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.

Henry James on Failure

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

I think the quote above is pretty relevant to the overall message of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”. The story’s unfortunate protagonist, James Marcher, ultimately “fails by default” by “living so cautiously he might as well not have lived at all.” Marcher’s lifelong and overwhelming fear of the ominous metaphorical “Beast” in the “Jungle” of his life kept him from really living. His laser-focus on the mere possibility of the “terrible thing” he felt awaited him was blinding, and his imaginary “blinders” kept him from seeing the possibility of joy, kept him from seeing the love that was constantly at his side, kept him from seeing the truth. In this sense, the proclaimed “stupidities of ignorance” (36) that he said passed between them on their first meeting continued to play a major role in their relationship on Marcher’s end. May Bartram even suggests early on in the story that Marcher’s “Beast” may be the act of falling in love: “Isn’t what you describe perhaps but the expectation– or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people– of falling in love?” (39) In an abstract sense, Bartram was right; or rather, Marcher’s failure was not in falling in love, but in failing to do so. It is not that romantic possibilities do not cross Marcher’s mind, it’s that he ignores and resists any action or realization of his suppressed romantic feelings for May because he is too busy worrying about the “Beast”, which could be a metaphor for “failure”.

The idea of failure is generally regarded in society as making a mistake or missing the mark in some way. But making a mistake requires taking action, and missing a mark requires aiming in the first place. Marcher does neither; he does, essentially, nothing but worry. He avoids risk, he avoids danger, and therefore he avoids life. Fear stands in the way of love and happiness, and Marcher’s life is a direct representation of this. During Marcher’s realization of what the “Beast” actually was, it is said that he “had seen outside of his life, not learned it within…” (70) By fearing his life, he missed out on really living it. Marcher may have lived so cautiously that he did not necessarily “fail” in the traditional sense, but he certainly “failed by default”, by Rowling’s definition. This concept also relates to a well-known quote (widely attributed to Mark Twain) that hung on the bulletin board in my dorm hallway freshman year:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

James’ overall message with “Beast in the Jungle”, it seems, is more or less the same as Twain’s and Rowling’s after him: that the ultimate failure in life is to live in fear, thus not really living at all. Taking risks– whether that means “sailing away from safe harbor”, sending a  draft of your first book to a publisher, or the danger of falling in love— is the only way to really live, and, contrary to popular belief, the way to have the least possible regrets when your life comes to an end.