Who do you see as the protagonist of "Bartleby the Scrivener"--Bartleby or the lawyer/narrator ?
Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"
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The title of the story is “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” but the tale is told by a Wall Street lawyer. Many critics contend that the story is more the narrator’s than the scrivener’s. Since students are often mystified by the narrator’s tolerance of Bartleby, another way to generate thought is to ask readers to give their reactions to the narrator. If they are exasperated by him, why is that? How would they have handled Bartleby differently? Why do they think the narrator acts the way he does? Another approach is to focus on the title in its entirety. Why did Melville call this a story of Wall Street? Bartleby is constantly referred to as being in a “dead-wall reverie.” Why does Melville associate walls with death? What is the difference between the narrator’s attitude toward walls and Bartleby’s? Does the narrator’s attitude change in the course of the story? Bartleby has been seen as representing the plight of the writer in nineteenth-century America. He creates nothing; he only copies for money. Significantly, what Bartleby copies are documents dealing with the estates of the dead. How do these elements of the story relate to the “dead letter”postscript to the story?
With the apparent propensity of Herman Melville for writing narratives in which characters have doubles--in Moby Dick, Ahab has two alter egos: Pip as his imaginative side, and Fedulla as his darker side--there is a substantial argument for Bartleby's being a double for the lawyer. Thus, as the lawyer's "psychological double" that represents the impersonal and sterile side of him, Bartleby acts with him as both protagonist and antagonist.
In his essay, "Melville's Bartleby As Psychological Double," Modecai Marcus proposes that the screen which the lawyer places between himself and Bartleby represents his attempt to subjugate his imagination and sensitivities to the world of business. For, Bartleby works industriously for the religiously significant three days, then stops producing; instead, when asked perform tasks, Bartleby simply replies, "I prefer not." While the lawyer is at first the antagonist, Bartleby's passive protests increasingly dominate the lawyer, making him now the antagonist. As Marcus points out,
The lawyer finally accepts Bartleby's presence as a natural part of his world, and he admits that without outside interference, their strange relationship might have continued indefinitely.
However, the roles of protagonist/antagonist reverse as with the increasing resistance of Turkey and the other scriveners, the lawyer feels compelled to dismiss Bartleby. Still, after he learns that Bartleby is living in his office from which he has moved, he invites Bartleby to come home with him until he can find lodgings. But, then, Bartleby becomes again the antagonist, refusing the lawyer's offer. Finally, when the lawyer learns that Bartleby has been taken to prison and blames him for this imprisonment. Marcus suggests that Bartleby, who stares vacantly at the prison wall, represents a "voice deep within the lawyer" that wishes to give up his way of life on the confining world of unimaginative business on Wall Street. Therefore, Bartleby resumes the role of protagonist.
Thus, in Herman Melville's story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street," Bartleby and the lawyer represent conflicting sides of the mind of one individual who has been reshaped by the limitations of society, symbolized as the "wall." Like Ahab, who refuses to accept his limitations as a damaged man and seeks to break through "the pasteboard mask," the lawyer, too, struggles as his does hi psychological double, Bartleby; they struggle to combat the "wall" of limited imagination.
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