Gucci Belts, iPhones, and Yeezys — wanting and buying such expensive items is what we should do, right? Wrong, said Herman Melville, who warned us over one hundred and fifty years ago that material possessions represent everything that lies amiss with American society.
Melville offers a commentary on American materialism in his short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Set in New York City during the heart of the transcendentalist movement, Melville’s 1853 tale features Bartleby, a nineteenth century scrivener (someone who reads and manually copies legal documents) who lacks upward mobility.
In line with movements like transcendentalism that opposed conformity and materialism during the mid-1800’s, Melville’s protagonist refuses to conform to society’s expectations. Sensing his inability to move up in the world as the story progresses, Bartleby refuses to perform his job. Comedically, whenever Bartleby’s employer asks him to complete his work, Bartleby always replies with one simple phrase: “I would prefer not to.”
Though Bartleby ends up losing his job, this response vitalized the nonconformity movement. The phrase shows readers that although resistance to society’s expectations might make life more challenging, nobody is required to do something they do not want to do. After refusing to leave the premises, Bartleby finds himself incarcerated, and ultimately starves himself to death. As a result, the scrivener becomes a martyr for the nonconformity movement, and never does give into society’s expectations.
In this twenty-first century world of financial pursuit, materialism, and commercialism, it should come as no surprise that Melville’s tale still holds significance for a contemporary audience. The rise of conformity and consumerism Melville witnessed as he penned Bartleby has only worsened; almost a century later, his message has become even more prevalent. By way of an intriguing short story, Melville’s story today captivates any contemporary reader’s attention long enough to warn against consumerism, specifically that in modern society.
Society has become so obsessed with the newest technologies and designer clothing that it has become an abhorrent shadow of its former self.
Society has become everything that Melville envisioned and warned us about in Bartleby. Each year, there exists higher job turnover than ever before with the emerging millennial generation pursuing every higher-paying opportunity within reach. Recently, opportunists like the Kardashians and the Paul brothers have risen to stardom, and even hold significant roles in American culture for doing absolutely nothing worthwhile.
As Melville warned, people spend lavishly to keep up with the newest trends rather than saving for the future. People no longer become cool by being good and genuine; they become cool by keeping up with these trends. Society has become so obsessed with the newest technologies and designer clothing that it has become an abhorrent shadow of its former self. Americans no longer care about other Americans. America no longer remains solely a symbol of hard-work and liberty. Our great nation, just as Melville warned us it would, has come to represent obnoxious lifestyles and gaudy trends. It’s sickening.
Melville’s story is not—and should not be interpreted as—an attempt to convince readers to refuse to work, abandon ambitions, or be perpetually lazy. Through his Wall Street tale, Melville does not promote or even condone civil disobedience and starvation for readers who find themselves unhappy with their current living situations. Rather, Melville urges readers to seek lives that bring happiness rather than to just keep up with the latest trend. Take Jim, for example. If Jim would prefer to save some money rather than buying the new pair of in-style shoes, Jim should do just that. Only by neglecting undesirable situations, can we, like Jim, find ourselves in more desirable ones.