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Oppression and limited discourse in Melville and Alcott

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  1. Application of Foucault's logic of transformation via criticism in Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'
  2. The limited mode of thought in Alcott's short story 'Behind a Mask'

Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' is a first person narrative of a lawyer's attempt to satiate his curiosity concerning Bartleby, a scrivener employed in his law office. His interest in the scrivener is the direct motive behind the lawyer's narrative, to the extent of a theme; consequently, Bartleby constitutes a reflection of the progression of events commencing from a determination to solve the enigmatic Bartleby. The mystery evolves and escalates during a series of misinterpretations on the lawyer's part, as his discourse proves invariably incapable of empathic identification; his reactions are limited, rather, to empathic projection and sympathy, anchoring his perspective within sight of his own interests. He provides countless demonstrations of the extremity of his discordant confusion; ?to a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul to be rid of it? (Melville 2376).

Here he misattributes the origin of his pain, he assumes an unlikely relationship between pity and aid, and he likens ignorance to common sense, the latter of which he then misattributes to his soul rather than his mind to engender a sense of justice and righteous detachment in his idealized dismissal of his conflict. Inevitably, the elusion that the lawyer suffers in regard to the purpose of the scrivener's behavior is at best summarized by his admission that ?nothing so aggravates an earnest man as a passive resistance? (Melville 2371).

To apply Foucault's logic in the epigraph above, the preliminary course of criticism is to uncover the thoughts that substantiate behavior; so, in accordance with this understanding, it would seem that the natural course for the lawyer's curiosity would be a criticism of Bartleby. He does, in fact, endeavor such a criticism; however, the sole substantial insight gained into his antagonist's thoughts by this effort is that Bartleby is ?more a man of preferences than assumptions? (Melville 2379). This conclusion is no less than insisted upon by the soft spoken rebel. Yet the lawyer seems unmotivated to perceive precisely what it means: what can be inferred from the nature of preference in consideration with its causal function in Bartleby's ?impulse to revolt,? to borrow an appropriate phrase of Foucault's for lack of one provided by the lawyer, who finds ?passive resistance? sufficient.

Interestingly, and notably distinct from his arbitrary language, the lawyer pursues the conventional explanation of the ?the ?law' of revolutions? that Foucault mentions, which ?brings to visibility, so it would seem, the tyranny lurking within them, beneath the blind enthusiasm? (Foucault 451). This is the lawyer's initial reaction, to see the tyranny in Bartleby's revolt, despite his inability to express it for what it is.

[...] Jean's critique of the Coventrys is illustrated in her brilliant efficiency as an actress, and as governess; however, it is illustrated most poignantly by the scene of Jean's confession of her identity to Sir John, followed by slight change over Sir John's manner. Few would have perceived it, but Miss Muir felt it at once, and bit her lips with angry feeling at her heart? (Alcott, 15). Although Jean is deliberate and successful in her ultimate transformation, it is yet another aesthetic transformation, much like her governess' mask; her true transformation, in Foucault's sense of the word, would have been the prerequisite, the ?impulse to revolt' against oppression of her class. [...]

[...] The Coventrys distinguish their narrow minded and haughty discourse by indulging in apprehensive stereotypes concerning the lower class newcomer; they anticipate her as an ?infliction,? and pity themselves their seeming necessity to their new employee, the ?poor little Muir? (Alcott 3-4). In doing so, they unknowingly enact a more substantiated stereotype not uncommon to their own social status. Their condescension is ironically a reaction to their own requirement of the governess: her assistance is necessitated to convert the equitable disposition of sixteen year old Bella, whose unawareness of class disparity is checked in her attempt to meet Jean Muir at the door on her arrival; she is restrained, and reminded that is her place to come to you, not yours to go to (Alcott 5). [...]

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