Bartleby the Scrivener Analysis Essay

  • Last Edited: July 26, 2018
bartleby the scrivener analysis essay

Abstract

Engaging in a Bartleby, the Scrivener analysis essay is bound to test one’s patience. It is one of the most inscrutable works of Herman Melville. While Melville is perhaps most famous for his nautical adventure tales, this paper delves into the enigmatic cogs and wheels that make this short story a piece of eternal literature. Eternal literature transcends the constraints of time and relatability, touching upon themes and symbols that are indelible to human existence. This paper summarizes the major events of the short story, briefly addresses the main characters, and examines the more predominant themes.

Introduction

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville is one of his most elusive and compelling short-stories, one that most critics deem to be his ultimate masterpiece. One of the main reasons that critics herald it as such a masterpiece is because it can be interpreted in so many ways—as a supernatural tale, as a psychological projection, as a comedy of the modern workplace, as an indictment of the modern workplace, as a meditation on the human condition—and numerous other interpretations. It’s also important to note that this story was a break from Melville’s more typical adventure tales of the era. Instead, he sought a razor sharp stare into the mundaneness of the human condition, suggesting answers to the most mysterious conundrums. Literature is after all the study of human existence, and this short story highlights the incomprehensibility of the minutia of human interaction in the workplace. Delving into Bartleby, the Scrivener in an analysis essay empowers the reader to be illuminated by the numerous cogs and wheels that make the short story an evaluation of capitalism in America, 19th century labor relations, stifled homoeroticism or a coded enigma for one of the many texts that influenced Melville (Kahn). To analyze this masterpiece is to commit to confronting its elusiveness, mercurial nature and the paradox at its core. Humans need to protect their individuality and still encourage their sense of social interdependence in order to survive. Bartleby, the Scrivener shows what happens when individuality is selected over all else to the point of self-destruction. This is but one interpretation of a multi-faceted work of art, of which many interpretations may emerge.

Summary

At its starkest construction, Bartleby, the Scrivener refers to the story of how an attorney with a thriving business servicing the legal needs of wealthy men, hires a scrivener to help with the enormous tasks of copying. The title character is hired and his personality and demeanor are well described: “In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now— pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby” (Melville, 6). With this description there’s a strong sense that Bartleby is small in size and withdrawn, introverted. Initially, Bartleby demonstrates his intense productivity as a copyist, as he is able to complete “an extraordinary quantity of writing.” However, even in this initial stage of extreme productivity, there appears to be a foreshadowing of the disappointments that lay in store.

“As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically (Melville 6).” In this description, Bartleby is like a machine before a collapse, like a car running at peak speed before the transmission dies. In this case, he is an employee before the collapse of total burnout.

Things continue to unravel when Bartleby is asked to engage in office tasks outside of copying. In these tasks Bartleby asserts that he “prefers” not to—much to the unified shock of his boss, the narrator, and everyone else in the office. Nothing can sway Bartleby, not common sense nor logical appeals. He is resolute in his answer.

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Through the narrator we discover that Bartleby actually lives in the office, though he does this in a markedly pitiful manner. By examining Bartleby’s work space, the narrator finds that he is eating, dressing and sleeping in the office, but without the proper tools and accessories to make this feasible. Scrutinizing a rickety sofa, the narrator finds that it “…bore the faint impress of a lean, reclining form. Rolled away under his desk, I found a blanket; under the empty grate, a blacking box and brush; on a chair, a tin basin, with soap and a ragged towel; in a newspaper a few crumbs of ginger-nuts and a morsel of cheese” (Melville, 13). Based on these details, it is as if Bartleby has created some sort of self-imposed prison in his work space.

The narrator is deeply moved by this, in part because of the poverty it strongly suggests, and in addition because of the crippling loneliness and isolation that it indicates for Bartleby. This office copyist was living a life of exile, not just from friends and a stable domestic life, but also isolating himself from the rest of the world. As the narrator is apt to point out, the solitude that Bartleby experiences must be all-encompassing: “Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn” (Melville, 13). Anyone who has ever been to a downtown office area on the weekend can attest to this, such areas are usually devoid of people. Profoundly moved and saddened by this discovery, the narrator seeks to find out more about his copyist. However, that proves to be futile. In asking Bartleby the most rudimentary question about himself, he receives that same reply, “I would prefer not to answer.”

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The narrator finds out that after moving to new offices, Bartleby was evicted from the previous chambers, and took to haunting the building and scaring other tenants and clients. This was done by sitting on the banister of the stairs and being an unmovable, bizarre presence. The narrator returns to his old offices and confronts Bartleby, attempting to do anything possible to get him to move. He suggests other careers, to which Bartleby dismisses. He even invites Bartleby to his home for him to stay until a more convenient plan was made for him. Bartleby dismisses all of these options. Eventually, the narrator finds that his former employee has been sent to prison (“to the Tombs as a vagrant”). The narrator attempts to comfort him: Bartleby rejects it. The narrator gives the cook some silver to make Bartleby’s meals extra special: Bartleby refuses to eat. We are left to assume that Bartleby and his gray eyes starved to death, wasting away. As a side note in closing the story, the narrator informs the reader at the end that before becoming his clerk, Bartleby worked at the post office in the dead letter branch. He sorted through dead letters, known as undeliverable mail. One is left to speculate about the impact the dead letters had on his mental health.

Analysis

As already stated, there are numerous ways to analyze this text. Some scholars have interpreted it as an antiquated “Occupy Wall Street” story, as Bartleby continuously demonstrates his ability to remain in the office, yet not engage in a single thread of productivity (Greenberg). Melville’s narrator is an attorney for the one-percenters of 1800s New York, engaging in “a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.” The word occupy does occur vigorously throughout the text, and it first occurs as a pleasant status. The narrator is initially happy with the consistency of Bartleby’s occupation of his office, since the copyist works with fervor. “When Bartleby stops working, the lawyer wonders, like a weak-hearted Bloomberg, whether he should evict the stubborn copyist” (Greenberg). Bartleby’s refusal to work grips the narrator in the uneasy notion of when does the occupier of Wall Street transform into the possessor (Greenberg): “The idea came upon me of his possibly turning out a long-lived man, and keep occupying my chambers, and denying my authority.” There’s the pervasive anxiety throughout the text that Bartleby will be able to gain hold of the office, simply by virtue of the fact that he persists in occupying it.

This anxiety is made apparent in the passive power held by Bartleby: even after the narrator moves to new offices in another building and Bartleby is forced out of his old boss’s chambers, he persists in occupying the stairwell, sitting on the bannister. The general inscrutability of Bartleby’s decisions creates a hyper focus on the repetition of the words he does use. “Bartleby’s ‘queer word’ of choice, to prefer, injects into the story a defiant note of desire, shifting our analysis of his occupancy from economic rights to preferences and wishes” (Greenberg). The narrator continues to struggle to understand Bartleby and balance legal obligations against ethical ones, never clear on why Bartleby seems to have no interest in the money he is offered or is owed. The frustrations that Bartleby’s actions force upon the narrator (and on some readers) place a hyper focus on his motivations and actions. “By refusing to articulate specific demands, Bartleby defies the very terms on which Wall Street does business. Melville thus provides a prescient illustration of the force of the Occupy movement” (Greenberg). Many have found that the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has gained its political power by precisely withholding a list of demands from the confines of self-definition that might minimize the force of the movement and allow it to be marred by ordinary politics (Greenberg). The enigmatic quality of Bartleby, one could argue, and its disinterest in quick cash fixes, may be its most formidable strength.

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Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of their rapport or of the narrator’s true feelings for Bartleby (and for all of humanity perhaps) is when he finds out that Bartleby persists in occupying the office building. The narrator pretends not to know him and refuses to get involved. Several professionals confront him, holding him to the account that he was the last person to give him employment. “Fearful then of being exposed in the papers” (25) the narrator agrees to confront Bartleby and get him to leave the area to the best of his ability. One could argue that to the very end, this attorney has attempted nothing but the most convenient solution and means for dealing with Bartleby. Ultimately, at his entirely, the narrator is a person who values convenience and ease in the face of all else. Human suffering takes a variety of forms—it can be the throes of hysteria or the quiet mental breakdown and rigidity of the behavior of someone like Bartleby. While the narrator made some efforts to help him, little went past his comfort zones. This short story can be viewed as the wasted potential of a talented lawyer, and the limitations of those who are capable and have means.

Characters

The Narrator

The main character is the narrator: he is a nameless fellow who claims to be elderly and to have enjoyed a 30-year career in the legal profession. He plainly states that he has always believed that the easiest way of life is ideal (and this is something the readers sees his behavior consistently manifest). He acknowledges that practicing law can lead to nervousness and turbulence, but that he hasn’t had such elements creep into his practice or lifestyle.  Rather, the narrator refers to his business as being characterized by the cool “tranquility of a snug retreat.” He refers to the late John Jacob Astor, a man who asserted that the narrator’s best quality to be his prudence, and secondly his next best quality to be his method. The narrator then attests that he seldom loses his temper and is occasionally rash. Throughout the short story, the reader watches him vacillate between being grotesquely annoyed by Bartleby and pitying of him.

Bartleby

Bartleby is a hybrid between a supporting character and a main character. After all, the short story is named after him. He is the scrivener or copyist in the title. However, his lines are few and very repetitive. However, he is the one around which all the action of the short story orbits. He is the character others talk about and react to the most. He is akin to the straw stirring the metaphorical “drink” of the short story.

Turkey

Turkey is a supporting character that is one of the narrator’s original copyists. The narrator describes him as short and around the same age as himself. The narrator suggests that Turkey is reasonably productive before noon but then drinks too much at lunch, which makes him sloppy and disruptive for the rest of the day. He drops things, is messy with his inkstand, leaves blots on all the papers. The narrator constantly compares his ruddy complexion to that of a heap of firing coals—a device that underscores his temper and mercurial nature.

Nippers

Nippers is another supporting character, around twenty-five years of age, and who resembles a pirate. The narrator deems that ambition and indigestion are the two forces that grip him most tightly. He is described to be impatient with his duties as a copyist. Nippers grinds his teeth, is often driven by nerves, and grins out of irritation.

Ginger Nut

Ginger Nut is a the youngest worker in the office at 12 years old. He is often referred to in conjunction with doing fundamental errands, though he is supposed to be gaining a basic understanding of how the law works. He often gets food for other, older workers in the novel. His name is presumably a nickname, referring to a spicy inexpensive type of cookie he brings back for other workers in the office. It is the crumbs of a the ginger nut cookies that the narrator later finds in Bartleby’s work area that may bear suggestive symbolism.

Themes

Work and Obligation

One of the major themes of the short story revolves around ideas about work and obligation in connection with human existence. Notions of what the worker owes his boss and owes himself are alluded to as is the idea of a lowly worker expressing preference. Melville did not haphazardly give Bartleby the job of a copyist by accident: he selected a position that was purposely monotonous. This is a unifying theme as so many readers can relate to such maddening work. The monotony of such work being such a consistent aspect of the human condition brings up questions about the purpose of human life. Is anyone meant to sit behind a screen and copy words day after day?

Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication

Another overwhelming theme is the prevalence of verbal and non-verbal communication. The narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how his office is full of dominant non-verbal communication. Nippers grinds his teeth. Turkey expresses his malaise at his job via drunken ink blobs. Ginger Nut fills his desk drawers with the shells of empty nuts. In their own way, these workers are sending clear, repeated messages to their boss about their opinions of their work, the workplace and him. Bartleby’s message is clearer as it is both verbal and non-verbal. It is just more disturbed and more repetitive so that it becomes harder to create an adequate response.

Separation and Integration

The theme of being together and being apart are examined with brilliance in this short story as Bartleby’s actions show the inherent contradiction and hypocrisy of humanity. Bartleby likes his isolation behind the screen from others in the workplace. Yet, he doesn’t want to do any work. Yet he doesn’t want to leave the offices and the company provided. He lives out of the offices all the time, even when the area is deserted and devoid of people on weekends. He gets kicked out  by the chambers new owners and takes up a space on the banister—now in the traffic of many people coming and going. He is apart from others. He is among others. Melville deftly handles his complexities and dysfunctions with great humanity, ultimately meditating on the human condition.

Conclusion

Upon reflection, one of the main reasons that Bartleby, the Scrivener has stood the test of time since it was published in 1853 is a result of its ability to transcend a single definition. Some scholars view it as a Kafkaesque tale of the plight of the proletariat. Others view it as cautionary tale of  the callousness of individuals to their fellow humans. And still others interpret it as a haunting portrayal of the tragedy of the ordinary life, unable to withstand the narrow confines of traditional communication. Hundreds more interpretations are valid and abound from the text. Without a doubt, even though the text is so antiquated it is devoid of even a mention of a typewriter, it still manages to make insightful commentary about some of the inscrutable aspects of the complexities of human life.

Works Cited

Buonocore, Andrew. “BartlebyAnalysis – LawContempSoc – TWiki.” Eben Moglen, 2012, moglen.law.columbia.edu/twiki/bin/view/LawContempSoc/BartlebyAnalysis. Accessed 9 July 2018.

Greenberg, Jonathan D. “Occupy Wall Street’s Debt to Melville.” The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/04/occupy-wall-streets-debt-to-melville/256482/.

Kahn, Andrew. “Finally! The Interactive, Annotated Edition of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” You Always Wanted.” Slate Magazine, 22 Oct. 2015, www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2015/10/herman_melville_s_bartleby_the_scrivener_an_interactive_annotated_text.html. Accessed 9 July 2018.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-street.” Eben Moglen, moglen.law.columbia.edu/LCS/bartleby.pdf. Accessed 9 July 2018.

Closing

And hence, there will always be readers who dismiss this short story in a Bartleby, the Scrivener analysis essay as a mere odd tale about the oddities of human behavior. However, if that were true—if the summation of its words added up to nothing more than a curious story, it would have long been lost to obscurity. In examining its discernment and relevancy today, almost two hundred years after it was written, one can illuminate certain truths about what it means to be an individual, a worker, a member of society, a boss, a prisoner and a host of other archetypes that are uncannily presented in the story.

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