The Intensity of Repetition:
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” and the Subversion of Law*
Since Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) reemerged in the mid-twentieth
century as a canonical literary text, many critics have argued that the key to understanding the
novella is its protagonist’s inarticulateness and alienation, which stand in contrast to the
loquacity of its narrator. The title of Dan McCall’s stimulating work The Silence of Bartleby
reflects the great significance that mainstream criticism has attached to Bartleby’s reticence,
though substantial controversy surrounds the interpretation of this silence. Critics who take it
literally relate this aspect of the novella to its tragic theme. Other critics have paradoxically
sought affirmative meaning in Bartleby’s silence, typically construing his disobedience as a
form of a Thoreau- like resistance and the novella as a political allegory.
It is noteworthy, however, that Bartleby does not maintain his silence all the time. On
the contrary, Bartleby conducts an extensive dialogue with the narrator at one point, and of
course, repeats the phrase “I would prefer not to” numerous times. Viewing Bartleby in light
of his repetitiveness, rather than his silence, affords significant insight into the novella.
Whereas the predominant emphasis on Bartleby’s silence has inevitably engendered images
of an insufficient character lacking in some essential quality, an emphasis on his
repetitiveness affords a vision of Bartleby as excessive, that is, as possessing not a lack but an
overabundance of some essential quality.
Takaki Hiraishi has explored this approach, placing primary emphasis on the repetitive
structure of “Bartleby.” Hiraishi argues that repetition is the principle governing every
character in the novella:
Melville’s methodological success can be attributed to his adherence to a single
principle in the development of his characters, and that is repetition. On one hand,
repetition vests the novella with a sense of unity and harmony; and on the other, it
simultaneously provides a comical and/or tragic effect. (65 translation mine)
*Earlier version of this essay was first presented on 14 October 2000 at the 39th General Meeting of
The American Literature Society of Japan held at Doshisha University. I am indebted to Professor
Takayuki Tatsumi of Keio University and Professor Masashi Orishima of Tokyo Metropolitan University
for their insightful comments.
Hiraishi analyzes the principle of repetition that informs the novella on four levels—its
characters’ speech and action, plot, background, and language—concluding that the story is
structurally much like an athletic competition, with each of its characters vying against the
others to exercise superior repetitive power. In Hiraishi’s view, Bartleby ultimately wins this
competition because his repetitive power is the most intense.
Extending Hiraishi’s notion that repetition is the central principle of “Bartleby,” this
essay explores not only the formal function of repetition in the novella, but also its thematic
significance. First, the idea of repetition will be considered in light of two methodologies of
interpretation that have played prominent roles in the history of “Bartleby” criticism:
psychoanalysis and Marxist criticism. “Bartleby” will then be viewed in light of the idea of
repetition embraced by a contemporary European theologian. Although recent essays offering
psychoanalytical and Marxist perspectives provide valuable insights into the subjects of
mental disorder and class conflict in the novella, 1 it is the principle of repetition that links the
findings of these two approaches in the interpretation of “Bartleby.”
1. Compulsion, Reproduction, and Repetition
Bartleby’s reticence can be understood to reflect his alienation from society, and
therefore psychoanalysis offers a useful means of examining—and diagnosing—the
protagonist’s condition. 2 Psychoanalysis furthermore lends insight into the author’s inner life
and mental suffering in general; specifically in regard to Bartleby’s speech as a form of
repetition, psychoanalysis offers the illuminating concept of repetition compulsion.
Bartleby is not alone in acting in a repetitive manner; the pattern of repetitive behavior
extends to the narrator as well. In the first half of the story, Bartleby and the narrator share
two sets of conversations. Bartleby repeats the phrase “I would prefer not to” three times in
each set, and as the conversation develops, the narrator also starts to repeat his words. The
narrator obstinately recites the word “reason” throughout the story a total of ten times in such
phrases as “I advanced towards the screen, and demanded the reason for such extraordinary
conduct,” and “I began to reason with him” (21). The narrator seems to be justifying himself
through his insistent use of the term, as well as to defend the opposition between reason and
For example, see Richard Zlogar who asserts that Bartleby represents a nineteenth century image of
leprosy, and David Kuebrich, who discusses the ideology of capitalist production in the story.
For examples of criticism taking this approach, see Morris Beja, who argues that Bartleby is in a
state of schizophrenia, and Mordecai Marcus, who analyzes the story as an allegory of psychoanalytic
unreason. Yet this opposition is not fully preserved, and the narrator must admit shortly
afterwards that his confidence in reason has been somewhat shaken by his companion:
It is not seldom the case that when a man i browbeaten in some unprecedented
and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He
begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice
and all the reason is on the other side. (22)
A strange intercourse is established by the repetitive behavior of the narrator and Bartleby.
Rather than rushing to conclude, however, that the two characters lapse into a state of
obsessional neurosis, it is more instructive to examine what repetition itself signifies in the
In his controversial essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” (1920) Freud presents
repetition compulsion as an unconscious drive inherent in all human beings, a drive that acts
continuously at an unconscious level and is motivated by the desire to recover the original
condition of life. Repetition compulsion is associated with the death drive, one of the most
significant ideas of Freud’s final period. In Freud’s view, repetition ultimately aims for the
lifeless condition at the origin, and functions to detour the living toward that condition. The
repetitions of Bartleby and the narrator are thus represented and linked symbolically at the
end of the novella through the death of Bartleby and the “dead letter.”
In contrast, Marxist criticism has analyzed the novella ideologically, considering the
story as an allegory of class conflict pitting the protagonist as a laborer against the narrator as
an exploitative capitalist. From the Marxist perspective, Bartleby’s disobedience can be seen
to represent resistance, and Bartleby himself to be a heroic figure struggling against capitalist
oppression. A careful reading, however, reveals that Bartleby does not always refuse to work.
In the first half of the story, the narrator is more than satisfied with his performance: “As days
passed on, I became considerably reconciled to Bartleby. . . . I had a singular confidence in
his honesty. I felt my most precious papers perfectly safe in his hands” (25-26). Up until a
specific point to be considered in detail below, the narrator is content with Bartleby as a
In contrast to the psychoanalytic view of repetition, Marxist approach affords a view of
repetition as representing the idea of reproduction. The value of Marxist theory lies in its
analysis of surplus value, which emerges in the exchange of commodities of seemingly
equivalent value. Marx’s analysis focuses on one commodity in particular, labor, arguing that
surplus value derives from labor because capitalists demand labor from their laborers in
excess of the real value of their compensation (that is, the value they add to the commodities
they produce). In other words, the surplus value that enables economic growth emerges
through the unbalanced exchange of labor. From this perspective, Bartleby and the narrator
can be seen as enacting through their repetitions the productive dynamic of capitalism, and
pursuing it to its natural conclusion. Significantly, this reproduction/repetition dynamic arises
through the relationship between the narrator and Bartleby, rather than their respective
The principle of repetition in “Bartleby” is thus established by two major
methodologies of twentieth century criticism. Let us turn now to the way one of Melville’s
contemporaries grappled with this principle.
2. Recollection and Repetition
The problem of repetition captivated the nineteenth-century theologian and philosopher
Søren Kierkegaard, whose work Repetition (1843) defined the principle in terms of
recollection, ultimately questioning the possibility of repetition itself:
[R]epetition is a crucial expression for what “recollection” was to the Greeks. Just
as they taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that
all life is a repetition. . . . Repetition and recollection are the same movement,
except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated
backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward. Repetition, therefore,
if it is possible, makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him
unhappy. . . . (131 emphasis original)
Here Kierkegaard effectively distinguishes between two forms of repetition: recollection,
which is oriented toward the past, and “genuine repetition,” which is oriented toward the
future. The phrase “if it is possible” represents Kierkegaard’s doubts about the existence of
Recollection and repetition construct the complex plot structure of Repetition, which
interweaves two stories, that of a trip which the narrator takes to Berlin, and that of a young
man’s love affair. The young man has long cultivated an image of an ideal beloved in his
imagination, but this image conflicts with the suffering he endures in his romantic
relationship with an actual woman. The young m asks the older and wiser narrator for
advice, and the narrator advises him to leave his relationship and live within his fancy, or
recollection. The narrator himself soon attempts to re-experience a trip that he took to Berlin
six years before, in order to answer his own long-standing question as to whether repetition is
possible. The reenacted trip is a complete failure, and in reflecting upon this, the narrator
realizes that he has dreamed of the equivalence of repetition and recollection. The narrator
feels deep shame at having given the young man impossible advice.
In the latter part of the story, however, the narrator receives a letter from the young man
that relates a repetitive experience he has had. The young man reports that he has read the
story of Job, and that he has succeeded in repeating Job’s experience. On this basis, the young
man claims to have achieved a state of repetition just when the narrator has given up hope of
its possibility. This opposition remains unresolved throughout the story, and this ambiguity
has aroused great controversy among Kierkegaard’s critics.
The narratives of Kierkegaard and Melville have much in common. In both works, a
narrator meets a young man whom he believes he controls, becomes deeply involved with the
youth, and ultimately looses his confidence. In “Bartleby,” the narrator’s initial sense of
security is depicted as follows:
For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized
me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond
of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal
melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam. (28 emphasis added)
In this passage, the word “melancholy” plays a key role, 3 and melancholy is also invoked in
Repetition precisely at the point where the narrator stands in the superior position to the
young man. Specifically, the narrator describes the young man in love as “melancholy,” and
links this notion with the idea of recollection:
That he was melancholy, I knew very well—but that falling in love could affect
him in this way! . . .
He was deeply and fervently in love, that was clear, and yet a few days later
he was able to recollect his love. He was essentially through with the entire
relationship. . . . Recollection has the great advantage that it begins with the loss;
the reason it is safe and secure is that it has nothing to lose. (136)
It bears mention that Freud distinguishes melancholia from mourning. Freud’s conception of
melancholia—slightly different from that of Kierkegaard—entails the refusal of the loss of an object
through an attempt to internalize and identify with it.
In view of Kierkegaard’s definition of recollection as a form of backward repetition, it is
suggestive that recollection has nothing to lose, and that it entails melancholy for this reason.
Recollection also provides the framework of “Bartleby,” in which the narrator recalls
the story of his former employee; the backward repetition entailed in this narrative mode also
emphasizes the loss that recollection involves vis-à-vis original experience. In introducing the
story, the narrator states that “[t]he nature of my avocations, . . . has brought me into more
than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men,
of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or
scriveners.” The narrator continues, “I believe that no materials exist for a full and
satisfactory biography of this man. . . . Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is
ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small” (13).
That the story of Bartleby ends with a melancholy scene seems a necessary consequence of
the sense of loss with which the narrator thus frames the story.
Although the recollections of the narrator of “Bartleby” begin in melancholy, this
feeling gives way to one of anxiety as the story progresses:
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just
in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did
that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. (29)
Fear plays a crucial role in regard to repetition. Now let us examine this role in more detail.
3. Difference and Repetition
The turning point of “Bartleby” occurs during the scene in which he suddenly stops
copying documents. Whether interpreted as compulsive or reproductive, a stable relationship
existed between the narrator and the protagonist prior to this scene, and Bartleby’s refusal to
work throws the narrative into crisis. This crisis ensues soon after Bartleby’s notorious phrase,
“I would prefer not to,” begins to spread among his colleagues in the office. When the
narrator notices that another employee has used the word “prefer,” he expresses grief:
He did not in the least roguishly accent the word prefer. It was plain that it
involuntarily rolled from his tongue. 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. (31)
Interestingly, the narrator decides to fire Bartleby not because he has stopped working, but
because of his effect on other clerks.
Gilles Deleuze, whose work renews the thought of Kierkegaard, defines “repetition” as
an unexchangeable and therefore “singular” idea. Deleuze contrasts this idea with the notion
of the “particular,” which he relates to an exchangeable generality that obeys the law.
Repetition emerges singularly and resists the idea of generality/law, which enables the
operations of comparison and analogy. Repetition does not entail consciousness or memory,
but rather is manifested with intensity. In other words, when one is in the state of repetition, it
is impossible to be aware of or to report one’s state. Repetition can only be recalled from the
perspective of the future, that is, as recollection. 4
The story of Bartleby reaches its turning point when Bartleby’s phrase starts to spread,
because it is at this point that the phrase loses its intensity, and hence acquires generality. This
transition reveals the difference between Bartleby and the other characters in the novella.
Only Bartleby attempted, in Kierkegaard’s terms, to recollect forward; the repetitions of the
other characters are revealed to be a sort of recollection. As soon as this difference between
Bartleby’s and the other characters’ repetitions becomes clear, the operations of comparison
and analogy begin to func tion, and the perpetual motion of compulsive and reproductive
repetition is interrupted.
It is also at this point that Bartleby’s speech undergoes a dramatic transformation. In
the first half of the story, Bartleby is depicted as an inhuman character who evinces neither
consciousness nor memory, but simply repeats the phrase “I would prefer not to.” After this
point, he converses with the narrator quite freely. Although Bartleby remains
repetitive—though his preferred phrase after the turning point is “I am not particular”—it is
worth noting that he qualifies his repetitions; during the scene in which the narrator compels
him to leave by force, Bartleby says, “I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am
not particular” (41 emphasis added). Here, Bartleby’s memory of having said the phrase
before is overt. Although he claims not to be particular, his act of memory indicates that he is
no longer singular: he has joined his colleagues in the state of backward repetition, or
For a full discussion of the idea of repetition with reference to the “singular” and “particular,” see
Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, “Introduction: Repetition and Difference” and “Chapter 2: Repetition
In his short essay on “Bartleby,” Deleuze characterizes the unnaturalness of the phrase
“I would prefer not to”:
Murmured in a soft, flat, and patient voice, it attains to the irremissible, by
forming an inarticulate block, a single breath. In all these respects, it has the same
force, the same role as an agrammatical formula. (68)
Prior to his turning point, Bartleby does indeed sound “agrammatical,” that is, as if he could
not speak according to the laws of grammar. In the latter part of the story, however, he starts
to speak in complete, grammatical sentences such as “I would prefer not to quit you” (35);
“No, I would prefer not to make any change”; “No, I would prefer not to take a clerkship”;
“‘No, I would prefer to be doing something else”; “No: at present I would prefer not to make
any change at all” (41); and “I prefer not to dine-today” (44).
These utterances, all of which include the phrase “I would prefer not to,” but each of
which provides a distinct impression of stability, represent symbolically the transformation of
Bartleby from a singular, disobedient figure into a character infused with the generality of law.
Repetition has been forced into the form of recollection by virtue of being observed from the
outside. In defining repetition, Kierkegaard sets conditions on “genuine repetition” by
questioning its very possibility. Deleuze expands upon this definition, revealing repetition to
be an unexchangeable and therefore unrepresentable and singular event which speech
The principle of repetition is deeply informed by the act of copying. John Carlos Rowe
has examined the relationship of original and copy in “Bartleby,” contending that to repeat is
to make a copy, and that the profession of scrivener provides an ideal metaphor for
questioning the authority of the written word. From a historical perspective, Susan Weiner
explores the connection between the notion of copying itself and the rise of daguerreotypes in
the nineteenth century, a technology which made possible the reproduction of self- images.
Assuming that Melville and Kierkegaard shared the same problems, the roles of
copying and reproduction in the novella must be understood in terms of a vector of direction
and time. The act of repetition, whether recollected forward or backward, is defined by the
direction of recognition along the axis of time. To repeat what transpired in the past is
recollection; to recollect forward is “genuine repetition,” that is, “if it is possible.”
In Kierkegaard’s Repetition, the past that the young man tries to recollect is the story of
Job: “If Job is a poetic character, if there never was any man who spoke this way, then I make
his words my own and take upon myself the responsibility” (205). Interestingly, the narrator’s
recollection of the tale of Bartleby ends with a quotation from the Book of Job, which the
narrator pronounces while witnessing Bartleby’s death in the Halls of Justice.
‘His dinner is ready. Won’t he dine today, either? Or does he live witho ut dining?’
‘Lives without dining’ said I, and closed the eyes.
‘Eh!—He’s asleep, ain’t he?’
‘With kings and counsellors,’ murmured I. (45 emphasis added)
It is intriguing that two texts concerned so intimately with repetition should make such
prominent references to the Book of Job. The story of a young man proclaiming his
innocence and awaiting the judgment of God seems to have struck both Melville and
Kierkegaard as indispensable to portraying an episode of “genuine repetition.” Deleuze
comments on the significance of Job as follows:
Job challenges the law in an ironic manner, refusing all second-hand explanations
and dismissing the general in order to reach the most singular as principle or as
universal. (Difference and Repetition 7)
Both Bartleby and Kierkegaard’s young man seek the experience of the same “genuine
repetition” that Job seeks. Yet the story of a repetitive person can only be told through the
recollections of a narrator; “genuine repetition,” as Kierkegaard and Deleuze define it,
precludes consciousness and memory—one cannot be aware of it at the time it occurs. If the
story of Bartleby conveys a sense of tragedy, as many critics maintain, it is because this story
of repetition can only be represented within the framework of recollection. No matter how
insufficient it may seem, the role of the narrator is indispensable. We must neither disdain the
mediocrity of the narrator, nor deify the singularity of Bartleby. Repetition lies in the distance
between the two, an unbridgeable gap tha t is essential to our existence.
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