Disease and Decease in "Bartleby, the Scrivener". A Story of Wall-Street

Term Paper, 2014

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


2. Neo-Marxism

3. The capitalist exploitation of the individual
3.1 Fromm’s concept of the origin of the individual and social neurosis
3.2 Bartleby as a victim of the socially patterned defect
3.3 Bartleby’s act of passive resistance

4. Conclusion

5.Work Cited
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

“Tis worse, and tragic, that no man is fit for society who has fine traits.” (134)

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude.


As postmodern critics have stated, the rise of capitalism entailed negative consequences on the individual being. Society turned into a crisis of self-identification and still many people are dealing with the repercussions. As a result, low self-esteem and loss of identity lead to an increasing number of mental disorders. Critics like Deleuze and Guattari even argued for a link between capitalism and schizophrenia, claiming that “schizophrenia arises from the decoding processes characteristic of capitalism” (Holland 66).

An important step into this crisis was the rise of the industrialization in the 19th century. In that period, human beings were increasingly treated as machines, their identity as a human individual was no longer as important anymore. Productivity and labor power became the main domains of the individual worker. Thus, the individual worker did not only have to sell his labor power, but also himself, in order to, ensure his existence. The leading consequence was that society became more materialistic, focusing increasingly on pecuniary interests. Issues like religious identification and respect of other people’s needs were decreasingly less valued. Thus, in a contemporary, consumptive society the degradation of the human being to that of an automaton became a serious conflict. Consequently, it became obvious that individuals began to oppose the socially determined roles in to which they were being forced.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville, presents this serious conflict between the individual and society. In the following I will argue that society is in a deranged state. Moreover, society stigmatizes Bartleby as being mentally ill which causes his social limitation and leads in consequence to his act of passive resistance.

Therefore, this paper will deal with two major issues: The conflict between the individual being and the social structure will be illustrated in detail. I will use Marxist terminology to help illustrate the main points of the capitalist exploitation of the individual worker. Psychoanalytical terms, according to Sigmund Freud, in use of Erich Fromm, will be used in order to give evidence about the issue of the social neurosis and Bartleby’s mental state. In order to combine these two literary approaches together, I will employ a Neo-Marxist reading of Melville’s short story.

2. Neo-Marxism

After the establishment of the Frankfurt School in the 1920s, members became increasingly interested in investigating the influence of political structures on the internal world of human beings (cf. Elliott 59). Due to that period, the Frankfurt School tried to overcome the crisis posed by Marxism: combining social philosophy and empirical social science. In terms of critical theory, a combination of both Freudian and Marxist theoretical approaches, caused the emergence of the so called “Neo-Marxism”.

Therefore, Neo-Marxism is a quite newly established theory of literary criticism which combines Freud's theory of the unconscious with Marxist sociology. Still, this literary approach is very useful for this paper. It enables the fusion of Marxist social criticism in combination with psychoanalytical terms from the human sciences. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, a former member of the Frankfurt School, was a main protagonist of the Neo-Marxist theory. His major works “Escape from Freedom” (1941) and the “Sane Society” (1955) involve a critical view on capitalist society. This paper will pay special attention to his article “Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis” (1944). Further, Fromm became preoccupied with the destructive effects of late capitalism on the individual (cf. Elliott 60). For that reason, his works make a perfect match for the literary criticism I want to use for this paper.

3. The capitalist exploitation of the individual

According to Marxist critics, the problem of capitalist society has been already investigated by many scholars. In Marx’s famous works “Das Kapital” (1867) and the “Critique of Political Economy” (1859) Marxist theory tries to help us to understand the machinations of capitalist society. As a main point, Marxist theory shows us that the economic system structures human societies (cf. Tyson 53).

Marx explains that the reciprocal action between getting and keeping economic power is the main intention behind all social and political activities (cf. Tyson 53). Moreover, “economics is the base on which the superstructure of social/political/ideological realities is built” (Tyson 54). Consequently, these ideologies shape individual human beings. In order to keep the power structure, society emerges into two different groups: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisies hold the power, while the proletariats are the ones who often do not recognize for a long time that they are controlled and suppressed (cf. Tyson 54).

From the beginning these two groups signify an imbalance in society. The so-called superstructure in the social system leads to the suppression of the individual worker. This entails the coercive repression of the individual’s interests and needs. By establishing that system the individual is forced to take a certain place - a place capitalist society requires for him. Otherwise “human energy and skill are without exchange value when there is no demand for them under existing market conditions” (Fromm, The Art of Loving 65).

This lack of awareness by the suppressed population group leads to a “socially patterned defect” which has already been introduced by Erich Fromm. Further, I am going to illustrate Fromm’s definition of the origin of the socially patterned defect.

3.1 Fromm’s concept of the origin of the individual and social neurosis

In the article “Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis,” (1944) Fromm illustrates the cause and the effect of social neurosis. Moreover, he points out that the fight between individual and authority does not necessarily lead to a neurosis. Therefore, he introduces two concepts of outcomes the defeat against authority might have for the individual. On the one hand, the consequences might result in a neurosis of the individual and on the other hand, the consequences might lead to a socially patterned defect (cf. Fromm, “Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis” 383). Initially, Fromm explains the original cause of the neurosis in terms of Sigmund Freud.

According to Freud, a neurosis is based on the oedipal complex. In Freud’s theory the oedipal complex was limited to sexual rivalry. Fromm adds a new perspective to the Freudian theory by using the oedipal complex as the “child’s reaction to the pressure of parental authority, the child’s fear of it and submission to it” and “the failure of the child to solve this conflict satisfactorily” (Fromm, Individual 381). In this case, the neurosis is the consequence of a conflict between the child and the authority of his parents which may be unsolved.

Fromm argues that the socially patterned defect derives from a struggle, conflict between the individual and a certain authoritative power. He argues that there are two different kinds of authority. There is rational authority and also irrational authority.

According to his definition rational authority is “based on the competency of the person” who has the authority. In contrast, irrational authority is “based on the power which the authority has over those subjected to it and to fear” (Fromm, Individual 381). Fromm synthesizes that in most social structures, “human relationships are greatly determined by irrational authority” (Fromm, Individual 381).

In the explanation of how individuals function in society, Fromm argues that “by becoming adjusted to their social role at the price of giving up part of their own will, their originality and spontaneity” (Fromm, Individual 381).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Disease and Decease in "Bartleby, the Scrivener". A Story of Wall-Street
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Amerikanistik)
Advanced Academic Writing I
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disease, dicease, bartleby, scrivener, story, wall-street
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Natalie Pehl (Author), 2014, Disease and Decease in "Bartleby, the Scrivener". A Story of Wall-Street, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/294511


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