Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street eText - Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

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Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

Theme

Because “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is constructed as it is, numerous themes emerge; the ambiguity of Melville's writing allows for different interpretations.

Setting/Tone

The description of the physical condition of the workplace mirrors the emptiness and barrenness of Bartleby's personality and life, which ultimately supports Melville's view about the business world.

Symbols

  • Bartleby the scrivener represents the universal man lost in daily, boring, and repetitious work.

  • The Tombs (prison) is the place where each man ultimately goes to endure unalleviated boredom, then death.

  • The Dead Letters stand for the dead people who did not receive their letters. The narrator implies that Bartleby's work had such a strong influence on him that gradually he withdraws from life.

Motifs

  • Death and dying – Melville scatters specific words throughout the narrative to give a somber, serious, and even morbid atmosphere to the story.

  • Food – Food ties much of the story together, beginning with the names of the lawyer's two other scriveners, Turkey and Ginger Nut.

  • Passive resistance – Bartleby never strongly opposes his employer; the scrivener's reluctance is more subtle.

Unique Elements in Melville's Story

  • Bartleby acts from his heart or emotions rather than from a logical mind.

  • Bartleby is a flat character throughout the story; however, the nameless lawyer is dynamic.

  • Melville presents two minor characters as the opposites of each other. They appear to be more caricatures than real people, giving almost brief comic relief to the story.

  • Note how the narrator creates sympathy for Bartleby when each minute detail about him is disclosed.

  • The lawyer's final comment “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” equates the scrivener to the universal. He is not merely Bartleby, but all of humankind.