Food plays an important role in Melville’s Bartleby. Though the narrator makes many references to food in the story as Bartleby distances himself from the necessity. Each of his coworkers are named after food. Bartleby only eats ginger nuts and at the end of the story, dies of starvation.
He avoids eating because food represents the greed and materialism in a capitalist world. Bartleby despises self-indulgence and attempts isolate himself from the country that is fueled by desire. His efforts may seem pure, but an absence of sustenance, eventually, prompts spiritual debasement and inevitable passing. Bartleby is an enigma.
He is only described by descriptions of behavior and his responses to the lawyer. Bartleby’s ascetic lifestyle provides a habits for analysis. Bartleby’s strict regime highlights the differences in the lifestyles of his coworkers. Ginger Nut, Turkey, and Nippers have names that are derived from different foods.
Ginger Nut is named after the cakes he picks up for the office. The lawyer states the origins of his name, “they sent Ginger Nut very frequently for that particular cake – small, flat, round and very spicy – after which he had been named by them. Of a cold morning, when business was but dull, Turkey would gobble up scores of these cakes, as if they were mere wafers – indeed, they sell them at the rate of six or eight for a penny – the scrape of his pen blending with the crunching of the crisp particles in his mouth.”(9) They imagery the narrator uses for Turkey is over the top and somewhat unrealistic, but it contributes to the image of this character. Turkey is named after the dish that is eaten during Thanksgiving, a holiday when people tend to stuff themselves with food.
Turkey represents indulgence and greed. When the lawyer describes himself as he “gobble(s) up scores of these cakes,” he gives Turkey an animal-like quality, which is referenced in his unusual name. He negligently indulges in gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins. He is also described as being vain as the lawyer describes Turkey’s infatuation with his coat, “I verily believe that buttoning up in so downy and blanket-like a coat had a pernicious effect upon him – upon the same principle that too much oats are bad for horses. In fact, precisely as a rash, restive horse is said to feel his oats, so Turkey felt his coat.” (7) In the lawyer’s eyes the coat decreases Turkey’s productivity and makes him progressively indolent. Bartleby denies himself of the riches that Turkey cherishes.
He actively refuses to indulge himself by saying, “I’d prefer not to,” to all of the things he is offered. The significance of his saying “prefer” is that he is actively making a decision to decline non-necessities. He is asserting his free will to be separate himself from his materialist peers.
The lawyer notices Bartleby’s modest tendencies, saying, “If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartley, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.”(14) In this passage, Melville uses food metaphors to suggest that the lawyer’s need to help Bartleby for his own charitable desire. He wants a “delicious self-approval” and wants to have a “sweet morsel for my conscience.
” Though the lawyers intentions may seek a spiritual goal rather than a materialistic goal, Melville includes the connection to food to assert that divine indulgence is still greed. Bartleby’s defiance against a capitalistic society results in his dying in a prison. Living his life as an ascetic and holding disdain for consumption, Bartleby decides to defy the materialistic ways of his coworkers. Melville uses food language to represent the indulgence of many characters in the story to contrast the character of Bartleby.
The narrator believes that he is being selfless by helping Bartleby, yet he is just as greedy as his coworkers. The narrator craves something different from a coat or sustenance. He desires spiritual fulfillment which is a more ambitious goal. Seeing food as a form of materialism makes Bartleby’s actions more comprehensible.
Melville’s metaphors alienate Bartleby as the only sane man in a materialistic world.