Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The wealth of thematic possibilities in “Bartleby the Scrivener” has made it perhaps the most analyzed of all American short stories. Much of this analysis centers on the title character, who is seen as a forerunner of alienated modern man, as the victim of an indifferent society, as a nonconformist—perhaps even a heroic one—who becomes isolated simply for daring to assert his preferences. Another interpretation, built around Bartleby’s role as a writer of sorts, claims that Herman Melville’s story is a parable of the isolation of the artist in a materialistic society that not only is indifferent to its writers but also is bent on their destruction.
Such views, while having varying degrees of validity, ignore the fact that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is dominated by the sensibility of its narrator and his search for the truth, a search that is ironic because he is incapable of any objective understanding of Bartleby and his seemingly perverse preferences. Not Bartleby’s actions or passivity but the narrator’s responses to his copyist are what is important.
Early in the story, the lawyer describes himself as “an eminently safe man,” one “who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” He makes allowances for Turkey and Nippers because that is the easiest way to deal with them, but he is unable to understand why he cannot similarly control Bartleby....
(The entire section is 519 words.)
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One of the primary themes of the story involves the pressure toward conformity in American business life that inhibits the creative development of the individual. It is not coincidental that the story is set on Wall Street, which is the center of American financial and business affairs. By choosing legal scriveners as his subject, Melville emphasizes the intellectually stultifying atmosphere of the business world since scriveners create nothing of their own but instead mechanically copy the ideas and work of others. In fact, the lawyer is intially attracted to Bartelby because he seems to lack strong personality and independent will, making him seem like a model employee. Significantly, when Bartelby resists, he is either unable or unwilling to explain the reason for his discontent. Perhaps Bartelby's ability to think independently has been so damaged that he does not even have the words to express his own vague desires. In keeping with this theme, the lawyer himself fears nonconformity so much that he is moved to take action regarding Bartelby only when he hears that people are gossiping about his office arragements.
Freedom and Imprisonment
Related to the theme of individualism in "Bartleby the Scrivener" is the issue of freedom. Walls are pervasive in the story. Symbolically, the office is located on Wall Street, and the office's windows look out onto walls on all sides. Bartleby has a tendency to...
(The entire section is 711 words.)