CS Lewis is quoted as having said that “Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful”. While there are many quotes to this effect the point does not differ between them, That is, that while “He who is merely just, is severe”, one must find a balance between justice and mercy in order for the legal sytem to work. In Melville’s story “Bartleby the scrivener” he shows us the flaws in both law without compassion and mercy without law. Through the narrator’s eyes we see, first how mercy without justice can erode the power of the law, and then how justice without compassion can destroy the person.
In the movie “Batman Begins” the Antagonist Henri Ducard tells the protagonist Bruce Wayne “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society’s understanding”. This line is brought to life in the beginning of the story as we see the narrator’s reaction to Bartelby’s refusal to work that is required of him. Within a few days of Bartelby’s refusal the author begins to excuse these transgressions with the pity and compassion that he feels for Bartelby. This is evident when the lawyer tells us “Poor fellow!
Thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary”. While the narrator tells us how he at various times tries to impose what he sees as fair and balanced justice, he folds and allows Bartelby to continue in his way when Bartelby refuses. This Melville shows us, leads to the very system of the office being thrown slightly into disarray, as the others are involuntarily subject to cover for the work that Bartelby refuses to do.
As this continues we slowly see the lawyer’s merciful tendencies be pushed to their limit and then brought back just as fast as we bounce between his feelings of pity and exasperation. Finally the building frustration at last allow the narrator to feel justified in the imprisoning of a man who more likely needs to be in a mental clinic. Here at this point we see what justice without compassion leads to, as we see the final days of Bartelby in jail that leads to his demise.
Even once the Lawyer recognizes, Bartelby’s unique problem that should be dealt with differently, he is too late, as the justice served without thought for the unique circumstances of the individual leads to “a food strike” that in a jail too concerned with the actual law does not recognize as a death sentence for the Scrivener. The jailing of Bartelby to get him out of the way, and total lack of concern for the inmates that follows, brings to mind an article by Arthur Dorbin, where e says “Without empathy the law is merely a tool for the strong to rationalize their position, not an instrument for social justice in the service of all” There are many philosophies that one can argue is the best way for our legal system to adhere to. Mellville shows us though his work “Bartelby the Scrivener” that any system that is meant to succeed must balance the need for justice and the circumstances of the individual. He masterfully shows us that understanding does not mean excusing. Yet even as we come to realize this, he reminds us that the law cannot be absolutely inflexible as humans are not all the same