Bartleby the Scrivener (Magill Book Reviews)
On his third day as scrivener for a lawyer on Wall Street, Bartleby tells his employer that he “prefers not to” copy any more legal documents. This enigmatic response becomes the scrivener’s constant reply to further requests for copy work.
While Bartleby’s passive resistance toward work angers the lawyer, it also arouses his pity. The scrivener is given six days to leave his job, but he prefers not to leave. Distraught with emotion for this “wreck in the mid Atlantic,” the lawyer asks Bartleby to move in with him. This request does not meet the scrivener’s preference.
The lawyer finally decides to rid himself of Bartleby. He moves his business to an address unknown to the scrivener. The lawyer later learns that Bartleby, refusing to leave his previous “home,” has been declared a vagrant and sent to prison. Here, Bartleby is further surrounded by walls. He responds by choosing not to eat his rations.
Bartleby represents Melville’s concept of man’s existence. Placed in a world with societal expectations, the man who prefers not to conform may retreat into his own “Walden Pond.” However, Bartleby, the former dead-letter office clerk, chooses not to protect himself from those who label him a threat to their materially oriented world.
Similar to Thoreau, who does not escape the tax collector at Walden, Bartleby pays a dear price for his individual preference.
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Wall imagery dominates this “story of Wall Street.” The narrator describes the location of his chambers in detail. At one end is seen the white wall of a large skylight shaft: “This view might have been considered . . . deficient in what landscape painters call ’life.’” At the other end is an ugly brick wall, blackened by age, ten feet from the window. Bartleby’s desk is inside the lawyer’s office, so that he can be within easy call, but is in a corner by a small window, which “commanded at present no view at all” because another wall is three feet from the panes. Bartleby stares at this wall when he prefers not to work. He is separated from his fellow copyists by a ground-glass door and is isolated from his employer, “a satisfactory arrangement,” by a high, green folding screen, suggesting the lawyer’s monetary obsession. Thus, there are walls within walls within walls within Wall Street.
The impossibility of the absence of walls is emphasized when Bartleby is removed to the Tombs, where he ignores the limited space in the exercise yard, choosing to stand beside the exterior wall, which both keeps him and protects him from society. He dies there curled into the fetal position (suggesting a possible tomb-womb pun), as if he could return to a state of innocence only in death.
These walls represent more than mere isolation; they are barriers to communication, to understanding, especially in a story told by a man who...
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The Triumph of Capitalism
At the time Melville wrote ''Bartleby the Scrivener,'' New York City was firmly entrenched as the financial center of the United States's economy. It had been the nation's leading port during the colonial era, and by the mid-nineteenth century, New York overflowed with banks, credit institutions, insurance companies, brokerage houses, and a thriving stock exchange—all of which put its business community at the forefront of the ''organizational revolution" in American economic institutions. By the 1850s, the development of capitalism in New York had matured to the extent that open conflict emerged between wage laborers and capitalists in the form of strikes and street violence. As early as the 1830s, artisans and skilled workers formed trade unions to resist the methods of factory production and wage labor. These craftspeople resented being run out of business by rich capitalists who undercut their trade by selling cheap, mass-produced goods. In addition, wage workers lamented the disappearance of the old relationship between master craftsmen and apprentices. Before the advent of factory production, most skilled workers learned their trade under a master craftsman, who usually took them in and paid for their room, board, and education. This close bond between employer and employee became defunct when machine-oriented factory production eliminated the need for skilled workers, requiring instead a large supply of hourly paid,...
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The setting of "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a crucial element in the story because it underscores Melville's concern about the effects of capitalism on American society. Significantly, the story is set on Wall Street in New York City, which had become the center of American financial and business life by the 1850s. The values of Wall Street are central to the story. The lawyer, who serves as the narrator, has an unabashed reverence for "the late John Jacob Astor," who was regarded as the most successful businessman of his time. The lawyer also reflects the values of Wall Street in his concern over such relatively superficial aspects of his employees as their appearance and dress. The work-oriented atmosphere of the office is devoid of friendliness and a sense of community. Indeed, the environment of Wall Street itself, Melville points out, is so business-oriented that after working hours it is reduced to an empty space ''entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations." Melville's descriptions of Wall Street convey a cold and alienating setting where the forging of close human ties is difficult.
Point of View
Melville's use of an unreliable narrator is the stylistic technique most remarked upon by literary scholars who have examined "Bartleby the Scrivener." By relating the narrative from the lawyer's point of view, Melville adds a level of complexity to the story that greatly enhances the number of ways it can be...
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Compare and Contrast
1850s: Conflicts between labor and management are not uncommon. The U.S. economy is growing rapidly, largely at the expense of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. Unions are beginning to form on the national level. Local unions also gain more power and represent workers from a variety of crafts and trades. During this period of development, labor organizers begin to make distinctions between skilled and unskilled workers.
1990s: Though not as powerful as they were in previous decades, labor unions continue to exert their power in order to improve working conditions and wages for their members. In 1997, United Parcel Service (UPS) goes on strike and cripples many other industries that rely on UPS for delivery of their products. Teamsters President Ron Carey describes the stake's settlement as "a victory over corporate greed."
1850s: The narrator states that Ginger Nut, the office boy, earns one dollar a week. Wages during this time are quite low. In 1860, the average fanner makes 88 cents per day and works 66 hours a week.
1990s: While the position of law copyist held by Bartleby, Turkey, and Nippers no longer exists, similar modern professions include legal secretaries and paralegals. A legal secretary helps prepare legal documents for lawyers and earns between $16,400 and $36,000 a year. Paralegals do much of the background work for lawyers, including legal research, and earn between $14,000 and...
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Topics for Further Study
Because of Bartleby's obvious maladjustment to society, many critics have used the character as a case study for psychoanalysis. How would you diagnose Bartleby's behavior? How would you diagnose the behavior of the lawyer?
Investigate the social conditions of New York City during the 1850s. How did class conflict play a role in the day-to-day life of most New Yorkers? What were conditions like for office workers on Wall Street?
Melville is considered by many to be a deeply philosophical novelist. Using the story of "Bartleby the Scrivener," examine Melville's attitude toward one of the following philosophical movements: the Enlightenment, transcendentalism, Romanticism, idealism, nihilism.
Research attitudes about conformity in American business life by relying on sociological studies or literary works. How have such attitudes changed over time?
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Bartleby is a 1970 film adaptation of Melville's story starring Paul Scofield, John McEnery, Thorly Walters, and Colm Jeavons, and directed by Anthony Friedman. The film was produced by Pantheon, distributed by British Lion, and is 78 minutes.
The film A Discussion of Herman Melville's Bartleby was produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corp. in 1969, and accompanies the film Bartleby by Herman Melville, produced by the company that same year.
Bartleby, a motion picture by AudioVisual Services, 1962, is also based on Melville's story.
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is available on audio-cassette read by Milton R. Stern as part of the Everett Edwards 1971 series, 19th-century American Writers. 39 minutes.
A filmstrip and cassette of "Bartleby the Scrivener" was produced by PrenticeHall Media in 1977.
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What Do I Read Next?
Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Celestial Railroad" (1843) is a nineteenth-century retelling of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Hawthorne parodies Americans' self-confident belief in progress without moral consequences. Hawthorne's work had a significant influence on Herman Melville and dealt with many similar themes.
Melville's 1855 story "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids" takes another look at the social effects of capitalism, emphasizing shifting gender roles. Melville's repulsion toward the New England paper factories is explicit, and his descriptions of dehumanized factory workers can be compared to his descriptions of Bartleby.
Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities concerns greed and moral corruption on Wall Street in the prosperous 1980s. In recounting the protagonist's downfall, Wolfe examines the class structure and justice system of New York City.
Melville's 1857 novel The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade explores the psychological and philosophical aspects of human relations in a heterogeneous, capitalist society. Like "Bartleby," this highly experimental work presents numerous difficulties to the reader but remains a powerful meditation on American society in the 1850s.
Karen Halttunen's historical study Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870, examines the fears of middle-class Americans about the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Marx, Leo, "Melville's Parable of the Wall," The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXI, No. 4, Autumn, 1953, pp. 102-27.
Mitchell, Thomas R., "Dead Letters and Dead Men: Narrative Purpose in 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 329-38.
Fisher, Marvin, "'Bartleby,' Melville's Circumscribed Scrivener," The Southern Review, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 59-79.
Fisher surveys several critical interpretations of "Bartleby" and concludes that Bartleby is intended to represent humankind generally.
Kaplan, Morton, and Kloss, Robert, "Fantasy of Passivity: Melville's 'Bartleby the Scrivener'," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psycho-analytic Literary Criticism, Free Press, 1973, pp. 63-79.
This article diagnoses Bartleby as a manic depressive and insists that the lawyer's passivity is a neurotic attempt to repress aggressive and violent impulses.
Kuebnch, David, ''Melville's Doctrine of Assumptions: The Hidden Ideology of Capitalist Production in 'Bartleby,'" The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXDC, No. 3, September, 1996, pp. 381-405.
This article argues that "Bartleby" is about class conflict and demonstrates the false ideology of the capitalist classim New York in the 1850s.
Morgan, Winifred, "Bartleby and the Failure of Conventional Virtue," in Renascence, Vol. LXTX,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Branch, Watson G., ed. Melville: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Davey, Michael J., ed. A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” New York: Routledge, 2004.
Dryden, Edgar A. Monumental Melville: The Formation of a Literary Career. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking Press, 2000.
Heflin, Wilson L. Herman Melville’s Whaling Years. Edited by Mary K. Bercaw Edwards and Thomas Farel Heffernan. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.
Higgins, Brian, and Hershel Parker, eds. Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. Understanding Melville’s Short Fiction: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Levine, Robert S., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography—Volume 1, 1819-1851....
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