Does Bartleby symbolize the alienation of modern life?

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One could certainly argue that the titular character in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street” is representative of the alienation of modern life.

Bartleby works himself incessantly in order to avoid the depressive spirit that pervades his thoughts. This is evident in his ability to produce high-quality, abundant work when the narrator first hires him. However, soon Bartleby can not overcome his inner malaise, instead spending hours staring aimlessly out the window.

On the other hand, one could argue that Bartleby’s work is what depresses him. The narrator certainly seems to think so; when he hears the rumor that Bartleby used to work in a dead letter office, he reasons that this is what drove Bartleby deeper into depression.

Either way, Bartleby performs monotonous, meaningless work, which reflects the monotony of modern life within the business-driven, efficiency-prizing society in which Bartleby lives. While others are able to handle the soulless nature of the work Bartleby completes, Bartleby is not, because it makes him feel more hollow.

However, the narrator seems to care for Bartleby, and he is willing to move his business in order to let Bartleby continue living in the building. Furthermore, he arranges for Bartleby to receive extra food rations when he is imprisoned. This shows that the narrator truly worries about Bartleby’s well-being.

Therefore, Bartleby is alienated because of his own choice. Rather than opening himself up to the compassion and connection his former employer offers, Bartleby allows himself to waste away alone. This suggests that despite the presence of people who care, the individual in a modern world still feels psychologically isolated.

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