Comparison and Contrast: Emily Dickinson & Herman Melville

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This paper seeks to compare the poem ‘The soul selects her own society ‘ by Emily Dickson and ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wally Street’ by Hermann Melville.’ Both of these texts are classic works of American literature and both contain discourses on individuality, friendship and the role of these within the wider context of the social world. It is the thesis of this paper that both texts enact a discourse of passive, but powerful refusal, but that this refusal is mediated by a varying strength of identifiable character in each text.

Melville’s story concerns the activity of a scrivener named Bartleby who is employed by his boss in order to copy out notices. Bartleby initially works well until he begins to arbitrarily refuse to do his work. He often replies that he would simply ‘prefer not to’ carry out any instructions given to him. These moments are complemented by equally arbitrary moments in which he works furiously without a break. The story follows Bartleby periodic refusals, as well as his employer’s attempts to make him work and also to attempt to care for his seemingly insane charge. The story ends with the employer discovering that Bartleby has starved himself to death in a prison cell and learning that he used to work in the dead letters area of the city postal service. Dickinson’s poem is obviously a much shorter text which both describes and enacts a process of decision and solitude.

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Dickinson’s poem uses its language and verse structure to enact this exclusion. The language throughout is austere and almost each line is entirely self contained. Each phrase appears to stand independently with the following line offering a continuation that can often be read as an imperative. This is perhaps best shown in the lines ‘To her divine majority / Present no more.’ (2000, 9) The word majority here is both ironic and literal as it describes an individual in isolation and, at the same, an individual who occupies a position closer to divine simplicity than the world around her. At the same ‘present’ holds a double meaning which describes a literal absence as well as a command to leave the soul isolation.

This ambiguity continues in the line: ‘I’ve known her from, from an ample nation / Choose one.’ (ibd.) The poem also hints at other words which have been excluded from it. This is most evident in the line ‘Upon her mat,’ the ending of which the stanza juxtaposes to ‘gate.’ (ibid.) ‘Mat’ is only one letter away from a full rhyme in the word ‘mate.’ This latter word appears to hang over line and its forced non-inclusion increases the sense of amputated possibility. The final word of the poem is ‘stone’ and it is resonant because the long vowel sounds on the e and the o create a sharp contrast between the length of the word and the meaning of the line. Throughout the poem the soul is never described as actively attacking or resisting the advances of anyone or thing that comes towards her, but rather stands passively in refusal of their presence.

Like Dickinson, Melville dramatises a gesture of refusal rather than a gesture of resistance. However, unlike Dickinson, Melville give us no insight into the character who is performing such an act of refusal, neither does he give any real information as to his motivations. Another major point of contrast between the texts Melville’s persistent emphasis on the position of living death that Bartleby occupies. Several times in the text he is referred to as ‘cadaverous,’ almost always from the position of his refusal: ‘At the present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.’ (2009, 15) It is important to note that all description of Bartleby comes via his narrator, however it is clear that he is intended to occupy a position which is both inside and outside of the world of which he is a part. Dickinson’s conception and dramatisation of solitude is subtly different.

While she equally describes a position of refusal this position maintains a nobility and consistency which is different to Bartleby. In the poem, the individual is crystallised by the act of refusal, however this refusal itself is completely consistent and unwavering. She does not actively disrupt the wold of which she is a part. Bartleby, even as he stands consistently outside the world, remains, as a result of the arbitrariness of his character, completely unknowable. This is not the case in Dickinson for whom the soul must posses the will, and therefore the character, to maintain self-exclusion.

In conclusion, both Dickinson and Melville portray states of extreme individuality achieved through a rejection of the world. However, in the first case the individual is an individual through an unchanging stance towards the world, whereas the latter portrays a kind of malleable, disruptive singularity effective precisely because its behaviour is entirely unpredictable.

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