Bartleby the Scrivener vs. FAll of House of Usher: A study in romanticism

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Tris Warkentin

Short Story D Essay #1, Usher vs. Bartleby


Men of Science and Death

The similarities between the two stories The Fall of the House of Usher and Bartleby the Scrivener, written by Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, respectively, are excellent examples of the effects of romanticism on each of these writers. Poe, one of the pioneers of the American form of the romantic short story, uses vivid death and structure imagery to elucidate the plight of the main character, Roderick Usher. Melville uses similar conventions in Bartleby to illustrate the condition of the story's main character, Bartleby. When considering the major similarities shared by these narratives, there are three readily apparent similarities. These resemblances are seen in; the manifest content of the plots, the author's views on nature and its effects, and each main character's madness and its causes.

The manifest, or overt content of the stories is very similar. One of the most noticeable similarities is the first person point of view. Both of these stories employ an unnamed narrator recalling the death of his friend. This is very important in the telling of the story, because it biases the events detailed, in favor of the speaker. In both of these stories, the speaker is portrayed as the calm, logical character, and Usher and Bartleby are shown as the illogical madmen. Although there is truth to both men's madness, it is perhaps heightened by the reflections of the narrator. Another important similarity is the madness of the characters in and of itself. The two protagonists, Bartleby and Usher, are both insane, and have called upon the narrator of each story to attempt to calm their madness, a task that each narrator takes on cautiously, as shown by the lawyer in Bartleby: "I thought to myself, surely I must get rid of a demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks." (Melville, 14) Yet another obvious similarity in the plots is the protagonist's death upon the conclusion of the story. This, of course, is important, because it rounds off the mirror similarity of the two stories. Their plots follow a synonymous structure; exposition through narrator's mind, meeting of narrator and protagonist, action period (where the narrator tries to help the protagonist from his madness), and death of protagonist.

Nature is portrayed in very similar ways in these two stories. Coincidentally, this portrayal is also the one that was upheld by American Romantic writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. The view of nature as a benevolent force that would guide people to the right decisions, as well as healing them, is vividly manifested in both of the stories. In Usher, Roderick's state causes him to be pained by natural phenomena, maladies that seem inherently linked with his illness:

"He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light' and there were but peculiar sounds, and those from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror." (Poe, 26)

Similarly, Bartleby's affliction seems to be curable. Aside from his mental sickness, Bartleby's blindness might also be cured by some fresh, natural air. The narrator hints at this when he learns of Bartleby's blindness: "I was touched. I said something in condolence with him. I hinted that of course he did wisely in abstaining from writing for a while; and urged him to embrace that opportunity of taking wholesome exercise in the open air. This, however, he did not do." (Melville, 14)

Both of these characters go mad at some point. In Usher, it is before the narrator arrives on the scene. However, in Bartleby it happens during the action of the story. Despite the difference in the showing of the protagonists drive to insanity, the causes of this madness, as well as their ultimate deaths, are strikingly similar. Of course, the cause of their dementia also agrees with the ideals of Romanticism. Their sin is overintellect. In Usher, the condition of the house displays this when the narrator enters it: "The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow." (Poe, 25) It seems that Usher has wasted his days and nights away studying the intricacies of nature, striving to understand it. After his search, his only product is his own madness. The action is similar in Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby's blindness is symbolic of his descent into true madness. This blindness is caused by countless hours of work by his dimly lit window, scribing works of great intellect. When Bartleby's employer finds out that his employee refuses to scribe further, he proclaims:

""Why, how now? what next?" exclaimed I, "do no more writing?"

"No more."

"And what is the reason?"

"Do you not see the reason for yourself," he indifferently replied.

I looked steadfastly at him, and perceived that his eyes looked dull and glazed. Instantly it occurred to me, that his unexampled diligence in copying by his dim window

for the first few weeks of his stay with me might have temporarily impaired his vision." (Melville, 14)

Thus, both of these men derive their lunacy from their studies. They both sought knowledge, and found it. Unfortunately, it also drove them mad.

In sum, the similarities between these two books are stunning. Appearing in areas such as the manifest content of the stories, the images of nature contained therein, and the protagonists' descent into madness, the presence of Romantic themes in these plots is undeniable. In the end, both of these men die, because "Men live by food, but die if they eat too much. Men live by thought, but die if they think too much." (Lawrence, 36)

----------------Works cited:

Melville, Herman. Bartleby The Scrivener. 1853. Public

Domain Modern English Text Collection. 22 May 1995.

Oxford U. 10 Feb. 2000


Poe, Edgar A. "The Fall of the House of Usher." 18 Best

Stories by Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Dell, 1965. 21-


Lawrence, D.H. "The Fall of the House of Usher". Edgar Allan

Poe. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New

York: Norton, 1995

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