The Passive-Aggressive Behavior As Possibility Of Resistance

Harriet Jacobs’s autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl illustrates the cruelties that women faced during slavery to implore free white women of the north to oppose the system. Jacobs's account of power structures and modes of resistance, although very different in nature, draws underlying parallels with Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, the Scrivener. Although Jacob’s autobiography is centered around an enslaved girl, Linda Brent, and her resistance to her master, while Melville’s story tells of a dreary, yet a free man Bartleby, and his resistance against his boss both texts consider themes of the possibility of resistance and the nature of power. Both texts articulate these themes through their main character’s passive-aggressive actions which inevitability defeats assumed notions of authority.

Linda narrates how her master planned on building her a house to entice her. To avoid being with her master in the house, Linda decides to get pregnant by someone else.

She states “It seems less degrading to give one's self, than to submit to compulsion” (Jacobs 48). She can’t simply just refuse her master, so she uses motherhood as her form of resistance. Linda referring to becoming a mother as “less degrading” shows how slavery eliminates all traditional modes of resistance for those with no authority or basic rights. Motherhood is typically referred to as a blessing, but in Jacobs’s story motherhood is her only passive approach of defiance. She can’t quit being a slave; she can’t speak up for herself, but she can take control of her body. Getting pregnant was the smallest act she knew that could potentially distance her from her master, and maybe even eventually allow her to be free. Her passive-aggressiveness dismantles the authority that her master assumed over her body. Reducing resistance to only passive-aggressive behavior is also observed in Melville’s short story. In the short story, Bartleby refuses all requests made by his boss by stating, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 8). The word prefer lacks assertiveness. To “prefer not” is a passive-aggressive way of saying no, however it still opens the gate towards insistence by someone with greater authority. By stating this Bartleby is undermining a boss’s expectancy for unquestionable compliance. Bartleby is a free-labor worker, which is a system that emerged after slavery. Bartleby’s refusal of work is a form of protest against the excessive amount of work expected by employees. The free-labor system works men like machines, dehumanizing them, which is how Bartleby is depicted except he is a machine of preferences. Bartleby, like Linda, is attempting not to recognize the authority their economic system subjects them to in the most respectful manner. Bartleby might be at the bottom of the workforce chain, but he is still a freeman which reserves him the right to choose to do nothing. His boss can’t assert power, on someone who simply refuses not to listen. Both stories highlight a path of resistance towards an authority figure.

Both texts don’t just focus on the possibility of resistance, but also the nature of power.

After Linda’s master confronts her for getting pregnant she replies that she may have sinned, but “not against you” (Jacobs 68). Slavery was beyond controlling services, but also controlling a person’s life and body. The master owns Linda and feels he has the right towards even her fidelity. By claiming the sin has no relationship with her master, Linda is simultaneously resisting her master while also breaking the illusion of natural order. She is placing God as the highest authority over her, and not her master. In almost all regards, Linda is only viewed as a slave, someone who is below her master and below white women. However, after her sin she is judged as would a white woman, claiming she went against the innocence a woman should have. Linda’s words to her master argue that her existence shouldn't only be recognized through him, but that she owns her decisions. The notion that an individual’s choice goes against the norm of the social order is comparable to Bartleby. Bartleby’s passive-aggressiveness comes as a surprise to his boss. His boss’s surprise relates to his assumed authority and “natural expectancy of instant compliance” (Melville 7). Bartleby’s boss believes that he is entitled to compliance because he holds a title over Bartleby. Bartleby however, breaks this assumption with his preferences. This makes the boss’s assumption of power completely invalid since a simple statement by his subordinate undermines the natural order. Linda breaks the natural order through a calculated action, while Bartleby breaks the order by doing absolutely nothing. Both stories deconstruct natural order through carefully chosen words or actions, that impede on the assumptions of those in power.

In this essay, I argued that the possibility of resistance and the nature of power in the autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and the short story Bartleby, the Scrivener appears as passive-aggressive behaviors that challenge the social hierarchy. Both stories make the reader question the nature of power, contemplating on how economic systems entitle one man as better than another, even though both stories take into account a religion that establishes the belief that God created all men equal. If all humans are equal than it would only be human nature to resist those that threaten their rights.

01 August 2022
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