“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid has been termed by critics as lacking in plot or formal structure in terms of characterization, setting, and color that make up regular works of fiction. However, the economy of structure that is utilized by the author is rather compelling to the audience. The author utilizes the speech patterns of the protagonist, a girl without a name, as she recollects the remonstrance of her mother about the things a woman is expected to be lest she becomes promiscuous as noted in the statement, “and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.” The author is effective in vivid capturing of the experiences of growing up through adolescence and into adulthood for any typical woman. “Girl” can be related to “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, in that the protagonist questions his existence and more so conforming withy societal expectations, similar to the girl who has to adhere to societal expectations and constructs of gender roles.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville focuses on the life of Bartleby as he works for a lawyer on America’s famous Wall Street. On a particular day, he declines to execute a specific task and notes to his employer that “prefers not to” reproduce any additional legal documents (Melville 21). The reply becomes a constant reply to his boss, leading to his dismissal from the employment. The work has been termed as denoting the loss of meaning in life as it illustrates despair and disappointment with life events. In addition, the text presumably criticizes the sterile and overly impersonal capitalistic society, which is likened to America’s Wall Street. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” presents the audience with one of the most fascinating rebellions in the history of literature due to the incident’s overly ambiguous nature. The lawyer initially excuses Bartleby’s behavior in his response, “I prefer not to”, but later neglects all of his duties to the dismay of the lawyer only to resort to staring at a wall (Melville 23).
The examination of the wall by Bartleby has been termed by literary critics as a form of imagery as it refers to the life of employees on the United States’ famous Wall Street. His refusal to execute a regular task that befits his role as a scrivener is evidently a threat to the lawyer’s business and more so himself. The lawyer is threatened by Bartleby’s reluctance top perform his duties, given that it challenges the previous on a personal and pragmatic level and more so contesting his authority as the owner of the law firm. The lawyer argues that Bartleby is a useful employee as he is easy to get along with and the risk of losing him would increase the risk of being hired by a less indulgent and cruel employer.
On the other hand, the lawyer is evidently a selfish individual as he notes that, “Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby” (Melville 33). The initial perspective that the lawyer is a worthy humanist is dismantled in entirety as it becomes evident that he is primarily focused on heaping self-praise on himself from his supposedly empathetic act of retaining Bartleby. In addition, the lawyer’s decisions to entertain the protagonist’s eccentricities arise from his inherently selfish nature. He retains Bartleby given that he seeks to ensure that he retains a clean conscience as the possibility of Bartleby starving could result in guilt. The actions of the lawyer are a means of shoring up his defense from possible guilt that would arise from dismissal of Bartleby.
When compared to the “Girl”, Bartleby has a causal relationship with his employee, similarly to that one shared by the young girl and her mother. The girl adheres to the socially constructed gender roles whereby she has to execute various domestic duties such as sewing, light farm work, cooking, and laundry. The duties are interspersed with various moral precepts through virtuous behavior and adhering to the socially acceptable behavior expected from women in the community. Additionally, to affirm her role in the society she has to learn to execute activities, duties and perpetuate her socially constructed gender role (Mistron 21).
Similar to Bartley, the girl is regularly instructed by her mother on various activities and the expected behavior based on societal norms. For Bartleby, he has to adhere to the roles prescribed for him as a scrivener, which results in his refusal to execute such duties and subsequent dismissal. The precepts and lessons communicated by the mother to daughter, if adequately absorbed by the girl, would enhance her value to exchange her labor and body for a social position as a wife assuming the gendered roles in the domestic setting. The story of the girl based on the narrative provided consists of activities as per the instructions of the mother.
Bartleby and the young are in similar positions, as they have to adhere to socially acceptable roles given their respective statuses in the community. Bartleby initially obeys the demands of the lawyer but declines with his statement, “I prefer not to” (Melville 23). The girl and Bartleby can be contrasted in that the girl has to adhere to the instructions of her mother, whereas Bartleby although in need of employment declines to execute his duties that are characteristic of his role as a scrivener.
The girl’s mother reproduces herself socially and biologically in her daughter, as it is assumed that she was instructed in a similar manner as a young girl. In addition, the roles of both individuals to the labor associated in the reproduction of their respective positions are evident in the lack of names. Neither the daughter nor her mother is individualized in any manner by the author. Such a prescription limits deviation. Deviation, as suggested by the daughter’s mother through her warnings would reduce the girl to a “slut”, one “the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread”, which would limit her chances of having a social role in the working class domestic setting (Mistron 29).
Similar to Bartleby and the lawyer, the girl and her mother are unable to escape the existing social order. The possible occurrence of deviance is understood to be an interruption to the development of the narrative in both texts. For instance, the girl interrupts her moth two times, despite the author’s decision to silence the deviance and incorporates the same into the narrative. In addition, her mother evidently sees her own character in the girl, given her supposed determination towards becoming a promiscuous woman, to which the girl responds with affirmation of her intention to assume a domestic position as she asks her mother, “But what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?”
At the end of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” narrative, the lawyer embarks to visit Bartleby only because of his self interest and guilt. This is similar to the girl’s mother, as she is only focused on her image and possible sense of guilt in the vent that her daughter becomes a promiscuous woman. The lawyer lacks an understanding of Bartleby’s predicament, despite his spirited visit to see Bartleby. Bartleby responds, “I know you… and I want nothing to say to you” (Melville 71). The lawyer respond with a tone of helplessness and possible surrender as he recognizes his inability to help Bartleby as well as any other party, but retains his pride on the fact the he explored the opportunity to help the protagonist albeit without success.
Similar to the lawyer’s reactions, the audience is left to ponder over Bartleby’s character as he opts to remain stationary. Thus, the audience can only presuppose several interpretations of the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby. Additionally, Bartleby’s refutation is enigmatic and possibly a sign of menial incapacitation. His refusal to perform menial tasks has been termed by critics as signaling the author’s frustration with his endeavor to develop literary works. Furthermore, a capitalistic society that is represented by the “wall” serves only to reduce the protagonist and possibly the author into a state of hopelessness and desperation.
The lawyer, based on existing interpretations, represents an overly capitalistic society. Bartleby’s objection can be likened to the author’s rejection to conform to the contemporary trends in the literary world given his approach towards developing the story. The author sought to culminate the narrative with personal angst as illustrated in the lawyer’s final exclamation “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” Melville sought to equate humanity and Bartleby. Thus if humanity and Bartleby are similar, then it can be assumed that the author was intent on providing an in-depth and overarching view of the incidence of capitalism and modernity and its capability to reduce individuals into vagrants.
In addition, the girl and Bartleby are both victims of the materialistic, capitalistic, and modern society as they are both reduced to hopeless. It is assumed that the girl, despite her objections, will likely become a “slut” or a working class homemaker, based on her mother’s presumption. Bartleby is a victim of the materialistic and inherently selfish consumer society. Bartleby cannot be provided with help, as he does not desire help that is manifested through his radical passivity (Mistron 43).
It can be assumed that the two narratives, “Girl” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” denote critical issues such as socially constructed gender roles and their effects on development of socially proffered identities and the effects of capitalism that is manifested through the role of the lawyer as he navigates the volatile world of business on Wall Street. In addition, the two texts affirm the socially constructed gender roles proffered on both men and women, as girl is forced to adhere to social expectations by behavior as a woman, whereas Bartleby has to focus primarily on gaining employment to conform to the social expectations of behaving as a man, which he fails to do.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Place of publication not identified: Floating Press, 2011. Print.
Mistron, Deborah E. Understanding Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
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