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Grace in the Arts:

The Limits of Graciousness

A Study of Grace-Resisters in
Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" & Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence

James Townsend*

I. Introduction

How far does the Hound of Heaven1 pursue? And how far should heaven's earthly representatives pursue those who are recalcitrant to their expressions of graciousness? Is there a cutoff point to God's grace? Does grace have a temporal terminus, or does it extend in any sense (as some Bible students might suggest God's love does) even into the precincts of hell? If divine grace undergoes a cutoff point (due to persistent human rejection of it to the end of this earthly existence), then should human graciousness toward the recalcitrant ever experience a similar cutoff point within this life? In other words, practically speaking, is there a time when Christians should stop "cast[ing our] pearls before swine" (Matt 7:6)? Is it ever proper protocol for people of grace to "shake off the dust from [their] feet" (Matt 10:14) toward the ungracious in any final sense during this life?

This question of how far to extend practical grace to unresponding (or calloused) individuals is the tension point in two pieces of secular literature. Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence have as their chief characters two individuals who are very unlike (on the surface). However, at a deeper level Bartleby (Melville's principal character) and Charles Strickland (Maugham's central character) are very much alike—both are resisters of grace. Each in his own way defies another character in the story who reaches out to him with gracious overtures. It is the main purpose of this article to analyze and compare these two very different resisters of human graciousness. Furthermore, we will ask: (1) Was it actually grace (or something less) being extended to each chief character? and (2) How far is it proper to extend grace to the recalcitrant rebel?

First, some comparison and brief biography of the two authors is appropriate. Herman Melville (1819-1891) is best remembered for his masterpiece Moby Dick. Critics of Melville are intrigued by his interplay with symbolical subjects and theological themes. Darrel Abel claimed that "the work of Herman Melville is the most crucial achievement in American literature."2 Abel went on to assert that "his grapple with good and evil was as profound as Hawthorne's…"3 Bradley, Beatty, and Long speak of "the abhorrence, expressed throughout his [Melville's] fiction, of the darkness of man's deeds, and the evil seemingly inherent in nature itself."4

British writer Somerset Maugham (1874-l965), an author of eighty books and twenty-nine plays, experienced "a life that began with [Queen] Victoria on the throne and ended with the…Beatles."5 Maugham's most famous work is his most autobiographical one, Of Human Bondage.

Both Melville and Maugham had at least one parent who died by the time they were twelve years old. Both authors spent time in the South Seas.

II. "Bartleby the Scrivener"

Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" is the memorable tale of one person who is unmoved by another's graciousness. Bartleby is the name of a scrivener, i.e., a copyist of legal documents. Bartleby is the stereotype of the scribal drudge— who copies law papers with avidity, but whose personality is singularly undynamic. Initially, Bartleby's boss appears to approve of his new recruit, for the mild-mannered scribe seems to furnish a low-key counterpoint to several of his more disgruntled copyists in the same law office. Yet over the long haul this meek-and-mild drudge proves to be the most annoying and irksome of his employer's workers.

One day Bartleby is summoned by his employer to perform the reasonably perfunctory task of proofreading a copied manuscript along with several co-workers. Out of the blue, Bartleby's voice presages the trouble to come when he mildly announces, "I would prefer not to. This line becomes the major motif of the story. With increasing temerity—no matter what his boss asks of Bartleby beyond his routine copying—the eccentric clerk always rejoins with "I would prefer not to" (meaning that he refuses to comply with any demand).

Bartleby's increasingly exasperated employer resorts to every conceivable psychologically and socially approved tactic in his attempts to get Bartleby to conform to the normalcy of job requirements. While most bosses would have simply fired the uncooperative employee, Bartleby's gracious overlord commands, entreats, coaxes, inquires, seeks other employees' opinions on the subject, etc. In short, he leaves no stone unturned in his attempts to elicit Bartleby's cooperation–only and always to be confronted by the seemingly unpresumptuous remark, "I would prefer not to."

At first, Bartleby's "prefer not to's" extend only to anything beyond his daily copying duties. Eventually, however, Bartleby refuses to do any work whatsoever. His overly gracious employer accords him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that Bartleby's eyesight has failed him. Consequently, the employer (who is also the storyteller) seeks more suitable employment for Bartleby. All the gracious overtures are rebuffed by the persistent "I would prefer not to."

One weekend, the employer—to his chagrin—discovers that (unknown to him) Bartleby has been making his permanent home in the office. Once more, the story narrator's humaneness seeks Bartleby's best, but Bartleby has established squatter's rights, and he will not be moved. In one consummate appeal of graciousness, the bachelor employer even invites Bartleby to come and make his home with him—only to be met with the unvarying five words—"I would prefer not to.

The reader is naturally drawn into the narrator's predicament. The narrator has tried every imaginable overture, when strict justice demanded that he make no effort at all. What is the employer to do? After his repertoire of grace is exhausted, the employer himself eventually evacuates the premises. Rather than inflict police measures on Bartleby, his boss vacates the office and rents other quarters. In effect, the narrator surrenders to Bartleby's unflinching and unrelenting stubbornness.

One would expect at that point that the employer's predicament would now find complete release. But alas! The new tenants of the old office somehow hold the former employer responsible for the unmoved Bartleby! In the end, the mild-mannered Bartleby is carried off to jail by the police. In the jail, he slowly starves to death (despite all his old employer's pleadings) because he "prefers not to" change his situation. Bartleby won't be made to budge.

In Melville's Bartleby, we confront the epitome of unyielding inflexibility. Bartleby is not loud, vociferous, or grossly rude. He offers no disputations, no tirades, no four-letter invectives, no clenched fists, no high-powered refutations—only resolute, recalcitrant resignation and refusal.

Melville is an acknowledged master of symbolism. Robert Kirsch designated Melville one of the "divers" into the sea-depths of symbolism.6 Throughout the Bartleby tale, however, appear few telltale clues of any deeper, hidden significance—until we arrive at the very last line of the story. The final four words of the narrator are: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" Only at the conclusion is the unquestionable note of a broader theme sounded. Bartleby and humanity are equated or at least merged. Bartleby is but a miniature of an inflexibly (but politely) unyielding humanity.

While we do not wish to import vast alien meanings into Melville's simple story, the theological mind naturally contours a striking representation of biblical truth from "Bartleby the Scrivener" Despite all our ultimate Master's measures, a significant sector of humanity still aligns itself with the scrivener's persistent resistance to graciousness. The Master's politeness, persuasiveness, and pleadings have fallen on deaf ears. We spurn the gracious offer. We respond to the divine demand-turned-invitation: "I would prefer not to." Sovereign graciousness is met with stubborn ungraciousness. We are even offered the Master's own home—with no strings attached-—but we politely, pertinaciously, and perniciously refuse. No wonder, Isaac Watts felt driven to postulate a sovereign grace that "compelled" sinners to accept God's invitation. Watts penned:

'Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly forced us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.7

Yes, for the theologian, Bartleby is the story of a race entrenched in resolute refusal of divine grace. Bartleby is only the more meek-and-mild, private version of willfulness. Indeed, Bartleby is no less a monomaniac of will than Melville's more famous Captain Ahab (in Moby Dick). Bartleby's obsession of will may be less overt, less public, less extravagant than the whale-obsessed Ahab, but it is no less real and deeply entrenched. Indeed, it only makes Bartleby a more realistic representative than Captain Ahab of the average person in his or her response to God's graciousness.

Two questions are apropos here. First, was Bartleby's employer an appropriate reflector of God's grace or was he simply a pushover? Bartleby's boss mirrors God's graciousness on two counts. His gracious overtures did not fizzle out after his first try. Indeed, his gracious pleadings were just as unrelenting, as unretiring, as ever-repeated as were Bartleby's stubborn refusals. To use the phrase from Kathy Troccoli's popular song, it was his "stubborn love [that] never lets go" of the refuser. Furthermore, Bartleby's employer was gracious in his multiform grace. His attempts toward the inflexible Bartleby were not merely repetitious, but were creative and manifold.

Second, how far was it proper to extend graciousness to the recalcitrant rebel (Bartleby)? Certainly the generous employer outstripped most of us in what we would have done. Was he merely weak-willed (in not firing Bartleby on the spot)? Perhaps he was a tinge too spineless, but can we not hear some echo of that greater Entreater who asks, "How can I give you up (Hos 11:8)? "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

III. The Moon and Sixpence

As exasperating as a Bartleby proves to be, probably most believers would prefer to deal with him rather than with a Strickland of Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence (1919).8

In this novel the chief character, named Charles Strickland, would seem on a surface reading to classify for our Lord's epithets "dogs" or "swine" (Matt 7:6). Yet concerning this most inhumane of characters, Maugham said in the later part of the book: "I felt an overwhelming compassion for him." Strickland appears very unlike Herman Melville's (harmless though uncooperative) "Bartleby the Scrivener," whom the narrator regards as "greatly to be compassionated."

Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence is partly descriptive of the famous French painter Paul Gauguin.9 Just how much is fact and how much is Maugham's fictionalizing is hard to say. However, both Strickland and Gauguin abandoned their wives and children to pursue their painting careers. In the book Charles Strickland had two children, whereas Gauguin had five in real life. Strickland dies in Tahiti, whereas Gauguin spent time in Tahiti, but died in the Marquesas Islands. Hence, it is difficult to know just how much of Charles Strickland's character we should extrapolate and attach to Gauguin. It would appear to be a safer procedure simply to treat Charles Strickland on his own terms rather than assume we should transfer all of Strickland's moral blotches onto Paul Gauguin.

Strickland is in some ways as fascinating as he is horrid, for he is—hopefully—different from anyone we will ever meet. Strickland appears virtually bereft of any decency, courtesy, or even polite feeling. He is portrayed as morose, self-circumscribed, uncompassionate, and inhumane. Maugham has him as an arrogant, detestable jackass who curses others out of hand and is for all practical purposes a sociopath (i.e., antisocial to the point of being devoid of conscience). He displays absolutely no qualms of regret about deserting his children. In short, Strickland appears totally devoid of the "milk of human kindness" or common graces.

In the story, one character demonstrates considerable graciousness to Strickland. His name is Dirk Stroeve. Unfortunately, Dirk is not a one-dimensional character. That is, he is not simply a winsome, attractive, solid model of admirable character. Then again, maybe that is fortunate. As a result, we can't simply categorize one as the "good guy" (Stroeve) and the other (Strickland) as the "bad guy." In Christian circles, that is too often the way novels are written. In them, Christians are presented as the "good guys," and then there are the rest. However, life is not quite like that.

Stroeve the Dutchman is something of a buffoon. Maugham's narrator makes him out to be a lovable but pathetic character. Stroeve would "give you the shirt off his back." He is generous to a fault. The writer keeps saying that no matter what serious thing Stroeve does, he has to struggle to keep from laughing at him. Maugham represents Stroeve as a Paris painter who has acute ability to critique everyone else's art but his own. Maugham considered Stroeve's painting second-rate.

The issue which encapsules the tension-point of this article comes to a head in relation to Blanche Stroeve, Dirk's wife. She is described as both pretty and plain. On more than one occasion, Maugham makes remarks about her figure being worthy of an artist's model. Through most of the book, she simply sits and sews as if she were merely on pose for one elongated painting.

Dirk Stroeve thinks Strickland possesses artistic genius—despite the fact that in six years in Paris Strickland epitomized the starving artist by not having sold a single painting. At one point Strickland is missed as a frequenter of a particular Paris restaurant, so Dirk and the storyteller surmise that he must be sick. When they eventually find him in some bleak garret, Strickland is burning with fever and without food or help.

Despite the fact that Strickland had borrowed money from Stroeve, never repaid it, and treated Stroeve's painting as if it were dirt, Stroeve wants to do good to his despiser (Matt 5:44). Stroeve wants to extend grace to Strickland by taking the extremely sick man into his home and doctoring him until he is well. Initially, however, Blanche Stroeve is absolutely adamant against this. She protests with an icy hatred. After a multitude of his protestations, Blanche reluctantly yields to her husband's request.

The bombshell is dropped when Strickland finally gets well. Not only does he take over Stroeve's art studio as if it were his own, but he kicks Stroeve out of his own home. Finally, Stroeve asks Strickland to leave—and Blanche announces that she is leaving with Strickland! No amount of her husband's effusive splutterings can prevent Blanche from leaving him.

In what might be deemed a gesture worthy of Hosea, Dirk tells Blanche that when she gets sick of Strickland (which he knows she will), he will graciously take her back—no strings attached. Is Dirk Stroeve modeling the grace of the Heavenly Hosea?

The tragic story does not even end there. When the brute Strickland manifests his contempt for his new mistress, Blanche commits suicide by pouring a form of acid down her throat which burns up her vocal cords and neck. Naturally Dirk is almost inconsolable in his grief. Later, however, Dirk Stroeve stumbles upon a painting Strickland has done of Blanche, and he is again awed by Strickland's artistic genius. Dirk (even to the storyteller's appalled amazement) invites Strickland to go home to Holland with him!

It is as if Strickland thought that a painting of Blanche could atone for her human life. Upon reading this brutal piece of tragedy one keeps asking if Dirk Stroeve is the epitome of grace (in lavishing unmerited favor upon one so exceedingly ungracious and disgraceful as Strickland), or is something badly awry here? Is Stroeve an updated Hosea or merely a stupendous fool?

Two considerations keep this reviewer from appraising Stroeve as Hosea redivivus. First of all, despite all his lovability (much as Dickens' Fegans are often portrayed as lovable thieves in film and stage versions of Oliver Twist) and compassion, Stroeve exhibits very little in the way of moral firmness. At best, we might envision him as a showcase of hen (the basic Hebrew term for unobliged "grace" or "favor"), but we sense virtually no hesed in him. Hesed is God's "loyal love" that combines both softness and solidity, mercy and steadfastness, leniency and loyalty, tenderness and toughness.

Stroeve thinks too little of himself and too much of Strickland. Is it grace simply to be a doormat? Stroeve seems almost to wallow in letting people kick him around. The Apostle Paul, the premier exemplar of grace, insisted that the Philippian governing magistrates come and escort him from prison after they had abused his civil rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:35-40). Alas, too many Christians confuse the concept of receiving grace or being gracious in the face of recalcitrance with making oneself into a person to be disgraced.

Another reason keeps us from a facile pronouncement that he is a model of biblical graciousness and compassion. It is the motivation by which he does what he does. Why is Stroeve willing to sacrifice his own wife and forgive Strickland carte blanche for driving her to suicide? It is because, above all else, art is a god for Stroeve (as very probably it was for Maugham also). Stroeve can get over his own wife's tragic death when he picks up a mere painting of her created by an artistic genius! He can forgive Strickland because he worships the brute-genius in Strickland. The truth is that Stroeve all along thought more of Strickland than he did of his wife (despite all his effusive expressions toward her).

There could hardly be a more strategic lesson for our age—with its rock stars, sports celebrities, and even pulpit idols. Why do people overlook the shenanigans of a man who falls face down in his chicken-rice soup because he is a drug addict? Why, because he's Elvis, of course! If the guy down the block from us were pronounced dead from having his face in a soup bowl (as Elvis Presley might have been), people would shake their heads over such pitiable behavior. But because a human is adulated for some giftedness, his worshipers will let him get away with anything (as colleagues obviously did with a recently deposed "televangelist").

God is the Giver of charis ("grace") and charisma ("giftedness"). When humans elevate beyond measure those who are gifted (as in the case of Charles Strickland's artistic genius), there is no moral accountability required. The same notion warns us with respect to classes of "gifted" children where sometimes "anything goes."

Biblical graciousness (in the form of compassion) lets the prodigal descend into the pigpen of the far country rather than chasing and pleading with him. The prodigal son independently "came to himself" (Luke 15:17) when "no one gave [notice "gave" in relation to grace and giving] him anything" (Luke 15:16). Jesus "loved" (Mark 10:21) the rich young ruler even as he "went away sorrowful" (Mark 10:22). By contrast with this "tough grace," many modern Christians would want to sing just one more stanza of "Just As I Am" in order to cajole the impenitent sinner down the church aisle.

The Rich Young Ruler narrative suggests that God's love is still being extended irrespective of the retreating sinner. In spite of the young man's self-righteousness and selfishness, Jesus loved him. While divine compassion continues steadfastly, OT texts indicate that God's compassion is not unrelated to human response: "Now it shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you shall call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God drives you, and you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul, that the LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you" (Deut 30:1-3). If the Spirit's striving in Gen 6:3 can be equated with the extension of divine grace, then a definite cutoff ("not…forever," NIV) of that grace is envisioned. First Peter 3:20 represents this same idea. Indeed, the very fact of death (Heb 9:27) and a biblical hell call for a terminus point to grace (as extended in salvation). There are those (of the Charles Strickland variety?) who twist "the grace of our God into lewdness" (Jude 4). In fact, in The Moon and Sixpence Maugham refers to Strickland's sensuousness on at least six different occasions and even toys with the notion on five occasions that Strickland might be possessed by a demon.

There is great irony in Maugham's depiction of Charles Strickland as almost without virtue. The irony consists in the fact that Maugham's most definitive biographer paints Maugham's own character hardly much different from that of the semi-fictional Strickland's! Like Strickland, Maugham divorced his wife and sought to disinherit his own daughter (so as to bequeath his inheritance to his own adopted son and second homosexual lover). Maugham's wife was a successful businesswoman after the fashion of his pen portrait of Mrs. Strickland. Maugham possessed a lifelong stutter, while Strickland is portrayed as taciturn to the point of moroseness. Ted Morgan's Maugham (the definitive biography)10 was described by Time magazine11 as "by far the most…balanced and tolerant portrait available." Yet concerning the Maugham portrayed by the biographer, Edmund White wrote: "His vanity, his deviousness, his vindictiveness and his outright cruelty came together in a record of appalling unpleasantness."12

The more one compares Maugham and Maugham's character, Strickland (the unvirtuous artistic genius), the more one wonders if Maugham isn't penning the self-justification for his own disgrace and ungraciousness. Theologically inclined readers may pick up a deliberate play on words, for we are "justified by…grace" (Titus 3:7), but justifying grace does not leave us ungracious or in disgrace. Rather "grace" teaches us that "we should live soberly, righteously, and godly" (Titus 2:11-12).

Maugham's empathetic reader would conclude that one should justify the artist on the basis of genius (charisma) rather than a charis which transforms our ungraciousness and disgracefulness. It says, in effect: "Forgive him. He was a great artist." Biblical reality says: "NO. In the act of owning our sin we are also disowning our sin." We do not justify our sin, although we are justified sinners. We are justified by God (as in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14) when we no longer seek to justify our sin—or our (supposed) righteousness—at all. The God "who justifies the ungodly" (Rom 4:5) does not justify us in our wickedness, but in spite of our wickedness. We are justified because "the just [One died] for the unjust," to "bring us to [a just] God" (1 Pet 3:18). James Sanders claimed: "Grace is a form of divine injustice."13 Not really, for justice has been exacted (Rom 3:26). Therefore, grace is not simply blind Justice merely meting out leniency.

It is here that Dirk Stroeve's acting out of grace toward Strickland appears to be less than healthy and less than an accurate mirror of God's grace. If "grace…came through Jesus Christ" John 1:17), so did truth. If Jesus is the perfect reflector of God's character (as the very next verse—John 1:18—asserts), then the script of Christ's life must provide us with a docudrama of God's grace. Yet the Jesus of the Gospels is anything but a candidate to be walked over. The same one who "was led [meekly] as a lamb to the slaughter" (Isa 53:7) defies all comers with His self-made whip in the temple precincts (John 2:15). No one could picture Dirk Stroeve doing this. The same Jesus who "as a sheep before its shearers is silent" (Isa 53:7) opens His mouth in Matthew 23 to flay the scribes and Pharisees with words that crack like the bullwhip of Lash LaRue.

Either we must conclude from Jesus, our Paradigm, that (1) grace (i.e., graciousness) is not called for on every occasion, or (2) grace has rougher guises than we would ever have suspected. At any rate, Dirk Stroeve's mawkish treatment of Charles Strickland (who combines both the calloused condition of the Pharisee with the fleshly appetites of the Publican) is an all-too-flabby forgiveness in light of the Embodiment of grace.

IV. Conclusion

The Lord Jesus did not hold private tutorials for His religious opponents nor did He speak softly to them apart from some sense of openness on their part (e.g., John 3:1-13). There is a time to hold the Stricklands accountable, to withhold pearls from swine (Matt 7:6), to shake dust off one's feet (Luke 10:10-11), to acknowledge insensitivity (Acts 5:34; 8:22-23). This is no campaign for a spiritual McCarthyism, nor an apologetic for extreme right-wing rabble rousers. Grace is not an all-tolerantism.

As practitioners of God's grace, then, we do not seek stridency (Matt 12:18-20), but gentleness. On the other hand, backing down from belligerence, brutishness, or brusqueness may not necessarily be genuinely gracious. "Adorn[ing] the doctrine of God our Savior in all things" (Titus 2:10) included for Titus the consonant need to "exhort, and rebuke with all authority" (Titus 2:15). The apostolic author (of 1 John) who urged love more than any other NT writer saw nothing incongruous in this policy with branding some individuals as antichrists and liars (1 John 2:22; 4:3).

Unlike God, we are not omniscient (1 John 3:20), so whether it is either practical or loving to cut off relationships with the adamantine non-believer or apparent apostate becomes a delicate and discretionary matter. Indeed, might not many modern believers have branded the pre-Christian Paul as beyond the pale of grace?

Perhaps the question can be best concluded with an anecdote attributed to Walter Martin. Martin was walking on Donald Grey Barnhouse's large farm with its owner. Barnhouse was an amateur ornithologist, but he carried a gun with him to scare off pesky grackles. The two men were discussing cults and whether one borderline group ought to be labeled as a cult or not. At one point in the conversation, Barnhouse raised his rifle and fired at what he supposed was a grackle. When the two arrived at the scene, Barnhouse was appalled to find that he had shot down one of his beloved bluebirds. Cupping the bluebird in his hands, he left a lesson with Martin: "Better to let a stray grackle get away than to shoot down a bluebird and have to answer for it at the judgment seat of Christ."14


Footnotes:

*Bible Editor, David C. Cook Publishing Company

1See Francis Thompson's classic poem, "The Hound of Heaven" for this expression.

2Darrel Abel, American Literature (Woodbury, New York: Barron's Educational Series, inc., 1963), 2:366

3Ibid.

4Sculley Bradley, Richmond Beatty, and Hudson Long, The American Tradition in Literature (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Inc., 1956), 472.

5R. Z. Sheppard, "The Old Man by the Sea," Time (March 10,1980), 80.

6Robert Kirsch, a 'Fathoms Down' in the Depths of Herman Melville," Los Angeles Times (November 23, 1975), 1.

7Hymns of Worship and Remembrance (Fort Dodge, IA: Gospel Perpetuating Fund, 1950), 158.

8W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence (New York: Washington Square Press, 1968).

9See Shelden Cheney. The History of Modern Art (New York: The Viking Press, 1941); Raymond Cogniat, Gauguin (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1963); Paul C. Nicholls, Gauguin (New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1961).

10Ted Morgan, Maugham (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980).

11Sheppard, ibid.

12Edmund White, "Maugham: A Story of Human Degradation," Chicago Sun-Times (March 30, 1980), 13.

13James A. Sanders, "Isaiah in Luke," Interpretation 36 (April 1982): 155.

14Quoted from memory by author.


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