View Full Version : Bartleby the Scrivener

12-05-2006, 10:36 AM
What do you guys think of this story? I've rea da lot of critiques that say Bartleby is a psychological double of the narrator. Would like to hear opinions, critiques, analyses, etc. ~Amy

03-29-2007, 12:54 AM
I don't know if I'd call him a "pyschological double" so much as someone in a very similar position to that of the narrator. They've both recently been dismissed from rather well-paying jobs which were supposed to last forever (in Bartleby's case, this is not explicitly stated, but at the time it was written the Dead Letters Office at which he worked was supposed to be one of the few remaining institutions that were safe from the partisan "spoils system"), but the narrator does not seem to recognize the similarity of their plights...

You don't seem to have ever returned, but welcome to the Forum anyway, amytrabs.

06-05-2007, 05:25 AM
Bartleby is one of the strangest characters in literature; he's arguably Melville's strangest and most inscrutable. Ghost-like and mysterious, he might me interpreted as an embodiment of societal guilt toward the unfortunate; even more unfortunate, because Bartleby refuses any known form of assistance.

This story could pose the question, "What if the poor or disadvantaged refused society's help...resigning themselves to oblivion and death?" Whereas Bartleby required the Narrator's office space for his final withdrawal from life, the financially and psychologically impoverished require the space of city streets, etc., to die. What are perceived as our nations, cities, homes, our individual selves,...all bear witness to their unique blessings and sins.

Like Hamlet, Bartleby's very inaction motivates the story's action. The Narrator's dull and well-regulated (if meager) business is put in disarray by Bartleby's sudden preference to do little... then nothing! His coolness and logic (borne from perplexity) in handling this very peculiar person is strained by his employees resentment of the situation: while Bartleby stands like a statue of idleness, everyone must perform still more work. As Bartleby persists in his idleness, the Narrator gradually becomes a curiosity among his business associates ("Why," they naturally ask, "does he keep Bartleby in his employ and within his office?").

To interpret this story would be to answer the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?," rationally and dispassionately. I don't think it has any definite interpretation that doesn't fall short of logic and doesn't overshoot compassion. Indeed, the only person who could probably help Bartleby would be one willing to give his life for him. Who did Melville possibly have in mind?

06-05-2007, 07:54 AM
Hmmm, I'm not sure anyone could have helped Bartleby. The question I think the story presents is how far can one go to be one's brother's keeper. I agree with your reading of the story, Grey Fox.

06-05-2007, 09:21 AM
Hi Virgil,

Thanks again for yet another reply to one of my dubious literary observations.

I think that Melville is, with BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER, evaluating the precepts of Christianity. Brotherhood, charity, compassion, (and the like), are all well and good but can ultimately be exhausted and rendered impotent. And if ever a man existed that could exhaust these precepts, that man is Bartleby.

The Narrator is in no way a cruel or callous person...if anything, he proves to be more than generous, tolerant and kindly man. Despite all of this, Bartleby appears totally ungrateful, unreceptive and selfish in his self-destructive obstinacy...almost as if the supposed victim is, in actuality, also the victimizer! It's no stretch of the imagination, nor dispassion on a reader's part, to imagine the Narrator entertaining a homicidal solution to the problem of Bartleby: he would've been too much even for Saint Francis!

05-05-2008, 07:50 PM
Just finished reaing it a few hours ago. It ocured to me, while reading, that Bartleby suffered from Autism. His repitative statement "I would prefer not," may indicate his inability to communicate with other people. He does not respond properly to his name when he's called. he also has some strang repetitive behaviors, like eating nothing but ginger cake, and is always standing behind the screen. After reading your posts now, this seemed to me a somewhat superficial idea, but I thought I'd mention it anyway. SO what do you think?

05-06-2008, 02:39 AM
If Bartleby suffered from autism, it could have been the most creative form of autism known to medicine. His legendarily strange behavior seems too determined, too intentional, to be the result of an illness but rather of a design. What that design may be is the question, and because Bartleby himself seems overwhelmed by his own behavior could suggest an illness...but I think Melville had a far deeper meaning in mind. Due to the fact that this brilliant short story has continued to puzzle readers for over 150 years is proof of its complexity. As with Hamlet, our own baffling humanity is reflected in the character of Bartleby and eternally vexes us...driving us to all manner of interpretations.

05-06-2008, 01:56 PM
Autism per se, was not diagnosed nor recognized as a disorder until after World War II, though, of course, it may have existed in a person previous to that time and given a different label. If you read all the way to the end of his novella, Melville gives us a very precise reason for Bartleby's oddball behavior. It has to do with Bartleby's previous employment, and as a LitNetter pointed out in another thread on this very topic, was an autobiographical allusion to Melville's own employment at the Customs House.

Here's a link (http://www.online-literature.com/forums/showthread.php?t=31943) to the previous LitNet thread on the topic

05-06-2008, 02:58 PM
Employment at a "dead letter" office (or an allusion to Melville's own employment at the Customs House) could hardly serve to precisely explain Bartleby's behavior. This would merely relegate Bartleby to a literal interpretation and he could be correctly classified as mentally ill; hence, decades of literary analysis were in vain.

This short story (it hovers on the tenuous border between short story, long short story, novella and similar contentions) is a classic for the very reason that it's timeless in its interpretation and is enlivened by each reader's own social, political, religious or cultural beliefs. Melville and Bartleby's own allusions convey only two possibilities within civilization's swarming sea.

05-07-2008, 03:59 AM
Did Melville work in a Customs House? I had thought that was just Hawthorne...

Anyway, I would have to disagree with the autism reading as well. Melville became quite pessimistic during the latter part of his career, and most of these stories seem to carry rather dark subtext. In this case, Bartleby's behavior seems justified by his getting paid by the sheet - to copy, not to 'verify the accuracy of his copy' or run errands for his employer. He is, as the expression goes, dirt poor, and he works day and night until he begins losing his sight in order to accumulate some modest savings (which the narrator discovers when rifling through Bartleby's belongings). It seems an awfully long story not to mention mental illness at all, if that is the subject.

Don't take my word on this, though - I'm still searching for the line that made me associate Bartleby's pay with the amount of work done; but it might have been a secondary work of criticism in the 'historicist' vein. Melville's stories (novellas, whatever) do seem to require some degree of historical investigation in order to reach a comprehensive interpretation...

05-07-2008, 05:52 AM
I found the story very entertaining and actually amusing. Is it possible - and I'm just throwing the idea out here - that Melville meant it for these ends, and these ends alone?

05-07-2008, 09:37 AM
Yes. Melville and Hawthorne both worked in a customs house: H. in Boston and M. here in New York City. I agree that a story and/or character requires an historical investigation for a more adequate interpretation. (I remember when I was a college student, in ancient times and sans computers as we know them today, I was made to draw a parallel between Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS and WWII ...tiresome research, I assure you.) However, Bartleby appears so disconnected from anyone's history (including Melville's) to be anything other than a fictional device demanding a broader interpretation that transcends history.

Then again, Chester may be right and Melville was simply putting us on. The whole affair is oftentimes amusing; the absurdity of Bartleby and the Narrator's incredulous reactions to it all are priceless. Maybe decades of literary analysis were, after all is said and done, in vain. I'm only sorry that I hadn't thought of that one. :lol: :thumbs_up :lol:

05-07-2008, 09:50 AM
Haha! Well, I'm not saying I'm right, but every now and again it seems to me that somebody ought to pull Ockham's razor out of the toolbox.

(Yeah, I remember the days of research before computers. It wasn't pretty.)

05-07-2008, 12:12 PM
That Melville might be "putting us on" is a valid conjecture, especially in light of The Confidence Man, which
is (at times) an hysterically funny yarn at face value, rivalling the humor of Twain. But as in Twain, there is a far deeper subtext. In The Confidence Man Melville is exploring relationships between author and reader, and even more so, the essence of language and its symbols. In that sense, The Confidence Man is a precursor of postmodern literature and an example perhaps of Jacques Derrida's philosophy so bandied about these days. But back to Bartleby: what or whom do you think Bartleby symbolizes? Perhaps the plight of the 19th century working class, or, given Melville's psychological exploration, perhaps a soul going awry (though the term "mental illness" might be going a little too far.) Certainly one could make a case for some kind of existential neurosis within Bartleby.

05-08-2008, 02:13 AM
Since I first read this story as a high school freshman (1968), I've must have gone through 50 or more re-readings along with countless interpretations of what Bartleby symbolizes. One interpretation here and there often seemed as good as many others (with many more now on the Web), with no single interpretation standing out, once and for all, as definitive. (I DO, however, agree with Chester's conjecture that Melville was merely having a bit of fun with his readers.)

In short, I'm not really sure what Bartleby represents and probably this is what plagued the Narrator as well: the utterly incomprehensible within our (presumably) ordered society that defies a rational explanation. The Narrator doesn't appear as much angered or despaired over Bartleby as he is irksomely perplexed by him; and we, the readers, continue in our efforts to understand Bartleby with equal perplexity...based on our own respective concepts of social order and social norms.

07-01-2008, 03:53 PM
Bartleby is a combination of post - the Liberty Pole - as body, and woman - the Liberty Lady - as soul. Google half-dimes from 1853, or better yet go to Greatseal.com and look at the versions of the Liberty Lady/Pole that competed with Eye for pride of place on the Great Seal. As a past incarnation of Liberty, the symbol comes back to haunt the current symbols of the Great Seal of the United States, engaged in imprinting themselves as copies on stationary, seals, stamps, coins and statuary. Turkey and Nippers are American Eagles, one the original, the second a newer realization in 1841. Ginger Nut is the cake of stars (cake of nuts) above the American Eagle's head. The I - the narrator - is the Eye that floats in his "snug" office above the Pyramid's - the lower office's - top. Take out a dollar bill. Match the characters, then read the story again. The story becomes even more funny, and the pathos of poor Lady Liberty and her vanishing act finally makes it touching as well.

Wilde woman
03-17-2009, 09:54 PM
He is, as the expression goes, dirt poor, and he works day and night until he begins losing his sight in order to accumulate some modest savings (which the narrator discovers when rifling through Bartleby's belongings).

Forgive me for jumping in about a year late, but I just read this last night.

Does Bartleby truly lose his eyesight? I got the impression that he simply (inexplicably) wanted to stop working.

Nemo Neem
11-03-2009, 03:53 PM
I absolutely loved this story. Bartleby, to me, represents those queer, odd questions that cannot be answered, such as "Why does God exist?", or "Why are we here?" Through a business standpoint, Bartleby is someone who a boss wants to fire, but can't because "Bartleby" technically has done nothing wrong. Also, there is a political influence. Bartleby wants to speak his mind; he refuses to do what the government tells him to do, and so, he's forced out of town because the government views him as an outcast.

atiguhya padma
11-03-2009, 06:25 PM
Isn't Bartleby the illustration of the impotence of scepticism or solipsism?

10-26-2010, 09:26 PM
Just found this place after reading this story... figured I'd post the thoughts I jotted down while reading it.

The first thing I notice is the slow, methodical writing and the intense focus on minute detail. The characterizations of the other three scriveners make them more caricatures of humans than actual human beings, with Turkey and Nipper being denied their given names in favor of titles to which no attributes fully fit, given only half of a whole portion of functionality. Ginger Nut is productive worker, but has little in terms of character development. Bartelby is fleshed out more than the other three, though he is often given the attributes of a ghost or corpse.

The narrator puzzles me. His first statement: I am an elderly man... it seems as if he says it to qualify his authority, but he has no authority. He falls to the whims of his colleagues and clients. His office is overrun by employees that do as they will and he regards their eccentricities with the eye of a collector instead of the sternness of a boss. In a way he is a lot like Bartelby, cloistered away in his own world. But, the difference is that Bartelby chooses not to participate while the lawyer cannot gather in himself the same sense of power.

The lawyer's response to Bartelby's passive resistance intrigued me. I guess someone could consider it symptom of his charitable nature, but to me it shows a weakness of character and a tendency to fall in line when challenged. If Bartelby reflects the dying soul of a working class man forced to perform repetitive tasks till he dries up and blows away, then his resistance is heroic. That makes the lawyer another cog in the wheel, as faceless and nameless as any of the other characters in the office. Aside from that, the lawyer's motivation for indulging Bartelby was not altruistic because it "will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my [his] conscious."

When the lawyer is foist from his office by Bartelby I see in my head the image of two dogs of equal size. One with a constant, steadfast gaze and the other, head cowered, backing slowly away. The lawyer pities Bartelby because he lives in the office, but shouldn't we pity the lawyer, who can't hold his own territory? The lawyer looks at Bartelby like an outcast leper, but Bartelby has willfully withdrawn from society. The reasoning behind his withdrawal is debatable, but his ability to decline from life is a show of will the lawyer does not possess.

There is the issue of the word prefer… A singular and purposeful choice on behalf of Melville. To prefer… To favor one thing against another…. To give priority to somebody…. And in law: to make a charge against somebody by submitting details of the alleged offense to a court, magistrate, or judge for examination, or prosecute such a charge.

Did the poor reception of Melville’s more introspective, symbolic works leave him accusatory and depressed? Through Bartelby did he show both his contempt for the readers of his time? Did he feel he was being pressed into copying his previous works? Would he have rather withdrew his brilliance than be forced into a life of literary slavery? If the eyes are the windows to the soul does the clouding of Bartelby’s vision reflect the dying of his soul or does it reflect Melville’s disillusionment with the literary world? Did Melville choose Bartelby’s mantra “I’d prefer not to” to both accuse readers of being superficial while showing his contempt for writing only what paid well and not what was truly the essence of himself? The lawyer’s illusions to Bartelby’s isolation…did they convey Melville’s own feelings of isolation at being poorly understood by his peers? Does the lawyer, who in brief moments attempts to understand and indulge Bartelby, and is admonished by his peers further show Melville’s irritation with those who more freely listen to the voices of critics than of the author’s themselves? Did he feel abandoned by a readership that once adored him?

There’s a subtle humor in a professional man of decent standing running from his own offices because someone has refused to leave. Not because that someone is violent or disruptive, but just because he cannot be removed. Bartleby does not move. The world moves around him. He is steadfast, whatever the event. Others are weakened into action by his immobility. They cower in face of his unrelenting apathy. Great torrents of emotion spring up around him because he reacts to nothing. What a statement on the power of passive resistance!
Bartelby, preferring no change be made at all, preferring to be stationary, solitary, absent from the interactions around him, is sent to the aptly named Tombs. Like a corpse being buried. The illusion to the Egyptian tombs, Bartelby’s abstinence from food, his death, mimic the ideas of mummification and the idea of the body as a vessel that can be emptied and refilled at will. Bartelby, who handled the affairs of the dead, saw the completed endeavors of life condensed and burned away, instilled in himself the very essence of death and willed it. A case could be made that Bartelby suffered a most severe case of a clinical depression and that the retelling of his life by the narrator is similar to the medical charts of a psychiatrist, detailing his progression as his spirals down into the depths of the disease…
But, there’s the wall to consider.

Always, he stared at the wall. The lawyer saw the wall, but Bartelby understood it. The limitations, the confinement, the imprisonment implied by every wall in every office in every part of the world. Is a man meant only to work, make money, and die? If so, what is the point of it? It was, after all, “A Story of Wall-Street.” A story of how industrialization demotes a man from a person to a product. Was Melville putting a charge against society as a whole? Oh Humanity? Sacrificing soul for bits of silver? I don’t know. But, overall it was a good read with lots of tidbits to chew on.