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The creative treatment of disobedience and rebellion in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”
Even the initial critical treatment of “Bartleby, the scrivener” reveals the power of the system. The critics used to count the lawyer’s role as the initial one, referring to Bartleby as to a comical or nihilistic persona, while the narrator was perceived either as self-serving, or well-meaning. The phrase, “I would prefer not to” is not accepted in the workplace of then or even today. It is understood that while people are at work certain things are expected of them, regardless of what they would rather do. When Bartleby said those words he went against all that is assumed by being employed.
It wasn’t initially mentioned that Bartleby is the fighter for freedom, and the lawyer is the “owner” of freedom.
Bartleby’s opinion towards the system is categoric, while narrator seems confused. Why would he be? Is it possible that he also “felt” the intention of Bartleby, foresaw the “light at the end of the tunnel” but wasn’t ready for it. The presence of Bartleby in his office shook his perceptions of reality, and the “easiest way of life” showed itself to be no longer synonymous with “the best” one. In contemporary criticism Bartleby is viewed as “the blow to the lawyer’s certainty” so it might mean that Bartleby reached the essence of Thoreau’s idea, he infected another person with the idea of freedom.
There are two major themes that completely correspond in two short stories – problem of subordination, and the importance of freedom.
The problem of subordination in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is described in a different way: “Men perpetrated an ideological prison that subjected and silenced women. This ideology, called the Cult of True Womanhood, legitimized the victimization of women” as Deborah Thomas said. The protagonist is abused by the common perception of a woman, her specialised and limited social role. Her perception of these things as common and obligatory contradicts with inner forefeeling that freedom, not dependence will do her good. She is exceptionally subordinated to all the rules society has for her as a typical woman, and her longing to accept them as correct, disable her fighting for freedom and identity, though she knows that these are the only things able help her. So, she also tries to free herself from the system, though it happens subconsciously. As a woman, and as the dependent member of society she doesn’t have a possibility to express her mind freely as she wants and that forces her to cheat her husband first, than cheat everybody around, than cheat herself. Though readers never know, if she was cheated, as finally she managed to free herself from the bounds placed upon her existence, as “Women were cast as emotional servants whose lives were dedicated to the welfare of home and family in the perservence of social stability” (Papke). Women are conditioned to accept the boundaries and remain in place, in the private sphere. “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was dammed immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic” (Welter).
That is what made the protagonist rebel. And the essential problem is not in the restrictions of the things, permitted to do, but the restriction to anything at all. It is unbearable for any mind, when it is forbidden to work. It is doubtful, whether the woman would be really provocative in the sense of idea of a freedom, propaganded by Thoreau, if she would be left to write according to her free will. As is seen from the short story, she was closely tied to her husband, her child, and even the surrounding system, because she showed the willingness to be like Jannie, not once in the discourse of the narrative. She might be left confused as the Lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener” if she would be given at least minimum of freedom. But as she wasn’t, the idea of freedom was growing more persuasive, and in the same time more subversive.
The need to find the way out of oppression led the character away from her family first, than herself, than from the reality. Madness (in the common perception of a system) was a price demanded for being beyond any rules, for being independent and free.
Whether the idea of rebellion in the short stories of Herman Melville and Charlotte Perkins Gillman was the extension of the one of Thoreau, or on the contrary, the reinterpretation of the two characters has narrowed it up, is for the readers to decide.
The point is that both characters by their inner rebellion achieved even more then Thoreau achieved by his open one: they became free, independent on the system around them, and on the people supporting this system. Somehow they reached to the idea of Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breath after my own fashion” and turned it into the reality of their own.