An Exposition of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

In the fascinating life and career of Herman Melville, he is perhaps best known for his adventurous tales of the sea, such as Moby Dick and Billy Budd. In light of this, I was somewhat surprised to find the interesting little story of a Wall Street attorney and his eccentric, yet lovable staff, centering on the peculiar main character, a copyist named Bartleby. The story deals with a number of basic human-interest components, such as contemporary workplace issues, as well as more complex “heart” matters such as compassion, self-interest and individual responsibility. However, as we shall see, these things affect none of the workers quite as much as the stoic Bartleby who, like many notable literary characters, is able to use his “peculiarities” to provoke reflection and introspection in the mind of the reader.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the story's unnamed narrator who, as previously mentioned, works as a Wall Street attorney. He then tells us about his three employees, all of whom are addressed by imaginative nicknames. First we have the unpretentious "Turkey," an elderly man whose penchant for food and beer often causes him to "smell of eating houses (2333)." He is joined by the ambitious "Nippers," a young man who, although obviously a hard worker, is also given to rather obsessive behavior such as constantly readjusting the angles of his work table (2333). Finally, there is the office boy "Ginger Nut," a feisty twelve-year-old with legal ambitions of his own (or, at least, willed to him by his late father, 2334).

We are introduced to Bartleby approximately one-fifth of the way into the text. 1 The Narrator's initial impression of him is "a figure…pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn…a man of so singularly sedate an aspect…[as to] operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers (2335)." At first, Bartleby shows himself to be a very diligent employee, "gorging himself" on the assigned documents and working very long hours, i.e. "by sun-light and by candle-light (2335)." Although he is quite pleased with his new "acquisition," the Narrator is soon in for quite a shock. On what appears to be a routine day at the office, the Narrator approaches Bartleby with a request to review a document, to which Bartleby defiantly replies "I would prefer not to (2336)." From this point, while the story retains its entertainment value, it also grows to be somewhat redundant, as this becomes Bartleby's response to every task he is assigned. Although his compassion toward this obviously troubled man is admirable, I must admit that the Narrator's willingness to tolerate this sort of insubordination was rather puzzling to me. Nonetheless, we do get a glimpse of the his rationale in this statement:

Men have committed murder for jealousy's sake, and anger's sake, and hatred's sake, and selfishness' sake, and spiritual pride's sake; but no man that I ever heard of , ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity's sake…Mere self- interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should…prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy (2348).

At one point, we are told that the Narrator is a church-going man (2340). Perhaps this contributes to the patience and “sweet charity” that he exhibits toward Bartleby throughout the story. He "feels friendly" toward Bartleby (2343) and sees him as being "harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs (2348).” However, in one of his more “human” moments, he also admits, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as passive resistance (2338).”

Seeing the need for guidance on what to do with his troubled employee, the Narrator seeks the advice of his staff. Their respective responses are interesting, as Turkey wants to “black his eyes (2338)” and Nippers, although more civil at first, soon afterward loses his patience as well, sarcastically telling the Narrator “I’d prefer him if I were you (2343).” It is quickly becoming obvious that the Narrator’s only option is to fire Bartleby. However, it is not as simple as it may appear on the surface. When the Narrator breaks the news to Bartleby, he is stunned to hear that Bartleby “prefers” not to go (2345). Regardless, the Narrator perseveres, calmly yet firmly. He presents Bartleby with severance money, offers him further assistance if necessary, and bids him good-bye. Once the deed is done, the Narrator is quite pleased with himself:

I could not but plume myself on my masterly management in getting rid of Bartleby. Masterly I call it, and such it must appear to any dispassionate thinker. The beauty of my procedure seemed to consist in its perfect quietness. There was no vulgar bullying, no bravado of any sort…Without loudly bidding Bartleby depart-as an inferior genius might have done-I assumed the ground that depart he must; and upon that assumption built all I had to say (2345-46).

Nonetheless, his elation is short lived. Predictably, Bartleby doesn’t go away quite that easily. After his subsequent attempts to reason with Bartleby prove futile, he finally stoops to desperate measures by moving his business. However, the Narrator inevitably learns that Bartleby is simply remaining at the old location, forcing the new tenants to deal with him. After disavowing Bartleby as being “nothing for him (2350),” the Narrator makes one final attempt at reaching out to him. When this fails, he has no option left but to abandon Bartleby, who is then arrested for vagrancy (2352). We then find Bartleby living in a prison called the "Tombs" (perhaps a comparison to the Biblical madman described in Matthew 8:28-32?) More withdrawn than ever, Bartleby completely stops eating and eventually goes to sleep "with kings and counselors (2354)." Although this ending is rather ambiguous, I interpret it to mean that Bartleby is dead. Whether or not Bartleby’s refusal to eat was a deliberate attempt at suicide is not clearly stated, but it seems to me that, given his melancholy nature throughout the story, this would be a reasonable conclusion to draw.

In some ways, it is easy to see Bartleby as somewhat of an antihero character. After all, haven't there been times when all of us would have liked to tell our employers that we would "prefer not to" perform a certain assigned duty? However, by his own admission, Melville often directs his work toward two different audiences: "The mob," i.e. those who "superficially skim the pages," and those "eagle-eyed" readers who are able to see the true meaning behind those passages that the author "calculates to deceive" the "skimmers" (2289). In light of this, the question then becomes: What message does the Bartleby character ultimately send to us? How does he reflect who we are as human beings?

The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (in one of the few areas in which I agree with him) had an interesting theory dealing with the origins of the "bad conscience." According to Nietzsche, the emotion we think of as "resentment" is, in reality, when we take our desire for vengeance on others and internalize it on ourselves. Having dealt with some depression issues in my own life (related, among other things, to my divorce two years ago), I know from personal experience how destructive these sorts of emotions can be.

How does this relate to Bartleby? We get some interesting clues in the story's concluding statements. As he forlornly attempts to make ultimate sense of the matter, the Narrator discovers a rumor that he feels sheds some light: The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had suddenly been removed by a change in the administration…Dead letters! (Sic) does it not sound like dead men? …On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Melville's observations here may have been well ahead of their time. In our contemporary culture, we have a stereotypical image of postal workers as being lonely, highly stressed individuals who on occasion reach a breaking point and resort to violence, hence the popular slang term "going postal." By taking these feelings and turning them inward, Bartleby, in essence, "goes postal" on himself, shutting out those who could help him and ultimately succumbing to his own fear, rejection and isolation. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us: "He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls (25:28)."

In summary, “Bartleby” is a thoughtful, engaging parable that, in spite of its occasional redundancy and ambiguity, prods and provokes while it entertains. In the character of Bartleby, Melville has done a masterful job at personifying the inner angst that many deal with, yet few honestly acknowledge. As previously mentioned, I am sure we can all identify with Bartleby's character to some degree, but will we ever admit it?

"I prefer not to…"


Melville, Herman. "Bartleby the Schrivener" From the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Sixthe Edition, Volume B. 2003, 1998, 1994, 1989, 1985, 1979. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 2330-2355.