The short stories A Hunger Artist and Bartleby the Scrivener illustrate two very deviant characters. They both represent the human being’s whimsical desire to rebel against social forces and community standards.
In A Hunger Artist we see a man who refuses to accept the fact that times were changing and that his craft was no longer fashionable or entertaining. He is caught in a situation where he is left without any choice because he did not know how to do anything except to be a hunger artist. People no longer paid attention or gave importance to his activities because there were other forms of entertainment more understandable and perceived to be worthy of the community’s time and money. He expressed regret over the change and he longed for the fame he once had because of his profession. Still, he refused to give in to society’s demands and find a different line of work. He died a broken man because of this.
In Bartleby the Scrivener, we see a man who acting differently from everyone else in his profession. He was an introvert who did nothing else than work. Nevertheless, he was allowed to continue his job because he was very efficient at what he did and accomplished much more than his peers. Later, his employer (the lawyer) would discover that Bartleby was stubborn and would not comply with certain commands made to him by the lawyer.
This situation would worsen later when he would refuse to leave the office building even when there was a change of occupants. Bartleby was misunderstood and there was no explanation to his behavior. All that the story showed were opinions and guesses by the narrator. Because of this behavior, Bartleby would later be locked up in jail and he dies, but with a compassionate former employer at his side.
The two characters display deviant behavior with very different results. On one hand, we see the hunger artist, ignored and unappreciated. On the other hand, we see the scrivener chastised for his actions and sent to jail. Still, they both represent the people in society who are unable or unwilling to conform to its standards and expectations. The hunger artist refused to find another job for two reasons.
First, he was passionate about his vocation and it was something that he was very skilled at. Second, there was nothing much else he could do. Bartleby, in contrast, would have no explanation for his deviant behavior. Up to the very end of the story, he remained a mystery, even to the narrating character. Only this much can be said about Bartleby: He was a person who wanted to be himself and to be left alone to do what he wanted. He was an individualist to an extreme degree and all he even wanted was to do his job the way he wanted to do it.
These two characters symbolize the ‘black sheep’ of society – persons who are misunderstood for being different. Bartleby can be seen as a symbol of the victims of discrimination. He was ostracized and rejected because he acted in an unusual manner. It was only during his last days in his jail cell when the lawyer realized that this strange man was a human person too.
Just like any form of discrimination, whether sexual, racial or cultural, society seems to have developed this preconceived picture of what a ‘normal person’ ought to be. Once a person enters into a community where he does not fit it, people start to look at him with distrust or even scorn. Only after encountering him and interacting with him will society begin to accept such person and respect him for his differences.
Alternatively, the hunger artist could be symbolic of persons who used to be part of the mainstream of society but are unable to catch up with the pace of change. These are the victims of ageism. They are people who are not flexible enough to adjust their behaviors to suit the demands of the times. These are the conservatives and pragmatists who stick to traditions and old ways because they feel it best to do so. We can see this in old people who never got around to learning how to use computers or access the internet. We can find it in persons who disown their child after finding out that he is gay. There are many of these people in society and they are difficult to understand just as they find it difficult to understand others.
All in all, these characters represent the extremes of society. They are considered rebels because they have their own opinions of things that the majority does not understand. Nonetheless, deserve respect and dignity as human persons. It is because of these differences that society is able to learn from its mistakes and find new solutions to old problems. Sometimes the ideas of the minority become the mainstream.
Sometimes they die down. Once upon a time, Christianity was considered a treasonous movement against the Roman Empire. Later, that same Empire adopted Christian teachings as its own. Society will never change for the better if we did not have these hunger artists and unusual scriveners in our midst. They are different. But who knows, they might be correct.