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Saturday, August 28, 2004

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" and ADHD

It may seem odd and even illogical to place Bartleby alongside of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). And really it is a little problematic. Bartleby, if he suffered from anything, it would be more like catatonic schizophrenia or some other mental illness that equates with idleness. And ADHD denotes a person who is impatient and unwilling to sit still. What allows Bartleby to be included in a discussion of ADHD is not the way he acted but the way he was treated because of his actions. Bartleby refused to fit in and so he was sent to an asylum. Kids with ADHD "refuse" to fit in and they are drugged into submission.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health ADHD "can mar the person's relationships with others in addition to disrupting their daily life, consuming energy, and diminishing self-esteem" (Neuwirth). These things are certainly true but what really causes the child to develop a low self-esteem? Isn’t the true source of the child’s low self-esteem from his/her inability to fit into a system that doesn’t work for them? The reality of this situation is that children who have ADHD are put on drugs so they can change to fit into the system. Why can’t the system change to fit them? This brings me to a way of understanding Bartleby that says something to me, the future teacher.

In "Bartleby, the Scrivener," I view the narrator as the teacher and the scriveners as students. This arrangement is enforced by what is done in the office, and it is enforced by the relationship between the characters. The narrator is in charge of the office and yet he seems to have to put up with certain idiosyncrasies in his employees. This is just like a teacher; a teacher will find certain characteristics within the students that are annoying and undesirable. The narrator is able to accept the character flaws of his two older scriveners. But when Bartleby responds to every request with an "I’d prefer not to" the narrator doesn’t know what to do. This is like the teacher who can accept one student’s problem but not another student’s problem. It is interesting to note how the narrator addresses Bartleby upon Bartleby’s "refusal."

The narrator asks, "Why do you refuse?" and Bartleby’s reply is the standard "I would prefer not to" (Melville 2336). The narrator uses the word "refuse" but Bartleby never refuses to do the work. He simply says that he "would prefer not to." He never says "I can’t," "I won’t," "I don’t know how," "I don’t have to," or "I refuse to." His "I prefer not to" can mean so many of these or all of these at the same time. But students in the class room would be more likely to give one of the more specific responses listed above. This, however, doesn’t mean that the student is actually saying what he or she means either. A student with ADHD could say any one of those excuses when the real reason is that they have a condition that won’t allow them to fit in. So, can the system change?

In the story the system actually does change to accommodate Bartleby. The duties and assignments of a scrivener are established by all those present in the office (Melville 2336). And the duties that Bartleby "prefers" not to do are on that list. But exceptions are made that allow Bartleby to be excluded from these established duties (Melville 2340). These exclusions do two things: Bartleby becomes an even greater outsider, and they open the door to further refusals to work. I have encountered many students who are privileged by their "handicap." The basic English 10 student who is allowed to sleep through class, the "emotionally disturbed" student who is allowed to act out in class and the physically "handicapped" student who uses that handicap as a excuse for failure in life are just some of the tragedies that I have seen from labeling kids as "special" or "different." But then teachers all have hearts like the narrator’s.

He is so disturbed by Bartleby’s behavior that he moves his entire office to get away from Bartleby. Teachers have it a little easier. They can (possibly) have the student transferred out of the classroom; the teacher doesn’t have to move. And even though the narrator went to all this trouble he still goes back to check on Bartleby at the old office, and he visits Bartleby at the prison/asylum. Bartleby is upset with the narrator upon the visit to the prison. "‘I know you,’ he said, without looking round,--"and I want nothing to say to you’" (Melville 2353). This would be like a teacher who has "failed" a student checking up on that student. Even more important is the scene in which Bartleby refuses to write. The narrator asks, "And what is the reason," to which Bartleby replies, "Do you not see the reason for yourself" (Melville 2344). The narrator responds by saying that it must be Bartleby’s eyes bothering him. I find this scene, and the many scenes like it I have witnessed in the schools, disturbing. A child who doesn’t know what is wrong tries to get help by reaching out to a teacher only to receive the kind of "understanding" that the narrator gives Bartleby. Since changing the system won’t work in today’s society, it is important to recognize the signs of ADHD so that treatment can be given.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health some signs are:
becoming easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
failing to pay attention to details
making careless mistakes
rarely following instructions carefully
completely losing or forgetting things like toys, or pencils, books, and tools needed for a task
feeling restless, often fidgeting with hands or feet, or squirming running, climbing, or leaving
a seat, in situations where sitting or quiet behavior is expected
blurting out answers before hearing the whole question
and having difficulty waiting in line or for a turn. (Neuwirth)

I believe as this story suggests that in today’s society the system cannot change. I, however, also believe that as a country we will have to learn to accept people for who they are. Forcing people to take drugs to fit in to what is an arbitrary construction seems wrong to me. But that construction is so firmly established it will take years to change it. I strongly believe that when students who suffer from ADHD are put on drugs they gain the ability to fit in at the cost of something we don’t yet understand.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." American Literature: Volume 1, fifth edition. Ed. Baym, Nina. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 2330-2355.

Neuwirth, Sharyn. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. 6 Jan. 1999. (6 Dec. 1999).

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