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

Herman Melville

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Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights


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


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.


  • 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.


  • 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.