I am reading "Bartleby the Scivener" by Herman Melville and would like to know if the lawyer is really dealing with Bartleby fairly.

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kwoo1213 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a good discussion board question.

In ways, I think the narrator is doing the best he can under the circumstances he is in.  He DOES try to help Bartleby by giving him money, making sure he gets food when he is in prison (he tries to make sure, but Bartleby simply won't eat), allowing him to stay in the old office despite having moved to a new one, etc.  The narrator feels his hands are tied.  He worries about his reputation and is rather vain in that regard, but at the same time, he tries to help Bartleby.  He even offers to let Bartleby come live with him.  When he declines, the narrator feels he can do no more.

When someone is trying to help another person, he/she can only do so much.  One cannot force another person to do something if he/she doesn't want to do it.  Bartleby is reclusive and uncooperative in that regard and won't open up to the narrator.  The narrator feels he has tried all he can and gives up.  Bartleby is imprisoned a short time later:

The lawyer returns to the prison a few days later and finds Bartleby lying dead in the prison courtyard. Apparently having starved himself to death, Bartleby's withered body is found curled up, eyes open, facing the prison wall. To conclude his tale, the lawyer offers the reader a vague rumor about Bartleby as a possible explanation of his behavior. This famous passage concludes the story: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" (eNotes)

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All the characters, including the narrator, have their personal short comings. The narrator makes the shortcomings of his employees clear to the reader but his own shortcomings aren't addressed in the same manner. His major flaw is that in his lack of ambition and desire for "cool quiet" retreat, he is inept at creating an efficient environment for himself or others around him. On the one hand, his generosity and tolerance are just that, generosity and tolerance, which are virtues. On the other hand, these traits allow others to be their worst and to take advantage of themselves by indulging their own weaknesses and foibles and of other people, in particular the narrator by taking advantage of his weakness and foibles. Then enters Bartleby who carries this to such an extreme that he breaks the law (there is no law that allows for setting up home in your employer's office nor one to allow you to decline another person's property). This forces the narrator to act drastically and propels Bartleby to the end of the tale.

alexb2 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I wonder how else the lawyer could possibly deal with Bartleby, given the constraints he is under. He has a role in society, and a role as a lawyer which informs the way he sees Bartleby and the way he is able to relate to him. In other words, he's not a friend, or a family member-- he's just a lawyer and as such can only do so much. I think that's part of what this story is getting at, that people are only able to view reality through the roles of what is 'normal' which makes it impossible to understand or deal with Bartleby, who has rejected... everything.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You know, the standard of "fair" is pretty nebulous.  If it's fair to overlook Bartleby's flaws just as he overlooks Turkey's and Nippers's flaws, then he is fair.  If allowing Bartleby to live in the office and bringing him food once he's in prison is more than fair, then the lawyer is fair.  Perhaps a better question is whether the lawyer is cruel or kind, or even should he have given Bartleby so much leeway--both in his work and his personal life.  In terms of fairness, he was certainly, at the least, fair.

dieu | Student

Well, you have a couple of Melville sites that have parlayed Melville’s “Bartleby” into an indictment of the capitalist system; turning the “Narrator” into Satan and “Bartleby” into the Messiah or poster boy for socialism.


It is impossible to decipher Melville’s personal hang-ups. Very well, Melville’s “Bartleby” story could be an attack or his disapproval of his brother’s profession. It is my understanding that Melville’s brother was an attorney practicing law on Broadway.

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