Irritation: Helga vs. Bartleby

While reading Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, I was struck by the term “Bartlebyzation”. I didn’t know what it meant, and it seemed to be something Ngai was suggesting her readers should know, since she didn’t offer any context or explanation. After some Internet research I discovered that this term is a reference to Herman Melville’s acclaimed short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”. While I had never read the story before, after reading and some research it became clear that there seem to be more underlying parallels between it and Larsen’s Quicksand than Ngai mentions in her chapter on Irritation.

As Ngai does discuss, both Bartleby and Helga experience their talents demoted, misplaced, and belittled to banal, mediocre tasks; Helga’s by her secretarial position, and Bartleby’s by his scrivener position when he is in fact able to write extensive high-quality material. This “artistic misplacement” reflects the other societal misplacements the characters experience, Helga with her racial displacement and Bartleby with his physical displacement.

Both characters experience a certain level of “homelessness”. Bartleby experiences it in more of a literal sense when he ends up living in the office building he was supposed to be working at, curling up in doorways and stairways. Helga’s own “homelessness” is primarily experienced in the metaphorical sense. She feels a lack of belonging and a sense of misplacement wherever she lives, and thus refuses to get comfortable anywhere, pushing every potential “home” away. In that sense, she differs from Bartleby, who seems perfectly content and even insistent to sleep on the hard floors of a rigid office building. But he provokes Helgaic frustration when the story’s narrator invites Bartleby to come and live with him, in a real home, and Bartleby refuses, clinging to his discomfort as Helga does throughout Quicksand.

This discomfort seems to be comfortable for the two characters, or at least habitual. Both characters have experienced certain things in the past that have affected them long-term: Helga with her parents and her childhood of abandonment and racial misplacement, and Bartleby with his rumored former job of working in a dead letter office and thus being surrounded by missed connections and emotions lost in the mail. These events cause the characters to lose hope, to turn their backs on the possibility of happiness to a certain extent, to have little motivation to put effort into their own success or even survival.

Both characters capture hearts on a fairly wide scale and are the subject of the affections of many people they come into contact with. Helga has her many suitors, whom she routinely turns down and pushes away. Bartleby appeals to the emotions of his boss and the story’s narrator; as previously mentioned, the narrator offers him a place to live, and despite his odd behavior and lack of action, Bartleby affects his boss emotionally so much that the man moves his business elsewhere rather than kick Bartleby out of the building. Readers are repeatedly left in frustration, wondering why the respective characters would not seize their multiple opportunities for a sense of home and security and possibly even happiness. But the characters’ backs are turned away from the light and towards brick walls, partially ones of their own creation.

Both Bartleby and Helga are presented with multiple pathways, in the forms of people, places, and actions, towards making their lives better for themselves despite their past pain. Bartleby could have simply made the copies at his new firm, and supported himself that way, or moved into the narrator’s home. Helga could have settled into one of the various places that could potentially have worked as satisfying homes for her. She could have acted more decisively in that sense, and also in the sense of sticking to her seemingly confident decision not to have children. Instead of just doing these things, Bartleby dies in prison and Helga is left trapped in a prison of her own baby-making. This provokes a Romeo-and-Juliet reaction: if the characters had simply done what readers knew were the right choices, if they had made some minor changes, then their chain reactions towards imprisonment, discomfort, and even death could have been avoided. In Ugly Feelings, Ngai cites Barbara Johnson’s assessment that “chapter breaks often occur where psychological causation is missing… and is the difficulty of defining the causes of Helga’s suffering that leads to irritation.” It is human nature to feel satisfied when we understand something, and intensely frustrated, irritated, even threatened when we do not, and these literary works so excruciatingly hit the nerve of perplexity.

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1 thought on “Irritation: Helga vs. Bartleby”

  1. While reading Ngai’s piece, this phrase also seemed to imply some sort of background the reader needs to know. Having read Bartleby the Scrivener, she uses the term in a way that “demotes” Helga from high-tastes to low-end clerical work and “discriminating tastes”, albeit voluntarily. This in turn causes her to become irritated at the very situations that she chose to put herself in. As this relates to affect theory, we’re examining how past experiences and emotions may in turn affect her reaction to these less that favorably situations Helga details. My problem with this reading is that if affect theory is supposed to be reading into someones emotions and facial expressions to find out their honest feeling of a particular situation, their word becomes useless, whether they’re honestly telling you the truth about how they feel or are lying about it all together.
    Now if we return Helga, let’s assume everyone thinks like I do and finds Helga’s indecisiveness to be irritating, then we’re not we’re not going to sympathize with her on the grounds that we’ve seen this behavior with her before and deemed it annoying. This is where I start to have some doubt’s about affect theory’s effectiveness in this situation, particularly because we’re basing Helga’s response to her own previous experiences and how they’ve affected her based on our disdain for her character in these same situations. Keep in mind these reactions are honest because we see them in the reactions of Helga. There’s a totality to it that I’m just not buying based off the fact that I don’t care whether Helga is justified or if she’s just creating this irritation because I already have established my own feelings on her as a reader, and my own feelings, whether you believe what I say or not, are true because I can’t lie about them even if I wanted to. I know all this seems like a reach but it’s just an honest attempt at poking holes in affect theory because I don’t think it’s full credibility is warranted.. yet.

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