Comparison of Narrators in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno"

written by

Michaela Castellanos, MA Intercultural Anglophone Studies


In his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, Robert Levine insists that “[Melville’s] narrative strategies really do make him the best sort of guide to his works” (3). One such narrative strategy that occurs repeatedly in Melville’s writing and marks both “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” is the use of an unreliable narrator. Levine calls attention to “moments in Melville's texts when the narratives reflect critically on the interrelated dynamics of writing, reading, and interpretation” (3). Instants in the texts that raise doubts about the narrator surely qualify as such moments and merit closer examination.

The narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is homodiegetic and intradiegetic, meaning that he narrates the story from his perspective and participates in the story, which he is telling retrospectively. This narrator is clearly overt as he introduces himself to the reader in the very first line: “I am a rather elderly man.” Identifying himself only by his age and his profession, the lawyer never mentions his own name. Even though he employs extensive reported speech throughout his narrative to render conversations between him and his employees that occurred in the narrative past, he is always addressed as “sir” and never referred to with his name.

This strange anonymity is intensified when the narrator provides an address and description of his work space, but omits the number: “My chambers were up stairs at No.—Wall-street” (547). These omissions allow the narrator to remain unidentifiable, even though he provides ample information about the type of man he considers himself to be. This tactic allows the reader to become familiar with the narrator’s environment and wrapped up in his eloquent rhetoric without perceiving the narrator as a distinct individual who may have something at stake in telling this narrative according to his own rules and preferences.

To call this narrator ‘overt’ may actually be an understatement: Even though the proclaimed purpose of this narrative is to tell the reader about Bartleby, the reader learns as much or more about the narrator himself. Through the inclusion of little anecdotes that are later dismissed as being “by the way”(547), the narrator reveals, for example, that he lost the office of master in chancery and with it a great deal of money he had hoped to make in the future by remaining in this position. Even though he announces an uncharacteristic outburst of “rash[ness]” in response to this turn of events, what follows is only an understated rephrasing of the “sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery” as “ a—premature act” (547). (Notice the dash indicating a hesitation - perhaps indicating a timely self-check and suppression of a stronger term.) He also mentions his relationship to John Jacob Astor (one of America’s first multimillionaires). By including such information but then downplaying it, the narrator, for one, reveals that he cannot resist making the story about himself.  Secondly, he reveals that he is aware of both the fact that he has an audience as well as the potential effects of such information on them.

Likewise, the character who is perceived as the narrator in “Benito Cereno” indicates that he is much more concerned with himself than any other people involved in the adventure he relates to the reader. Melville biographer and scholar Andrew Delbanco claims that

“Melville organized Benito Cereno pictorially. […] These images are supplied by an apparently omniscient narrator who stands outside the actions and tells the tale in the third person […], but whose perspective is so close to Delano’s that the two seem to merge” (Delbanco 233).

As Delbanco points out, the novella is actually told by a heterodiegetic and extradiegetic narrator; a narrator who does not take part in the story but tells it from ‘above.’ This narrator is covert, but his presence can be inferred: The language in which the details of the narrative are rendered has to be attributed to somebody. In the case of the detailed description of the setting, the language is that of the covert narrator (Rimmon-Kenan 97). In the case of overheard conversations, the language is that of other characters. Here, the fact that reported speech is not clearly marked as such and that what is elaborated on are actually the perceptions of Captain Amasa Delano can cause some confusion:

“The slippage here from narration by the omniscient narrator (‘all poured out a common tale’) into indirect discourse by the slaves (‘The scurvy had swept off a great part of their number…’) moves us so close to Delano’s perspective that we witness the scene as if over his shoulder and hear the ‘clamorous’ crowd as if through his ears” (Delbanco 234).

This means that the narrator is omniscient and provides extensive insight into Delano’s experience. This narrator is actually reliable in the sense that the (fictional) facts of the unfolding events correspond to the narrative truth. The interpretation of the events by Captain Delano, however, is fundamentally flawed, as is revealed by the novella’s ending and the appended deposition.

Delano’s foregrounded concern with himself and his attempts to continuously readjust what he is experiencing to his own, limited frame of reference make him appear, albeit benign and likable, “a colossal fool” (Delbanco 5). Readers who have been able to identify with this character are forced to realize that “Delano’s capacity for self-deception is limitless” (Delbanco 238) and may recognize not only positive, but also negative characteristics in themselves. The tension between actual and perceived narrator draws attention to the way the narrative is constructed as such and encourages readers to reflect not only on the great disparity in the different characters’ perception and experience of the narrated events, but on their own process of interpreting what they have just read.

In “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the reader may not be able to decide easily whether or not the narrator is fooling him. Signs of unreliability occur throughout the story. The fact that the narrator openly admits that his knowledge is limited does not mediate this fact. So little is known about the purported subject of the story that the lack of “material […] for a full and satisfactory biography of this man” constitutes “an irreparable loss to literature” (546) for the narrator. What interest could the narrator then have in creating a narrative around him?

Furthermore, this narrator displays definite personal involvement and thus gives the reader reasons to speculate about both the reasons for and the manner in which he spins his tale. Strewn in, innocent phrases like “I should have stated before that ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts […]” (549), comments from the narrator on the narration, redirect the reader’s attention from the described events to the way they are being told. They serve as a reminder that elements of the story may be forgotten, unmentioned, removed, added, embellished or understated, and that each of these elements present serves a purpose.

Additionally, the narrator’s value scheme may also be considered problematic: The lawyer repeatedly shies away from conflict and cannot stand up to his employees. For example, his attempt to send his employee Turkey into retirement fails, and he tolerates many strange behaviors from him that are more of a nuisance than useful to the lawyer. Any personal injury that results from these situations is carefully explained away as tolerable because it is canceled out by other attributes that “reflected credit upon [his] chambers” (548).

The narrator's acts of charity are not merely committed out of his gentle disposition, but rather because there is usually an immediate payback for himself. The donation of a “highly-respectable looking coat of [his] own” to Turkey (548), for example, is chiefly motivated by the fact that he is bothered by his employee’s disheveled appearance and the negative light it sheds on the office. In the case of Bartleby, the narrator admits outright that his treatment of Bartleby was not merely motivated by charity and compassion, but calculated for his own benefit and satisfaction:

“Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience” (552).

Suspicious, as well, is the narrator’s tendency to insist on his non-violent disposition. Even though he continuously proclaims to be even-tempered, the continued refusals of Bartleby aggravate the narrator more and more, and he barely succeeds in keeping his emotions from taking over:

“Very good, Bartleby,” said I, in a quiet sort of serenely severe self-possessed tone, intimating the unalterable purpose of some terrible retribution very close at hand. At the moment I half intended something of the kind” (552).

The narrator describes a struggle within himself when he attempts to provoke Bartleby into another refusal, but holds that he took no action when his employee did indeed “prefer not to” run an errand to the post office.

When speaking of his confrontation with Bartleby who took to residing in his employer's office and appeared to be unwilling to leave, the narrator brings up an anecdote in which a man kills another in an altercation. He acknowledges the increased likelihood of violence occurring in the absence of others, such as in a situation in which he is with Bartleby, and finds greater empathy for the perpetrator than the victim. This goes to show that the narrator identifies with the murderer, justifies his actions, and deplores the outcome not because a life was lost, but because the “actor” lost his status and has to face the consequences of his actions (610). After admitting to having grappled and thrown Bartleby, the narrator ventures into a philosophical explanation for his behavior, claiming to have acted out of Christian charity and quoting the Bible to underscore his point. Does he consider his actions charitable because he refrained from killing Bartleby? Why are the references to murder included if he acted benevolently? Is the narrator being deceitful? A pattern of escalation that is downplayed repeatedly emerges, drawing attention to the narrator’s state of mind and his continued excuses for his increasingly violent behavior. Furthermore, these instances in the text may incite speculation about what other elements of the text could be considered euphemisms and what additional omissions have taken place.

Whereas the narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” shows many signs of unreliability, which readers have to consider and weigh in their evaluation and interpretation of the narrative as a whole, the narrator in “Benito Cereno” reports the facts of the story reliably. It is the confusion arising from Captain Delano’s interpretation of events that causes the reader to re-evaluate the narration. Knowing the outcome, one can interpret the events perceived by Delano in a completely different manner upon re-reading the story. The huge disparity between the narrative reality and the events as justified and imagined by Delano for himself, shifts the focus away from the latter and onto Benito Cereno as well as the revolting slaves. Whereas the story is not retold in the words of Benito Cereno, the appended deposition recounts his experience in objective terms from a safe, legal distance. The reader’s imagination has to fill the gap between the narration, which was partially blinded by the perspective of Delano, and the ‘facts’ recorded in the court document. Once focusing on what is not being narrated, the reader has to consider the perspective of Babo and the remainder of the slaves whose ordeal is not talked about from anyone's point of view. It has been argued that Melville’s novella“by leaving the black man ‘voiceless’ to the end, acknowledges that the ‘whole story’ of New World slavery is truly unspeakable. Alone among our classic American writers, Melville had thereby made a start toward telling it” (Delbanco 245).

The narrators in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” challenge the reader by focusing the attention on the narration itself. They foreground the way in which the story is being told and almost point out that omissions have taken place. Through the very process of being frustrated and duped, readers learn to take on a more active role, become more aware and critical, and fill in the gaps of what is not being said. Levine calls attention to this when he writes:

“Alternately presenting himself as guide and con artist, his texts as scriptures of the age and testaments to blindness and silence, Melville insistently calls attention to the risks, stakes, limits, and joys of interpretation” (Levine 4)

Both “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” engage these themes of blindness and silence, and the narrators of these stories serve as tools that attempt to remedy these conditions.




Works Cited

“‘Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.’  Critical Companion to Herman Melville. A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.  Eds.  Carl Rollyson, Lisa Paddock, and April Gentry. New York: Facts on File, 2007. 22-25. Print.

“‘Benito Cereno’ (1855).” Critical Companion to Herman Melville. A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Eds.  Carl Rollyson, Lisa Paddock, and April Gentry. New York: Facts on File, 2007. 28-33. Print.

Delbanco, Andrew.  “The Magazinist.” Melville: His World and Work.  London: Picador, 2005.  222-43. Print.

Levine, Robert S. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge UP, 1998. 1-11. Print.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street.”  Putnam's Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art 11-12. November 1853, 546-550 and December 1853, 609-616. Print.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature,Science and Art 34-36. October 1844, 353-367; November 1855, 459−473 and December 1855, 633-644. Print.

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