Herman Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener in the year 1853. It was a time when public attitudes towards work were changing, brought about by the transition to industrialization. Melville makes light of this change and its effect on society with the characters of Bartleby and the narrator. Melville uses elements of character, plot, and setting to illustrate both Bartleby and the narrator’s unwillingness and ultimate failure to adapt.
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Allegorically the character Bartleby might symbolize any individual born in this time of transition for America. Born to a world without industrialism and thrust into a revolution of industry, the members of this generation were forced to adapt. Bartleby is one such character. Bartleby is a lost soul who seems to be completely out of place in the world of Wall Street. In some sense the narrator is the antithesis of Bartleby. Though the narrator fits in well of the world of Wall Street he would be hard pressed to adapt to a life anywhere else. People in this period of time would have belonged to one of two worlds. People would either cling to old ways or would adapt and become part of the new world. The differences between Bartleby and the narrator mimic this disparity.
Some writers have argued that Bartleby is much like Melville’s famous character, Moby Dick. Author Mark Elliott explains that Ahab’s interpretation of Moby Dick as a “wall” is important because “Bartleby himself is also a kind of wall”. As he explains, the characters Bartleby and Moby Dick “[reflect] Melville’s own skepticism about the inability of human beings to fully comprehend and control the forces in the universe.” The wall that is Moby Dick and the wall that is Bartleby are very much the same thing. They both represent the “inscrutable” as Elliot describes it. Bartleby, like a wall, is immovable in the literal sense at points, and indeed in the mental sense throughout the story. Bartleby’s wants and need are not privy to the narrator which may help to explain the narrator’s obsession with Bartleby. The narrator is fruitless in his endeavors to break through to Bartleby because of Melville’s own aforementioned skepticism. Melville is in essence showing that in a matter of fact he is correct in his skepticism as he has created a character that baffles the reader.
The author uses the motif of Bartleby’s solemn refusal, “I would prefer not to,” to emphasize Bartleby’s unwillingness to adapt. The narrator is driven to near madness by Bartleby’s quaint reply to his questioning. The use of this motif serves to reinforce the antithetical nature of the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator. Whilst Bartleby is quite content to do nothing, the narrator is quite discontent doing anything other than work. Bartleby is an enigma to the narrator and in the same regard the narrator may be seen as an enigma to Bartleby.
The setting of Wall Street full of its hustle and bustle creates a sharp disparity with the nature of Bartleby’s character. This allows the reader a better understanding of Bartleby as an outsider. In reference to the narrator, setting is also important. The way in which the narrator so readily adapts to the world of Wall Street helps the reader to perceive the narrator as the foil to Bartleby. Bartleby and the narrator might be considered men from two different worlds belonging to the same.
Throughout the story of Bartleby the Scrivener the reader is witness to this seemingly disjunct unity. Often the narrator paints Bartleby as a vagrant and takes pity on him as such. He appeals to humanity when he feels anger or resentment towards Bartleby, and ultimately looks after Bartleby when he is imprisoned. The narrator feels for Bartleby and it is in this regard that there is unity. The disjunction we see is in the nature of Bartleby and the narrator. On one hand the reader sees a man who is seemingly well adapted to the modern world, one the other hand the reader sees a man without a place in the world. The reality is that the narrator is truly one step away from being Bartleby. There is a real subtle humor to this story. The narrator is oblivious to the fact that in many ways he is exactly like Bartleby. The narrator is confined to his office throughout most of the story, just as Bartleby is. The narrator is a man of inaction, like Bartleby. The narrator is willing to put up with the eccentricities of his employees only because he has convinced himself that they are valuable to him. The narrator refuses to discipline his employees and when he does he makes sure to do it in a manner so as to not cause any strife. The narrator fears confrontation, just as Bartleby “prefers” to avoid it, and perhaps to a degree more as he takes flight when accosted by the inhabitants of his former office.
In some ways perhaps Bartleby is the wiser of the two men as he refuses to take a single stance on anything. In that regard, he is unconfined. The narrator is incredulous to Bartleby’s remarks that he wishes to remain unconfined (Melville 153). As Todd Giles explains Bartleby should not be pitied by the reader instead he argues that Bartleby’s “radical passivity” makes him “unrepentantly affirmative and life embracing”. Bartleby he says, “is a figure of the full force of potentiality (Giles 89).” Giles goes on to explain that Bartleby’s refusal to the narrator is not indicative of melancholy, but rather it is the “ultimate realization of freedom and selfhood (Giles 89).” The very idea that Bartleby is able to refuse his employer and continue to do what he prefers reflects that sentiment exactly. On the other hand, it is the narrator who thinks himself to be quite unconfined without any consideration to the fact that he has pigeonholed his very existence. Therefore, perhaps it is not Bartleby that ought to be pitied, but rather the narrator. Whereas Bartleby fully embraces his “passivity”, the poor narrator is completely unaware of his own passivity, and rather thinks himself a man of action. It is this subtle irony that Melville uses to make a grander statement on society.
The story of Bartleby is very much a statement on human nature and society, and just as nature encompasses a myriad of emotion and attitude so too are the interpretations of Bartleby, the Scrivener. Melville as able to create a character ambiguous enough that he has since defied all interpretation. Strong arguments have been made for any facet of Bartleby’s character, yet there still has yet to be any one unified theory of Bartleby. Perhaps it was this conclusion that Melville intended his readers come to.
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