"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street" is a darkly comic short story that satirizes the nature of work and its role in ascribing meaning to our lives. The comedy in the story also raises questions about the extent to which human beings have a moral obligation to assume responsibility...
"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street" is a darkly comic short story that satirizes the nature of work and its role in ascribing meaning to our lives. The comedy in the story also raises questions about the extent to which human beings have a moral obligation to assume responsibility for and care for their fellow humans.
First, "Bartleby" is funny because of Bartleby's responses to his employer's requests. Whenever his boss asks him to take on a new task or simply to spend some time chatting with him or with his coworkers, Bartleby replies that he would prefer not to. His refusals are unexpected and inappropriate, but they are also delivered in a calm, matter-of-fact way. The contrast between the expected response to one's boss and Bartleby's response is humorous. This humor makes a mockery of the Wall Street law firm—generally a workplace that is viewed as a high-powered place full of ambitious young clerks. By refusing to do more than the simple copying task for which he was hired, Bartleby forces the reader to question what the scope of one's employment should be, how much control an employer can assert over your life, and how much the workplace should dictate behavior. Bartleby exposes his work as basically meaningless—something he can choose to do or not do, with little immediate impact on his life or anyone else's. The emptiness of white-collar work and of the Wall Street workplace is underscored by Bartleby's preference to stare at a blank brick wall instead of doing his work.
Second, "Bartleby" is funny because of the lawyer's reaction to Bartleby and to his other employees. The lawyer is painstaking in giving his worst employees the benefit of the doubt, even when it is clear that they are taking advantage of him (for instance, when Bartleby starts to refuse even copyist work, or when Turkey returns from lunch drunk every afternoon). The lawyer clearly sees himself as a humanitarian, but no one has asked him to assume this role. He creates far-fetched explanations for his employees' shortcomings (such as believing Bartleby was going blind when he started to refuse copying tasks) and refuses to fire or even evict them when they are of no more use to his law firm. The lawyer's over-the-top protectiveness of his employees is humorous, but also thought-provoking. It causes the reader to question the extent to which the lawyer is responsible for Bartleby and the other employees, and the extent to which we are obligated to and capable of taking responsibility for our fellow humans. The ultimate futility of the lawyer's efforts forms a darkly comic contrast to his good intentions and constant effort to understand and care for his employees.