Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

Across his novellas Billy Budd, Benito Cereno, and his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Melville uses homoerotically charged relationships between men to examine and critique how power structures of racial hierarchy, colonialism, and capitalism obscure humanistic relationships. Billy Budd contrasts the oppressed common-man collectivist power of the innocent “Handsome Sailor” with the authoritarian, inhuman power of his persecutor, Claggart. Benito Cereno, through the intimacy of Babo and Don Benito, uses a homoerotic relationship to obscure the populist power of the slaves’ takeover. “Bartleby the Scrivener” sets the human bond between its titular character and its protagonist against the inhuman world of Wall Street, exploring alienation and compassion under capitalism. In each story, the central male-male relationship acts as a reminder of the human element of society so often perverted by inhumane power structures. Melville uses the erotic or erotically-charged relations between men to reintroduce and centralize the empathy, desire, and personal struggle at the heart of unjust power structures like racism, colonialism, authoritarianism, and capitalism.

The primary homoerotic element in Billy Budd is Claggart’s simultaneous erotic attraction to and revulsion toward the young sailor, whose innocence forms a foil to Claggart’s dishonorable character; the secondary homoerotic element is the crew’s reverence for Billy on account of his sublime innocence and congeniality. The tension between these two elements, Claggart’s infatuation with and persecution of Billy and the crew’s loyalty to the sailor, sets the plot of the novella into motion. The ship’s command is on edge due to recent mutinies on other vessels in the British Navy, and fear that their ship’s men may turn against them. They recognize the tenuousness of their power over the sailors, especially compared to that of Billy Budd, whom Melville constructs as the “Handsome Sailor,” a figure who receives superlative respect and admiration from his fellow sailors (Melville 5). Billy’s previous captain, the Rights-of-Man’s Captain Graveling, remarks, “Billy came, and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy … a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones. They took to him like hornets to treacle” (8-9). He possesses an authority beyond the ships’ command, which, though beneficial to the captain of the Rights, makes him a target on the Indomitable.

A key factor in Billy’s authority is his physical beauty; he is young and hardy, but also innocent and earnest. His boyish appearance signifies to both the audience and the other characters that Billy is good-hearted and morally pure. It is this beauty that attracts Claggart, whose own appearance contrasts with the handsome sailor. Melville describes Claggart’s face as “singularly contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors, and in part the result of his official seclusion from the sunlight, though it was not exactly displeasing, [his face] nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (29-30). Like Billy, his appearance represents his role among the sailors and his moral character. Billy is rosy-cheeked, Claggart is pale; Billy earns the homage of his fellow sailors, Claggart is forever an outsider. Claggart’s power comes from his position in the ship’s command, a power which in light of recent mutinies may prove ductile. Billy’s beauty marks him as a virtuous man-of-the-people, and this makes him a threat. Claggart’s attraction to Billy is therefore not merely erotic but, in fact, a struggle of power.

Claggart’s complicated attraction toward Billy begins with Billy’s physical beauty but in time goes beyond, becoming an envy of Billy’s simultaneous innocence and authority. Melville writes that Billy “was yet by no means of a satirical turn. The will to it and the sinister dexterity were alike wanting. To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature” (11). Claggart taunts him with a sarcastic remark he knows Billy will not understand as he is too pure-hearted and unaware of malice to comprehend the meaning in Claggart’s words. Billy is an earnest figure not inclined to deception or machination. He lives a life of genuineness and honesty, which wins over his crewmates. Claggart, on the other hand, is inclined toward irony and double meanings. Melville’s narration explains, “when the master-at-arms in the scene last given applied to the sailor the proverb Handsome is as handsome does he there let escape an ironic inkling … as to what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty” (44). Claggart inadvertently reveals the origin of his clandestine campaign against Billy, offering a rare morsel of truth from a dishonest character.

Ironically, Claggart is only capable of telling the truth when making a sarcastic statement, in contrast to the ever-honest Billy. He envies Billy’s ability to live earnestly among the other men while he himself is trapped in a position of authority: “Claggart’s was no vulgar form of the passion. Nor, as directed toward Billy Budd, did it partake of that streak of apprehensive jealousy that marred Saul’s visage perturbedly brooding on the comely young David. Claggart’s envy struck deeper” (44). Claggart views Billy as more than a threat to peace onboard the Indomitable; Billy is a figure of honest virtue and therefore a blow to Claggart’s pride and a source of envy. Claggart’s “passion” for Billy is a simultaneous resentment towards Billy’s authority and homoerotic desire for Billy, whose innocent handsomeness earns him aforementioned authority among his fellow sailors. The struggle is not simply populist power versus the elite command—it is authority through love and respect versus authority by might and fear:

“And the insight but intensified his passion, which, assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain—disdain of innocence—To be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an esthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it” (45).

Billy’s innocence is something inaccessible to Claggart, something lost that cannot be recovered. Though Billy’s fellow sailors are perhaps as jaded and experienced as Claggart, Claggart is uniquely an outsider, as signified by his pale skin and uncalloused hands. Everything Billy represents—honesty, respect, companionship—is unattainable to Claggart, who has traded his place among the sailors for authority, a trade whose consequences he now realizes. Authoritarian power structures like the one seen on the Indomitable inevitably alienate the powerful from the general masses, to the detriment of both, by interfering and superseding the underlying human relationship. Claggart is a tragic figure damned by his envy for Billy and by his position in the Indomitable’s authoritarian command. Through this assumption of superiority, he is alienated from his fellow man and therefore unable to cope with his attraction toward the handsome sailor, leading to his downfall.

Though Benito Cereno likewise takes place aboard a ship and the narrative is concerned with the power relations between “command” and “the subjugated,” its homoerotic element, as seen during the scene in which Babo shaves Don Benito, is a far more conscious, more deliberate manifestation of one class’s power over another. In the charade, Babo resembles Billy Budd, a simple figure of common good and devotion. In actuality, he has wielded the power of the oppressed class to topple the ship’s command, precisely what Claggart accuses Billy of plotting. Babo’s charade relies on Benito Cereno’s third-person limited narrator, Captain Delano, interpreting the relationship between Babo and Don Benito as that of a faithful servant and his ailing master. This interpretation is, of course, informed by Delano’s own racial beliefs and by the dynamic between the two men, ostensibly an African servant and his esteemed European master. Though the reader may see through this ruse rather quickly, Delano believes it until he departs the San Dominick well into the story. Internally, Delano makes frequent comments regarding Babo’s care and dutifulness towards Don Benito, taking it to be a characteristic of his race, remarking on what he perceives as Africans’ “docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind, and that susceptibility of blind attachment sometimes inhering in indisputable inferiors” (208). Delano sees the bond between Babo and Don Benito as a particular form of racialized servant-master relationship exceeding the bounds of mere employment into some genuine fondness and potentially homoerotic devotion.

Delano pays close attention to the minutiae of the men’s interactions, particularly while Babo shaves Don Benito. The narration goes into detail describing the ways the men touch, and while the reader may realize the actual power dynamic in these touches, Delano takes them as evidence of the two’s connection. “‘Now, master,’ [Babo] said, readjusting the flag, and pressing the head gently back into the crotch of the chair, ‘now, master,’ and the steel glanced nigh the throat” (209-210). Delano interprets this as part of Africans’ natural aptitude for hairdressing and the men’s trust, though something is obviously amiss. Even the oddest part of the shaving, Babo’s emergence from the cuddy with a razor cut on his cheek, is rationalized as further evidence of the men’s closeness. Melville writes, “Presently master and man came forth, Don Benito leaning on his servant as if nothing had happened. But a sort of love quarrel, after all, thought Captain Delano” (213). Delano is so preoccupied with this near-romantic conception of Babo and Don Benito’s bond that he fails to recognize the truth of the matter. He believes he is seeing through a pretense, that of master and man, and consequently that he understands the reality—a love quarrel, whether that love is platonic or something more. That romantic conception is Delano’s own projection. It is never explicitly stated why Delano settles on this interpretation of events; however, it is not insignificant that his own ship is named the Bachelor’s Delight. Observing a tense encounter between Babo and a mixed race steward during which Babo appears to be on edge, “Captain Delano imputed his jealous watchfulness to that peculiar feeling which the full-blooded African entertains for the adulterated one” (213). Delano ignores warning sign after warning sign, dismissing the peculiar events around him with a nearly willful ignorance. His racist views regarding Africans lead him to underestimate their power on the San Dominick and to make inaccurate presumptions regarding the motives of their actions; his willingness to project and subsequently read homoerotic undertones into the events around him renders him blind to the mutiny and the ruse playing out in front of him.

Billy Budd involves the sublimation of an interpersonal struggle—Claggart’s infatuation with and inability to relate to Billy’s innocence and honesty transforms into a class struggle, crew versus command. Benito Cereno involves the disguising of class struggle—the slaves’ mutiny—as a homoerotically charged interpersonal relationship. The crux of both texts is the transmutation of male-male relationships and desire with systems of power and control, revealing the human reality at the heart of social organization.

Like Benito Cereno and Billy Budd, “Bartleby the Scrivener” revolves around the relationship between a superior and an inferior. Unlike the two novellas, in which the homoerotic relationship is a manifestation of power dynamics, the relationship between Bartleby and the unnamed lawyer is a rebellion against society—in this case, American Wall Street capitalism. The narrator’s plight stems from his inability to reckon his duties as an employer with his humanist instincts and fondness for Bartleby. The story asks how far capitalism can remove a man from his humanity—can the narrator evict Bartleby and leave him for certain death? This tension is obvious from the moment Bartleby begins his employment at No.— Wall Street. Rather than situating him in the second room with the other scriveners, the lawyer places Bartleby with himself, symbolically violating the boundary between business and personal: “I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined” (131). The joining of privacy and society is the joining of the narrator’s personal desires and instincts with his occupation and role in the system of capitalism. He has the innate human longing for companionship, yet under the expectations of Wall Street he must carry on his duties as an employer to his men, never as their friend or equal.

The lawyer has a certain reverence for Bartleby’s appearance and his form. Indeed, Bartleby’s physical form seems to hold sway over him on multiple occasions, inciting the lawyer to exit the capitalist sphere and enter the personal. When Bartleby first refuses to do work, the narrator notes:

“His face was leanly composed; his gray eyes dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him … had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-Paris bust of Cicero out of doors” (133).

Bartleby’s pallid form, his distinctly human element, persuades the lawyer not to fire him. He is alien to the lawyer, but he inspires a humanistic impulse within him. Later, the narrator comes across Bartleby living in the office. Bartleby appears at the door “in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered deshabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but he was deeply engaged just then, and—preferred not admitting me at present;” rather than incensing the narrator, it seems to stun him and render him unable to fight back: “his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me that incontinently I slunk away from my own door and did as desired” (140). The narrator’s power comes from his role as an employer. This ought to confer him authority over his employees, but because his relationship with Bartleby exists outside “society” and outside work, this power is meaningless when faced with the half-dressed erotic figure of Bartleby.

The narrator is partially aware of his own weakness in the face of Bartleby’s erotic threat, though he never reveals outright its origin. He makes mention of Bartleby’s “certain unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid haughtiness, say, or rather an austere reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance” (142). Bartleby’s physical presence and peculiar passivity afford him power over the lawyer, and allow Bartleby to exist in a realm outside of capitalism. He is not bound by wage-earning, work ethic, or any other element of Wall Street. The narrator identifies with Bartleby’s position as an exile from capitalism, because though he himself is gainfully employed and well respected, he has become isolated by the strict, inhuman world of the office. His attraction to Bartleby is something human, which is why he is so reluctant to let the scrivener go. The lawyer’s reverence for Bartleby’s form reaches its climax when, at the yard in the Tombs, he is moved to reach out and touch the dead scrivener: “I paused; then went close up to him; stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping. Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet” (161). Even dead, the narrator is moved by Bartleby’s physicality. This touch is the realization of the narrator’s doomed attraction.

The narrator remarks on Bartleby’s poor situation, recognizing the other man’s gloomy isolation and projecting his own alienation onto the scrivener. The lawyer notes, “ he seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe. A bit of wreck in the mid-Atlantic” (147). Bartleby has no kith or kin, no life outside the office, but neither does the narrator, who does not even have his own name. The lawyer tries throughout the story to bond with Bartleby over this shared loneliness, and it is uncertain whether he reciprocates. He tells himself he has a duty to look after the scrivener, but this is mixed with a latent attraction. The lawyer states, “I often felt a charitable prompting to call at the place and see poor Bartleby, yet a certain squeamishness of I know not what withheld me” (155). This squeamishness cannot be the pressures of Wall Street or social propriety—the narrator is highly conscious of these and can easily put a name to them. The squeamishness stems from his homoerotic desire that goes against the will of capitalism.

He attempts to evict Bartleby only after he is “made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature I kept at my office” (153). He does not want to be rid of the man, but the forces of capitalism conspire to separate the two. There is no room for altruism and eccentricity on Wall Street, even when they cost nothing. The narrator attempts to use the same capitalist values to convince Bartleby to quit the office, offering him a great sum of money, but Bartleby pays no notice. The narrator agonizes over the impossibility of the situation, stating that he would rather let Bartleby stay as long as he wishes. “Rather would I let him live and die here, and then mason up his remains in the wall. What then will you do? For all your coaxing, he will not budge. Bribes he leaves under your own paperweight on your table; in short, it is quite plain that he prefers to cling to you” (153-154). Bartleby himself seems immune to the pressures of capitalism, which the lawyer interprets as a personal connection between the two men. He feels a connection to Bartleby over their alienation, and later tries a different tactic. Rather than using capitalist values to coax Bartleby out of the office, he tries to remove Bartleby from capitalism entirely:

“A final thought occurred to me—one which had not been wholly unindulged before. ‘Bartleby,’ said I, in the kindest tone I could assume under such circumstances, ‘will you go home with me now—not to my office, but my dwelling—and remain there till we can conclude upon some convenient arrangement for you at our leisure? Come, let us start now, right away’” (157).

He invites Bartleby to come live with him, the ultimate violation of the privacy-society demarcation, echoing his decision to situate Bartleby on his side of the folding door. He completely abandons his role as employer and instead approaches Bartleby as a friend, trying to lead the scrivener out of the office-realm into the personal-realm in an attempt to resolve the incompatibility between his homoerotic attraction and Wall Street society.

The narrator tries to coax Bartleby out of capitalism’s loci and social arrangements, but to no avail; though Bartleby has no place on Wall Street, he has no place off of it either. Bartleby is a victim of a system that alienates humans from one another and themselves and has nowhere left to turn. He cannot find solace in capitalism, but cannot act to accept the narrator’s offer of help. Though he is incredibly passive in performance and quiet in demeanor, he seems to reciprocate his employer’s feelings, or at least feel some attachment to the man. Despite his apathy in his employment, Bartleby makes no efforts to leave his position or his employer. Directly confronted, he voices a desire to remain put: “‘Will you, or will you not, quit me?’ I now demanded in a sudden passion, advancing close to him. ‘I would prefer not to quit you,’ he replied, gently emphasizing the not” (150). This is the only time Bartleby adds such an emphasis to his refrain. Bartleby does not specify why he would prefer not to quit the lawyer, whether he is attached to his employment, his employer, or the wall upon which he gazes, but when he is sent to the Tombs, he seems upset with the lawyer. When he tries to speak with the scrivener, Bartleby rebukes him: “‘I know you,’ he said, without looking round—‘and I want nothing to say to you.’ ‘It was not I that brought you here, Bartleby,’ said I, keenly pained at his implied suspicion” (159). Interestingly, Bartleby states that he does not want to speak to the lawyer, not that he would prefer not to speak to him. Bartleby seems genuinely upset by the narrator’s perceived betrayal.

            Rather than representing the power relations between employer and employee under capitalism, the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator functions as the antithesis of Wall Street values. The narrator finds himself trapped between the forces of capitalism and his needs as a human, but he and the object of his affection are ultimately both victims of a system which exploits and dehumanizes its members, dooming their chance of true connection. Upon Bartleby’s death, the narrator laments the cruelty and hopelessness of capitalism, realizing the pitiful state of mankind: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” (162).

            The final lines of “Bartleby the Scrivener” resonate through all three stories, emphasizing that systems and societies are made of people, and that neglecting the human element leads to alienation and despair. Though the command-versus-subordinate-people structure in Billy Budd and Benito Cereno bears little apparent resemblance to the office-milieu of Wall Street, the authoritarian commands of the San Dominick and the Indomitable are as corrosive to human nature as white-collar capitalism.

Works Cited

  • Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York, New York; Signet Classics, 2009.

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