Nancy D. Goldfarb, “Charity as Purchase: Buying Self-Approval in Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’” (pp. 233–261)
This essay examines Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) in light of recent scholarship in philanthropic studies. Through the lawyer-narrator, Melville’s story discreetly challenges the representation of charity as a viable means of redistributing wealth and restoring balance to an unequal social structure. The narrator masterfully employs the rhetoric of charity to negotiate his role in Bartleby’s tragic outcome, generating a self-promoting narrative that deflects potential criticism. His charitable acts toward Bartleby do not fulfill Kenneth Boulding’s criterion for philanthropy as a “one-way transfer”; rather, they constitute an exchange. In return for his financial gifts, the lawyer assuages his guilt and cheaply purchases “a delicious self-approval.” The story demonstrates the extent to which the profit-oriented culture represented by Wall Street is antithetical to a sense of obligation for others. By neglecting his civic responsibility and excessively valuing money, the narrator finds himself incapable of a spiritual connection with Bartleby and, despairing of his ability to assist his employee, instead offers him charity. Once the lawyer begins to perceive Bartleby as useful, the potential of charity to express human fellowship transforms into a means to profit. “Bartleby” demonstrates how in late capitalism the needy cease to be seen as individual human beings and subjects of their own lives. Rather, they are seen as an occasion for a purchase, an opportunity to achieve one’s objectives by means of what are now tax-deductible donations.
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