://www.shsu.edu/~eng_wpf/authors/Cather/Pauls-Case.htm

Freud, Sigmund. "Part Two: The Dream." Retrieved online: http://www.bartleby.com/283/10.html

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby the Scrivener." Retrieved online: http://www.bartleby.com/129/

Skelton, John. "Death and Dying in Literature." Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. Vol 9, 2003, pp. 211-217

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