Bartleby, the Scrivener Melville, Herman
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" Melville, Herman
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," first published in two installments on November 1 and December 1, 1853, in Putnam's Monthly Magazine. See also Benito Cereno Criticism, Billy Budd Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.
The account of a young man's inability to conform to life on Wall Street in the mid-nineteenth century, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is hailed by some scholars as the first modern American short story for its break with the moralizing, overt allegorizing, romantic characters, form, and other traits of earlier, traditional tales. More critical attention has been devoted to "Bartleby, the Scrivener" than any other short story by Melville, and the work's symbolic suggestiveness, thematic depth, and narrative ambiguity ensure its continuing appeal. Lea Bertani Vozar Newman has observed: "Whatever other chords 'Bartleby' may touch in the reader, the alienation that links this story to works by Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Camus attests to its modernity."
Plot and Major Characters
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" is narrated by a Wall Street lawyer who deals in investment opportunities for wealthy clients. A recent hire, Bartleby, works diligently at first copying legal documents but gradually begins to decline his responsibilities with the statement "I would prefer not to." Eventually Bartleby refrains from all copying and stares at the wall immediately outside of a window in the law office. Only when clients become affected by Bartleby's idiosyncratic and unnerving behavior does the lawyer take significant action, choosing to move his place of business to another building rather than fire Bartleby, who "would prefer not to" quit the lawyer's service; Bartleby refuses to vacate the 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 occupation prior to becoming a scrivener: Bartleby worked in the postal service's dead-letter office, where all lost, improperly addressed, or otherwise undeliverable mail ends.
Major ThemesOf "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Lewis Leary has stated: "Its charm resides in what Melville preferred not to reveal, so that no one key opens it to simple, or single, or precise meaning." Much of the story's complexity originates in the limited narrative perspective of the lawyer, who unintentionally reveals more about himself than he intends while relating the few facts known about Bartleby. As a result, differing and sometimes conflicting themes have been attributed to the story. Some interpretations focus on the lawyer, variously characterizing him as self-serving or well-meaning; Bartleby has been perceived as psychotic, comical, nihilistic, Christ-like, or devoid of a social persona. As well, Bartleby is commonly identified as the por-trait of a writer alienated by society for his refusal to "copy" the formula established by popular writers. Other commentators, focusing on the bleak mood and conclusion of the story, describe "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as a condemnation of capitalist society, a statement on the absurdity of life, or a disheartening existentialist commentary. Further intepretations present the story as a satire of specific historical individuals, a parable about failed Christian charity, a critique of contemporary philosophies, or a metaphor for the divided psyche of an individual; still another set of essays explicate "Bartleby, the Scrivener" in terms of Melville's other works.
Written in the wake of Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852), which were regarded as critical and popular failures during his lifetime, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is Melville's first published short story. Financially strapped by the poor reception of his earlier efforts, Melville began contributing stories and sketches through the mid-1850s to popular magazines as a source of steady income. His short fiction was on the whole favorably received but Melville died generally unknown and unappreciated. The novella Billy Budd, left in manuscript at his death, was not published until 1924. Its appearance, along with Raymond M. Weaver's 1921 biography Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic and other critical attention, led to a revival of interest in the Melville canon. Most commentators at this time emphasized the autobiographical element of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," contending that the author intended to depict an artist misunderstood by society. Another early and influential school of critics applied a psychological approach, diagnosing Bartleby as schizophrenic, manic depressive, autistic, or mad. The complex and subtle critical history of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is best encapsulated in essays by Lea Bertani Vozar Newman and Milton R. Stern.
SOURCE: "Melville's Parable of the Walls," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1953, pp. 602-27.
[Marx is an American educator and critic. In the following seminal essay, he examines the autobiographical aspect of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," focusing on the symbol of the walls and the depiction of the artist's situation in society]
25. Of a wall . . . : Unbroken, unrelieved by breaks or interruptions; absolutely uniform and continuous.
—New English Dictionary
In the spring of 1851, while still at work on Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote his celebrated "dollars damn me" letter to Hawthorne:
In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my "Whale" while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now—I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grassgrowing mood in which a man ought always to compose, —that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me. . . . My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, —I shall at last be worn out and perish. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, —it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.
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SOURCE: "Worldly Safety and Other-worldly Saviors," in The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology, Stanford University Press, 1963, pp. 126-52.
[Franklin is an American critic with a special interest in the work of Herman Melville. In the following excerpt, he interprets "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as a religious allegory, particularly emphasizing Christian and Hindu motifs in the story.]
There are essentially three ethics available to man—action in and of the world, action in the world for other-worldly reasons, and nonaction, that is, withdrawal from the world. We might call the extreme of the first the ethic of Wall Street, the extreme of the second the ethic of Christ, and the extreme of the third the ethic of the Eastern monk. Wall Street's ethic seeks the world as an end; Christ's ethic prescribes certain behavior in this world to get to a better world; the Eastern monk's ethic seeks to escape all worlds. "Bartleby" is a world in which these three ethics directly confront one another.
To read "Bartleby" well, we must first realize that we can never know who or what Bartleby is, but that we are continually asked to guess who or what he might be. We must see that he may be anything from a mere bit of human flotsam to a conscious and forceful rejecter of the world to an incarnation of God. When we see the first possibility we realize the full pathos of the story; when we see the last...
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SOURCE: " 'Bartleby': Art and Social Commitment," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. XLIII, No. 1, January, 1964, pp. 87-98.
[Gardner was an American novelist, educator, and critic with a special interest in medieval literature. As a critic, he championed the moral function of literature. In the following essay, he analyzes the relationship of the individual to society as portrayed in "Bartleby, the Scrivener."]
In "Bartleby," man looks at man, artist looks at artist, and God looks at God. To understand that the narrator is at least as right as Bartleby, both on the surface and on symbolic levels, is to understand the remarkable interpenétration of form and content in the story. Most Melville readers have noticed that on one level, Bartleby can represent the honest artist: he is a "scrivener" who refuses to "copy," as Melville himself refused to copy—that is, as he refused to knock out more saleable South Seas romances. But if Bartleby is the artist, he is the artist manqué: his is a vision not of life but of death; "the man of silence," he creates nothing. A better kind of artist is the lawyer, who, having seen reality through Bartleby's eyes, has turned to literature. Nor is he the slick writer: "If I pleased," he says, "[I] could relate divers histories, at which goodnatured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep." That is, popular fiction. The phrase "If I pleased" is significant:...
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SOURCE: "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," in Prefaces to The Experience of Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979, pp. 74-8.
[A respected American critic and literary historian, Trilling was also an essayist, editor, novelist, and short story writer. His exploration of liberal arts theory and its implications for the conduct of life led Trilling to function not only as a literary critic, but also as a social commentator. In the following essay, which originally appeared in The Experience of Literature (1967), he describes Bartleby as an individual alienated by the capitalist spirit. ]
In a letter he wrote to Hawthorne in 1851, Melville, speaking of his friend in the third person, offered him this praise: "There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie. . . . " Melville was referring to Hawthorne's relation to the moral order of the universe as it is conventionally imagined, but his statement, which has become famous, is often read as Melville's own call to resist the conformity that society seeks to impose. It was taken in this way by one of the notable students of Melville, Richard Chase, who quotes it at the beginning of an account of Melville's attitude toward the American life of his time and goes on to say that "although Melville was not exclusively a...
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SOURCE: "Bartleby: Man and Metaphor," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. V, 1968, pp. 342-48.
[Firchow is an American critic. In the following essay, he examines the meaning and significance of the final paragraph of "Bartleby, the Scrivener. " ]
"Bartleby," as the anonymous narrator informs us at the very outset of Melville's story, is a brief account of that portion of the life of this strangest of all scriveners that the narrator has been privileged to see with his "own astonished eyes." Of other, more ordinary scriveners, he almost apologetically explains, he might have related "divers histories," or written even "the complete life." But not for Bartleby: for him "no materials exist" to compile a "full and satisfactory biography." The narrator terms this lack of information "an irreparable loss to literature," and the reader who has pored long over this enigmatic story is tempted to share his sentiments. For want of anything more definite, he must, however, accept the narrator's would-be explanation that Bartleby is simply "one of those beings" about whom very little can be known "except from original sources." He must content himself with viewing Bartleby through the eyes of the narrator alone, and reconcile himself to all the narrator's possible limitations, since "that" is, finally, all there is to be known about the mysterious copyist—with one exception, "one vague report" that the narrator...
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SOURCE: "The Problem of Symbolist Form in Melville's 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 31, 1970, pp. 345-58.
[Bigelow is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he proposes that the symbolism in "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is too rich to be reduced to a single, definitive meaning.]
One proffers another critique of Melville's "Bartleby" with some diffidence, feeling overawed by a recent bibliography of criticism of the story which contains 117 items and includes the names of the most formidable Melville scholars [Donald M. Fiene, "A Bibliography of Criticism of 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' " in Melville Annual 1965. A Symposium: "Bartleby the Scrivener, " edited by Howard P. Vincent, 1966]. The diversity of critical reaction to the story is striking. Some critics focus upon Bartleby, some upon the unnamed lawyer-narrator, some upon both. Some read the story as a parable of the thwarted artist, as Melville's non serviam to a hostile Philistine society; some read it as a study in abnormal psychology in which Bartleby, or the narrator, or both, are schizophrenic; some read it as a social satire, a bitter attack upon a society too much devoted to heartless commercialism; some read it theologically, as a parable of free will, moral responsibility, and judgment; some read it existentially, stressing Bartleby's Kafkaesque alienation in an absurd universe....
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SOURCE: " 'Bartleby the Scrivener': Language as Wall," in College Literature, Vol. II, No. 1, Winter 1975, pp. 17-27.
[Pinsker is an American scholar and poet, and the author of several books on contemporary American literature. He has a particular interest in American humor and is known for his own witty critical style. In the following essay, he interprets "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as a statement on the inability of language to fully circumscribe human experience.]
Melville's puzzling story "Bartleby the Scrivener" threatens to make scriveners of us all, endlessly writing those dead letters called literary criticism. Scholars with a biographical bent have pointed out the parallels between the disaffected Bartleby and his equally disaffected author. Both were professional scriveners; both "preferred" to withdraw. For others, the story is a study in the application of passive resistance, one a Gandhi might have read for aid and comfort. More recently attention has shifted from Bartleby to the lawyer who narrates Bartleby's tale and, in the process, attempts to understand him. I am convinced that looking an enigmatic figure like Bartleby in the eye is something akin to staring into a blank wall. And whatever else critics might be, they are not Supermen. One must come at a Bartleby from a safely oblique angle—by focusing on that "eminently safe man," the lawyernarrator, whose sensibilities are...
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SOURCE: " 'Bartleby' as Paradigm," in The Method of Melville's Short Fiction, Duke University Press, 1975, pp. 26-44.
[Bickley is an American educator and critic with a special interest in the work of Herman Melville and Joel Chandler Harris. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of "Bartleby, the Scrivener, " noting the influence of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne on the story's style, structure, and themes.]
Technique and biography cannot be kept entirely separate in examining "Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street" (Putnam's, Nov., Dec. 1853); Melville's shift to magazine-writing, however his earlier work may have prepared him for it, was largely precipitated by circumstances. Moby-Dick and Pierre had not done well, and Melville seemed to lack the psychic and aesthetic energy to write another novel. . . . In October  he was invited to contribute to Putnam's new magazine, and the possibility of earning income by the page seemed especially attractive. Then, in November, he visited Hawthorne and [the tentative plans for a story entitled "Agatha" came up in discussion]. Additionally, and this fact has not been given special attention, Melville acquired two volumes of Irving's works in June, 1853, just before he began writing "Bartleby."
Of these several circumstances, the most significant for my study is that two...
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SOURCE: "The 'Incurable Disorder' in 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," in Delta, England, Vol. 6, May, 1978, pp. 79-93.
[In the essay below, Joswick compares thematic aspects of "Bartleby the Scrivener" to those of Melville's controversial novel Pierre.]
"Pray leave me; who was ever cured by talk?"
Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man
"Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" was Melville's first publication following what the majority of contemporary reviewers considered his most disastrous and blasphemous novel. Because of that scathing critical condemnation of Pierre, which included suggestions of insanity about its author, many twentieth-century readers have tried to resolve the enigmas of "Bartleby" by finding in this remarkable story a bitter commentary on Melville's fate as a writer in America. Such readings usually seek to identify Melville's career, or his estimate of it, with Bartleby's, arguing that Bartleby's occupation, and the rewards he received from it, are a sarcastic parody of the literary trials and compensations Melville endured and received for Pierre. While these interpretations do acknowledge that "Bartleby" is a response to Pierre, even a response directed toward a literary situation, their biographical bias nonetheless tends to obscure what interesting correlations the...
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SOURCE: "Bartleby & Schizophrenia," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol XIX, No. 3, Autumn, 1978, pp. 555-68.
History and Development of Symptoms. The patient, a young apprentice in Chartered Accountancy, was admitted to hospital in January 1958, at the age of 23 years. . . . On leaving school at 17 he embarked on a career of his own choosing, that of chartered accountancy with a City firm. For the first five years his performance was beyond reproach. . . .
. . . The initial change was a general slowing up and impairment in efficiency in carrying out all his usual activities, both at work in the office and at home. . . .
. . . When setting out for work. . . he began to stop and stand still at street corners, aimlessly looking about for 5-10 min. A few weeks later, he stopped going to work altogether, and thereafter, for a period of one year, he remained at home and did not leave the house except on one occasion for a few hours only. . . .
He preferred to stay up very late at nights. . . . In general he preferred to remain upright and would each day stand rigidly in the same spot for periods varying from 1 to 3 hours. . . .
. . . Movement by the patient was associated with visual perceptual distortion of the environment which he described at various times as "a flatness," "a flat streak of colour," "a...
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SOURCE: "Towards 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," in The Stoic Strain in American Literature, edited by Duane J. MacMillan, University of Toronto Press, 1979, pp. 19-41.
[Stern is an American critic. In the following excerpt, he assesses critical perspectives on "Bartleby, the Scrivener." ]
When Ishmael asserted that the changefulness of life 'requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it,' he was offering a jocular way to handle the shock and horror that accompany the discovery of our human oneness in our common, mortal victimization by the conditions of life. 'Bartleby the Scrivener' is a tale of that discovery, not by seafarers in the vastness of natural force and space, but by landlubbers in claustral immurement.
Some critics are tempted to find stoic heroism in the pallid law-office clerk and to dismiss the lawyer-narrator as merely a wicked victimizer. Other critics more wisely sense a more complex connection between the two men. When I follow the lead offered by a view of Bartleby as stoic hero, I find that treating the tale as an example of Bartleby's stoicism results in oversimplifications and dead ends that do not account for tone and imagery. The insistence on stoicism is negatively useful because it leads to the conclusion that Melville was playing with other, deeper aspects of victimization than grinning and bearing it. Attempts to heroize...
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SOURCE: " 'Bartleby the Scrivener': A Simple Reading," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 143-51.
[In the following essay, Murphy contends that "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is a metaphorical story about the inner life of one individual, the lawyer. ]
It is a fact not generally acknowledged that "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is a story with only one character—the lawyer who tells it. Bartleby is simply an aspect of The Lawyer's character, long suppressed. Ginger Nut, Nippers, and Turkey are other facets of his personality or stages in his career. Even personages with "walk-on" parts like The Grubman, The Turnkey, and The Landlord are not separate characters, but parts of The Lawyer.
The lawyer is a lawyer, of course, but it might be possible to see him as The Writer or The Successful Popular Writer. Certainly some critics have seen him as that, and Bartleby as the serious but less successful writer like Melville himself. No doubt other occupations, though not all, might be read in for The Lawyer. Full Profesor, for example, whose bartlepart would prefer not to teach Freshman Composition with its endless checking of copy. But the author has chosen a lawyer and has given him a local habitation if not a name.
The namelessness is important; it has been noticed, but its significance has not been much dwelt upon. The lawyer may not be exactly...
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SOURCE: "Up Wall Street towards Broadway: The Narrator's Pilgrimage in Melville's 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1987, pp. 263-70.
[In the following essay, Forst contends that "Bartleby, the Scrivener" records a spiritual awakening undergone by the narrator. ]
"No materials exist," says Bartleby's worldly employer, for "a full and satisfactory biography of this man."
For nothing is ever "ascertainable" about such men, except what our own "astonished eyes" tell us. Perhaps such men hardly "exist" except deep in our mythic imaginations where, as archetypes, they rest, until their presence is urged forth by the call of touching, sympathetic imaginations, Coleridge's, Melville's, Conrad's. Or the writers of Isaiah, or the Gospels.
But the surprising thing is not that we should discover such a mythic presence in this character—after all, we've met Ahab and Billy Budd. The surprising thing is that it should be recognized by an elderly, conservative, "eminently safe" prudent, methodical attorney-at-law, whose vision has been long dimmed by unambition and the dolor of pencils and dust in his walled-in quarters in New York's financial district. Exactly what "materials" are missing? Do not the parts make up the whole? Has not everyone by the mid-nineteenth century caught the spirit of Positivism and Scientism?...
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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.
Descriptive catalogue of criticism organized chronologically by publication date.
Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." In her A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville, pp. 19-78. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.
Extended overview of critical perspectives on "Bartleby, the Scrivener," accompanied by a comprehensive list of essays and books containing interpretations of the story. The bibliography is organized alphabetically by critic name.
Abcarian, Richard. "The World of Love and the Spheres of Fright: Melville's 'Bartleby the Scrivener.' " Studies in Short Fiction 1, No. 3 (Spring 1964): 207-15.
Studies the development of the relationship of the lawyer to Bartleby in order to reveal the lawyer's growing realization that he is symbolically linked with Bartleby, whose condition represents the human condition.
Abrams, Robert E. " 'Bartleby' and the Fragile Pageantry of the Ego." ELH 45, No. 3 (Fall 1978): 488-500.
Argues that the mystery of the self is evidenced...
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