A comparison between two ‘black sheep’
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There are certain people with strange behaviors that are usually out of conception for others in their vicinity. There are two short stories- A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka and Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville which depict the stories of two peculiar characters. Both were stuck with something painful or strange in their lives and refused completely to behave normally or in any compliance with the society. Both the characters had their reasons. And hence, no one could try reasoning with them successfully. This short essay illuminates the comparison between the two stories to understand the comparative positions of these characters.
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There are certain characters in fictional as well as non-fictional stories which require are beyond usual comprehension of a reader. Often labeled as black sheep or simply weirdo, they make it very difficult to understand the reason behind their peculiar behavior. But when one gets to the bottom of the stories of such people, usually an engrossing detail or reason comes to light which subtly justifies a portion of their behaviors. When one reads the two short stories namely A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka and Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville, it becomes quite clear what such bizarrely behaving people end up with in their lives. But reading between the lines explains a lot about why the two normal men chose to be bizarre. A Hunger Artist tells the uncanny story of a man who fasts till death in the name of entertainment and is utterly disappointed with his life (Sparknotes.com. ‘A Hunger Artist’). Bartleby, the Scrivener depicts the story of a man who “does not prefer to do” anything which he is asked for and after a series of heart-wrenching rather than irritating events, dies in a prison (Sparknotes.com. ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener). There were similarities between the two which cannot be just summed up as ‘odd behavior’, but a deeply inflicted reaction to some disdainful events in past or present. And there is a remarkable evidence of incompliance to the social norms.
The Matching Plots
Right from the beginning of A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka, it seemed a bizarre story, in an honest opinion. It has been penned down so effectively and in fact flawlessly, that the pictures of a starving man in a skeletal frame comes alive in front of eyes. So does his pain! But, it is not easy to digest that there could be something as barbaric and stupid in the name of artistry which people watched for entertainment. Above all, those who starved till their rib cage came out
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called themselves hunger artists (Kafka, 1922). The lack of logic behind this profession is probably one of the reasons why the hunger artist is so pessimistic and gloomy. He shows depression for people take no interest in his profession anymore. He shows extreme frustration because people spied on him to make sure that he did not eat. And gradually, he makes way for his death due to starvation and wretchedness. On the other hand, Bartleby is a man who has seen horrible past and hence is disturbed badly. He is initially a very good copyist in an office but gradually becomes egoistic, stubborn and unreasonable by refusing each work (Abrams, 1978). He stays at the office all the time, finally gets imprisoned and he too, starves to death because “he did not prefer to” eat (Melville, 1853).
The similarity between Bartleby and The Hunger Artist
The first and foremost trait which connects the two unsocial characters is their past. Bartleby worked in a dead letter office and had lost his job; he had seem the dark side of life which made him sort of unusual in his behavior and finally turned him into a severely egoistic man who does not prefer to do anything- even eating. The Hunger Artist too had a past of great success but he was aware that people enjoy seeing him starve and he himself took this bizarre activity as a laudable profession. So, this inner dilemma and lack of further admiration with time had driven him crazy to break his own records of fasting. But who would appreciate that? Like Bartleby, he too refused to listen to others and continued doing what he wanted which ended up ruining his life. There is a sense of extreme egoism and stubbornness in both characters which only leads to their death- without any serious effect on people. The narrator in Bartleby, the Scrivener, however is sad and exclaims “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” to lament Bartleby’s death (Page 26). But on death of the Hunger Artist, the impresario coldly orders his men to remove his body from
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the cage exclaiming, “Well, clear this out now! (Page 5)”. It is shown till end that the reason behind the odd behavior of both the characters is neither understood nor paid heed to by the society. They almost died unlamented, misunderstood by their prospective people. And there is another amazing similarity between the two (not that they both died of starvation). They mocked the society which could never understand them. Bartleby preferred to die by refusing food with his famous words- “I prefer not to”. And The Hunger Artist too revealed a jolting truth behind why he did not eat- “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” Both the characters were string in their conviction.
Similarities between the two are definitely worth an analysis. But much more important to understand is the fact that certain people behave abnormally because of a strong reason. We tend to see only their behavior superficially as no one has the time (or heart) to delve deep inside the painful past of such people. The narrator of Bartleby, the Scrivener is an exception here because he tried his level best to understand Bartleby and extended help many times. But we usually don’t take time to do that and simply choose to stay away from certain ‘troublemaking’ or ‘attention-seeking’ people because they are either a naught like the hunger artist or a nuisance like Bartleby. Stories such as these are an eye-opener to let us know how brutal we have become as a society and how blind we are as human beings. The Hunger Artist and Bartleby did belong to the ‘Black sheep’ herd for society but it was the social implications only which led to such behavior in them in the long run. Both characters hence make for a read and analysis.
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- Abrams, Robert E. (Autumn, 1978). "Bartleby" and the Fragile Pageantry of the Ego", ELH, vol. 45, no. 3 pp. 488–500.
- Kafka, Franz. (1922). A Hunger Artist. Retrieved from Web on 7 May 2013
- Melville, Herman. (1853). BARTLEBY, THE SCRIVENER: A STORY OF WALL-STREET. Produced by Steve J. Nelson and Clara T. Nelson. (Release Date: February 23, 2004).
- Sparknotes.com. ‘A Hunger Artist- Analysis of major characters’. Retrieved from Web on 7 May 2013 http://www.sparknotes.com/short-stories/a-hunger-artist/canalysis.html
- Sparknotes.com. ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener – Summary’. Retrieved from Web on 7 May 2013 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/melvillestories/section1.rhtml