Illness as Metaphor: Comparing the Transatlantic Representations of Neurological Deviance in the Works of Charles Dickens and Herman Melville

Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Delaware
Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (1841) and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) are two stories featuring titular protagonists whose neurological conditions mark them as different from the rest of society. The eponymous protagonist in Barnaby suffers from “idiocy,” now formally termed intellectual disability disorder, whereas the eponymous protagonist in “Bartleby” displays traits of autism, a condition characterized by an impairment in language and communicability. Although Dickens and Melville both present characters who are neurologically deviant, the purpose of doing so is diametrically different in each work. Through Barnaby, Dickens expresses a need for paternalistic reform on both a state and communal level to assist the mentally ill, as well as the rest of society’s most vulnerable groups. Barnaby is not an unambiguous censure of British society, however; in the story, Dickens suggests a need for the existing British practice of moral management, which was a technique of non-restraint originally used in state asylums to treat the mentally ill. Melville, on the other hand, uses “Bartleby” to criticize the American medical system’s tendency to institutionalize members of society who are considered to be “deviant”. In the case of “Bartleby”, this deviance is communicated through autism, which manifests itself into seemingly unusual patterns of work and correspondence that confuse the story’s narrator, a lawyer. As such, “Bartleby” and Barnaby represent ideologically opposing perspectives of medicine and its potential to heal society’s outcasts. Whereas Dickens expresses interest in assisting individuals deemed to be non-normative, Melville portrays normativity itself as mercurial and conditional rather than an innate human disposition.
Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Neurological deviance, Literature