Bartleby, the Scrivener
"Bartleby, the Scrivener"
The following entry presents criticism of Melville's short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853). See also, Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and "Benito Cereno" Criticism.
The account of a young man's inability to conform to business life on Wall Street in the mid-nineteenth century, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is hailed by some scholars as the first modem American short story for its break with the dense moralizing, overt allegorizing, romantic characterization, and strict form of more traditional tales. The symbolic suggestiveness and narrative ambiguity of "Bartleby" has gamered it more critical attention than any of Melville's other short stories.
Plot and Major Characters
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" is narrated by a Wall Street lawyer who deals in investment opportunities for wealthy clients. The narrator hires a man named Bartleby as a scrivener, a clerk who copies legal documents. Bartleby works diligently at first but gradually begins to decline his responsibilities with the statement "I would prefer not to." Bartleby eventually stops working entirely and stares at the wall immediately outside of a window in the law office. Only when clients are unnerved by Bartleby's idiosyncratic behavior does the narrator take significant action; he moves his business to another building rather than forcefully remove Bartleby, who "would prefer not to" quit the lawyer's service. Bartleby then refuses to leave the vacated building and is consequently jailed for vagrancy. The narrator, feeling somehow responsible for Bartleby's condition and incarceration, visits Bartleby, whom he finds dead from self-imposed starvation. At the conclusion of the story, the narrator relates a rumor about Bartleby's previous occupation: employment in the postal service's dead-letter office, the final repository of lost or otherwise undeliverable mail.
Major ThemesMuch of the story's complexity originates from the limited perspective of the narrator, who reveals much about himself while he relates the few facts known about Bartleby. As a result, differing and sometimes conflicting interpretations have been advanced. Some critics focus on the narrator, variously characterizing him as self-serving or well-meaning. Others have examined Bartleby, who they perceive as comical, nihilistic, Christ-like, or devoid of a social persona. Bartleby is most commonly identified as emblematic/symbolic of the writer alienated by society for his refusal to "copy" the formulas of popular fiction; many critics contend that Melville intended "Bartleby" to be autobiographical in this respect. Other commentators, focusing on the bleak mood and tragic conclusion of the story, consider the story a condemnation of capitalist society or a disheartening existentialist commentary. Others interpret the story as a satire of specific individuals, a parable about failed Christian charity, or an explication of contemporary philosophies. Another influential school of critics approach "Bartleby" from a psychoanalytic perspective, diagnosing Bartleby as schizophrenic, compulsive neurotic, manic depressive, or autistic.
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" was Melville's first published short story. Out of financial need, he contributed stories and sketches to popular magazines throughout the mid-1850s; his previously published novels, including Moby-Dick and Pierre, were favorably reviewed but earned him little income. Melville's short fiction received scant critical or popular attention until the novella Billy Budd, left in manuscript at his death, was published in 1924. Its appearance sparked critical attention that revived interest in the Melville canon. Since then, "Bartleby" has attracted a particularly extensive collection of criticism.
SOURCE: "Melville's Bartleby as Psychological Double," in College English, Vol. 23, No. 5, February, 1962, pp. 365-68.
[Marcus is an American poet, critic, and educator who has written extensively on nineteenth-century American writers. In the following essay, Marcus insists that Bartleby represents the narrator's own protests against the impersonality of Wall Street.]
Most interpreters of Melville's haunting story "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853) have seen it as a somewhat allegorical comment on Melville's plight as a writer after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre.
Others have suggested that the story dramatizes the conflict between absolutism and free will in its protagonist, that it shows the destructive power of irrationality or that it criticizes the sterility and impersonality of a business society. The last of these interpretations seems to me the most accurate, and the others suffer either from an inability to adjust the parts of the story to Melville's experience (or that of any serious writer), or to adjust the parts to one another.
I believe that the character of Bartleby is a psychological double for the story's nameless lawyer-narrator, and that the story's criticism of a sterile and impersonal society can best be clarified by investigation of this role. Melville's use of psychological doubles in Mardi, Moby-Dick, and...
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SOURCE: "Melville: 'One Royal Mantle of Humanity'," in Democratic Humanism and American Literature, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 159-97.
[Kaplan is an American poet and critic. In the following excerpt, Kaplan explores the metaphysical implications of "Bartleby" by comparing Bartleby and Moby Dick 's Captain Ahab.]
It would be plausible to read "Bartleby the Scrivener" as social criticism; the setting is Wall Street and the man is the palest of the imprisoned office clerks who could symbolize human alienation in modem bureaucratic and technological society. But most would agree that this would be as limited a reading as the same emphasis would be for Kafka. It has been reported by several critics, chief among them Lionel Trilling and Richard Chase, that American writers of the classic period had little interest in social realism, the depiction of life styles and manners, the analysis of specific social conflicts. The mistake, as I have said elsewhere, is to extend this judgment too far, in suggesting that the theme of their work is not man in society. This is precisely the most actively considered theme of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthome, Melville, and Whitman, but they write in terms of the first questions which associate with this theme and not the last. That is to say they write as if the problem of living in society had just been offered to men who were otherwise morally and...
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SOURCE: "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1972-73, pp. 268-82.
[In the following essay, Stempel and Stillians consider "Bartleby" to be the result of Melville's interest in Schopenhauer.]
In October 1853 a troubled Matthew Arnold explained why he had chosen to drop Empedocles on Etna from his new collection of poems. Certain situations, Arnold suggested, are intrinsically devoid of the power to provide "poetical enjoyment": "those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done. In such situations there is inevitably something morbid, in the description of them something monotonous" [Poetical Works]. And so, Empedocles, having chosen to leap into the crater of Etna in a fit of weltschmerz, was banished by the stern Victorian conscience of his creator. But the romantic pessimism which is as much a part of nineteenth-century literature as the optimistic faith in progress was not to be exorcised so easily, either from Arnold's poetry or from the work of his contemporaries.
Shortly after Arnold wrote this condemnation of the literature of futility, "Bartleby the Scrivener" appeared in two installments in Putnam's Monthly Magazine...
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SOURCE: "Fantasy of Passivity: Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, The Free Press, 1973, pp. 63-79.
[In the following excerpt, Kaplan and Kloss insist that Bartleby exhibits symptoms of manic-depression, and contend that the narrator's veneer of passivity is a neurotic attempt to repress underlying impulses toward aggression and violence.]
Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a work of comic irony comparable to such novels as Ford's The Good Soldier or Durrell's Justine, both of which use the device of fallible narrator. In The Good Soldier, for instance, Dowell is an unperceptive, sentimental, sexually impotent man, married to an immoral sensualist. The focus of the novel is not the inevitable failure of the marriage, but the very efforts of this man—who has never felt toward his wife "the beginnings of a trace of what is called the sex instinct"—to comprehend and describe that failure. So long as he cannot acknowledge the importance of sexuality in human relationships his narrative vision is corrupted, and that is the whole point of the story.…
Melville's narrator is no less enmeshed in an effort to explain events beyond his comprehension. And the manner in which the author enables us to understand both the causes and the extent of that limitation rivals the full artistry of...
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SOURCE: "'Bartleby,' Melville's Circumscribed Scrivener," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 59-79.
[Fisher is an American educator whose books include Going Under: Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850's (1977). In the following essay, Fisher provides an overview of several critical approaches to "Bartleby," and insists that Melville intended Bartleby to be representative of humankind generally.]
"Bartleby" is certainly the most familiar of Melville's short stories, reprinted in dozens of anthologies and analyzed by scores of critics. It would be hard to say something new about this early study of alienation, frustration, and catatonic withdrawal, and the surest guard against originality, I suspect, would be to take account of every commentary on the story. It would be more foolish, however, to try to clear one's mind completely of what others have written about Melville's pitiable and peculiar clerk and the initially complacent but ultimately vulnerable lawyer who narrates the tale.
This was Melville's first published short story and constitutes a remarkable attempt at a new genre and a considerable recovery from his disappointment over the public reception of Pierre. It was a greater recovery in terms of technical virtuosity than in the expression of a more positive outlook, especially in regard to the title...
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SOURCE: "Melville's Lost Self: Bartleby," in American Imago, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1974, pp. 401-11.
[In the following essay, Bollas argues that a psychological interpretation of "Bartleby" demonstrates the value of psychoanalysis to literary criticism.]
Herman Melville's short novel "Bartleby" is, a tale about a "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn" young man who answers an advertisement for a position as a scrivener. He is accepted for employment, disrupts the routine of his new environment when he "prefers not to" engage in certain assigned tasks, forces the employer to feel a resourcelessness that compels him to move his office. It ends in Bartleby's pathetic death after he has been hustled off to prison.
I believe that Bartleby's arrival at the office and his subsequent breakdown into negativity is a mimetic representation of a need to find a nurturant space where he can regress toward the healing of a "basic fault" in the self. I want to focus on "Bartleby" as a transitional moment in Melville's fiction when his central heroic type (Ahab, Ishmael, Taji, Pierre) shifts from searching to being found, where Bartleby's search for the employer becomes a move toward discovery, his existential ambience that of throwing out a deeply dissociated self state. "Bartleby" provides us with an opportunity to study a subject's expression of his autism, where...
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SOURCE: "'Bartleby': Melville's Critique of Reason," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2, June and December, 1974, pp. 66-71.
[In the following excerpt, Gupta insists that the narrator of "Bartleby" represents reason, and that Bartleby, in confounding the narrator, emphasizes the inability of pure reason to negotiate human behavior.]
"Say now, that in a day or two you will begin to be
a little reasonable:—say so, Bartleby."
"At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,"
was his mildly cadaverous reply.
The unnamed narrator of "Bartleby" is an apostle of reason. His outlook on life is clear, unambiguous, and uncluttered by mysticism or imagination. Reason and common sense are his deities, and he looks upon them as infallible guides to human conduct.
All goes well with the narrator until he decides to engage as his new scrivener an inscrutable and "motionless" young man named Bartleby. For two days, Bartleby diligently does "an extraordinary quantity of writing." But on the third day, when the narrator calls him to compare a copy sheet, Bartleby, "in a singularly mild, firm voice," replies: "I would prefer not to." The narrator is stunned by what he considers to be the unreasonableness of Bartleby's conduct and briefly argues...
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SOURCE: "Eros and Thanatos in 'Bartleby'," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 21-32.
[In the following essay, Billy interprets the narrator and Bartleby, respectively, as fictional projections of eros and thanatos principles in Melville's own psyche, and considers "Bartleby" a portrait of psychological conflict between the life and death instincts.]
The final comment of Melville's narrator in "Bartleby the Scrivener" ("Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!") acts as a synecdoche for the irreconcilable struggle that animates the novella. This brief statement of commiseration does more than merely link Bartleby's predicament to the universal human situation. It pinpoints the root of the conflict—the antagonism between the isolated individual and the whole of society. Melville chooses as his theme the tragic fragmentation of the human sensibility. This fragmentation in man's psyche stems from the loss of the intrinsic interaction between the human organism and his immediate physical environment. "Bartleby" serves as the literary objectification of Melville's intense awareness of the psychological trauma of fragmentation, anxiety, and alienation. And behind it all lies the source of psychic disequilibrium—a dead, blank wall—the void of nothingness.
The narrator and Bartleby are fictional projections of the eros and thanatos principles in Melville's divided self. Bartleby...
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SOURCE: "Bartleby and the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 51-6.
[In the following essay, Kornfeld claims that Bartleby is distinguished by his refusal to correspond to social roles.]
Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" has been read as an attack on capitalism, an allegory of the frustrated artist in a commercial society, a study of passive resistance, an expression of melancholy, the absurd, the perverse, the irrational—the catalog is exhausting and seemingly endless. Some of this is helpful in elucidating the story, even useful from the teacher's perspective since "Bartleby" is a perennial favorite of anthologizers. But a problem of many of the interpretations is a tendency toward the inverted reification of Bartleby as a character. The difficulty and the temptation of trying to explain him subtly enough reinforce the habit of treating him as an abstraction. Thus Newton Arvin sees Bartleby as the "irreducibly irrational in human existence … the bitter metaphysical pathos of the human situation itself [Herman Melville], and Kingsley Widmer has called the story an expression of the "metaphysical inadequacy of the liberal rationalist," with Bartleby as the "forlorn negation and as the obsession of the benevolent rationalist's consciousness" ["The Negative Affirmation: Melville's 'Bartleby"']. Indeed, both may be right, but imagine...
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SOURCE: "The Alternatives of Melville's 'Bartleby'," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, September, 1976, pp. 170-87.
[In the following essay, Emery explores themes of freedom and limitation in "Bartleby," particularly emphasizing the doctrines of Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly.]
In recent years Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" has attracted its share of critics, many of whom have rightly proclaimed the tale to be an ingenious treatment of the theme of freedom and limitation. Nevertheless, two questions of preëminent importance remain unanswered: What is the precise nature of Bartleby's revolt? And how ought we to characterize the narrator's response to his mysterious clerk?
It seems to me that we can most easily answer these questions if we approach Melville's tale contextually. The Herman Melville of 1853 was, after all, hardly an illiterate sailor; and no small portion of his knowledge of philosophy, theology, and literature appears to have gone into the making of "Bartleby." If we disregard this knowledge and slight the tale's intellectual roots, we shall inevitably miss much of the author's meaning; in fact, however diligently we may examine the story's surface, we shall continue, I think, to muddle through "Bartleby" as readers and to lapse into an embarrassing vagueness as critics. To be sure, a handful of scholars have endeavored to explore the...
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SOURCE: "'Bartleby' and the Fragile Pageantry of the Ego," in ELH, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 488-500.
[In the following essay, Abrams contrasts Bartleby's acceptance of his involuntary and subconscious motivation with the social and "willful hypocrisies" of the narrator.]
Probing the "mysterious" wellsprings of preference and motive, Melville observes in Pierre that "no mere mortal who has … gone down into himself will ever pretend that his slightest … act originates in his own defined identity." An innocuous but involuntary habit, for example, can sneak up on one unawares. Man's "texture," writes Melville, "is very porous, and things assumed upon the surface, at last strike in" and become his own; "insensibly" his mind is "disposed" to perform them. More importantly, the mind itself, with its peculiar tendencies and processes "independent of me" and yet "going on in me," subliminally orchestrates conscious intentions and deliberations from within. As Warrick Wadlington writes of the paradox of identity in Melville, the "motivating" tendencies in the psyche "are so far below … conscious will that when we are somehow made aware of them, they seem to constitute an alien being."
In the dream state, the "alien" orchestrations of this moi interieur, so fundamental to the unfolding of character in Melville's fiction, are perhaps most nakedly perceptible. For the...
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SOURCE: "The Literary Work: Herman Melville's 'Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street'," in Psychoanalysis and Literature: An Introduction, Nelson-Hall, 1981, pp. 85-96.
[Mollinger is an English scholar with extensive training in psychoanalysis. In the following excerpt, Mollinger considers "Bartleby" to be a portrayal of basic human, psychological needs, focusing especially on Melville's portrayal of oral fixations.]
In Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" Bartleby's lack of motivation to work, his employer's motivation for putting up with him, the imagery, and even the actual subject of the story have yet to be fully clarified. The characters have been seen either as doubles of each other or as opposites, while the theme has been looked at from a social perspective or related to the biography of the author. A study of the story's imagery clarifies both the personalities of the characters and the theme. The characters' personal and interpersonal dynamics show us the subject of the story which is a unified literary work displaying a complex intertwining of theme, character, and imagery.
To eat or not to eat is the question which reverberates throughout the story and in the minds of the characters. "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a feast of food in which all the characters partake. Smelling of eating-houses and spending his money on drink, the lawyer's old...
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SOURCE: "'Ah, Humanity': Compulsion Neuroses in Melville's 'Bartleby'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 407-15.
[In the following essay, Perry contends that the character of Bartleby is not schizophrenic, but neurotic.]
Psychoanalytic critics of Melville's "Bartleby" have been remarkably consistent in their diagnoses of the enigmatic scrivener as schizophrenic. Along with the tale's nearsighted narrator, they have isolated Bartleby as a fascinating case study while overlooking the importance of his relationship to the other characters in the tale. The problem with such readings is that, in isolating Bartleby as a psychological aberration, these critics have missed Melville's broader concerns. As we begin on the assumption that Melville constructs a coherent tale in which each character must be understood in the context of the others, it becomes possible to see their common compulsion neuroses. This more inclusive perspective reveals that the tale's structure is based on a continuum of the ego defenses each character erects against its compulsions and obsessions. It is the helplessness of all of Melville's characters and their common confinement, in what Newton Arvin called a "cosmic madhouse," that turn the activities of a Wall-Street law office into a shattering vision of modern times.
Though terms associated with Freud's definition of the mind have been...
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Bebb, Bruce. "'Bartleby': An Annotated Checklist of Criticism." In Bartleby the Inscrutable: A Collection of Commentary on Herman Melville's Tale "Bartleby the Scrivener," edited by M. Thomas Inge, pp. 199-238. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979.
Catalogue of criticism organized chronologically by publication date.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." In A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville, pp. 19-78. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Overview of critical perspectives accompanied by an extensive list of essays and books about "Bartleby."
Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville. New York: Sloane, 1950, 316 p.
Study of Melville's life and career, with extensive critical discussions of his oeuvre.
Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. 2 vols. 1951. Reprint. New York: Gordian, 1969.
Thorough bibliography of Melville.
Mumford, Lewis. Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision. 1929. Revised. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962, 256 p.
Biographical and critical discussion of Melville and his oeuvre, particularly focusing on the philosophies embedded in Melville's writings.
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