In "Bartleby the Scrivner," how does Bartleby's story relate to or comment on urban centers and community?

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sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Herman Melville was well known for being disenchanted with city life, and with New York in particular.  Slowly, the agricultural life of Americans was changing, to be replaced by migration to the crowded and dirty cities, where jobs were more abundant.  In a place so diverse, individuals were easily lost to the crowd and to the standards of society.  The community life that was so central to rural survival had little place in urban centers.  Cities were machines, and  humans were simply cogs in the wheel of that machine.

Bartleby is a personification of the machine.  Caught up in the life of the city, he does what is expected of him and has no life beyond the job.  He does not belong to a community.  The city strips him of his humanity and identifies him by his title: a Scrivener.  His co-workers are also dehumanized by Mellville, being identified by behavioral traits/actions (Ginger Nut, Turkey,  Nippers) or not being identified at all (the narrator).  The only sense of community these seem to have is the office space that they share, but it is not communal in a humanitarian sense.  The workers do not "help" each other; indeed, the narrator continues to comment how strange his own behavior is when he decides to help Bartleby.

Melville is strongly denouncing city life in the mid-19th century through the use of Bartleby the character and the story.

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