In Bartleby the Scrivener, how does the lawyer's description of himself serve to characterize him? Why is it significant that he is a lawyer?

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At the beginning of the story, the lawyer describes himself as an older man and a person who has sought an easy path through life, although also one that makes him a good deal of money. He uses as a character reference the approval he received from the late—and extraordinarily...

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At the beginning of the story, the lawyer describes himself as an older man and a person who has sought an easy path through life, although also one that makes him a good deal of money. He uses as a character reference the approval he received from the late—and extraordinarily wealthy—John Jacob Astor for his lawyerly "prudence." The lawyer writes of himself:

I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

The lawyer inspires trust, he works among the wealthy, he supports the status quo, and his clients feel safe with him. This characterizes him as an orthodox person who is a foil or opposite to Bartleby, a man who profoundly challenges the economic system in his "I prefer not to" refusal to work. The lawyer is stretched and challenged by the presence of Bartleby in his life.

The lawyer downplays his own compassion and humanity toward Bartleby in tolerating him as an office "fixture" as long as he does rather than having him carted off immediately by the police. The lawyer gives Bartleby a tremendous amount of leeway. Even after Bartleby is gone, the lawyer continues to take an interest in him, treating him as more than merely an employee who refused to cooperate.

The lawyer's work and training are significant because his profession relies on curiosity as well as investigation. It is also a line of work based on logic and rationalism. Thus it makes sense that the lawyer would discover a possible logical explanation for Bartleby's disillusion in his work in the Dead Letter Office.

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It's important that the lawyer provides us with some background information about himself, as otherwise we might not believe his remarkable story. After all, the tale of Bartleby is a most unusual one. It isn't every day that a humble clerk—or anyone else, for that matter—just gives up the ghost and sits still, refusing to move or do anything. So we need to be sure that the person telling us this unlikely story is someone we can trust and believe.

Putting aside the inherent distrust that many people have for lawyers, this particular member of the legal profession appears to be on the level. This is because, as he starts off by telling us, he's an elderly man, someone who's been working as a lawyer for the last thirty years. This particular fact gives his strange story added credibility, as one senses that a professional man with such a long, distinguished career wouldn't want to damage his hard-earned reputation by spinning an elaborate hoax.

The more information the elderly lawyer provides about himself, his professional background, and all the many scriveners he's worked with over the years, the more likely we are to believe him. There's so much detail in his account, much of which can be independently verified, that it's unlikely in the extreme that he's putting us on, however remarkable the events of the story may be.

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The lawyer in "Bartleby the Scrivener" is one of the two main characters in this story. He reveals himself in the first few paragraphs to be someone who believes "that the easiest way of life is the best." He describes himself as "unambitious," not a trial-lawyer but a specialist in "rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." He states that "All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man." His determination to live with as little fuss or emotional upheaval as possible will be reflected in his passivity toward Bartleby as the story progresses.

It is significant that he is a lawyer, because lawyers deal in facts and are required to be dispassionate about them. If anyone should be able to give facts about the action that follows, it should be the lawyer. If anyone should be aware of his own prejudices, it should be a lawyer. But this lawyer reveals himself to be a mass of prejudices and "preferences" about how his life should be free of "drama" or trouble of any kind. His being a lawyer and the setting being Wall Street, help situate this story as an ironic piece of fiction.

 

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The lawyer’s description of himself at the start of “Bartleby” serves several purposes. As the first person narrator of the story, the lawyer needs to establish his credibility, first and foremost; because he has practiced law for forty years, he has worked with a great many copyists, so his claim that Bartleby is the “strangest” scrivener he ever knew has some validity. There is also a kind of smug superiority in the lawyer’s description of his “snug business” in bonds and mortgages, his reputation as a “safe” man, and his connection to John Jacob Astor. It’s as if his lack of professional ambition makes him more trustworthy than other lawyers. As readers, we should believe him.

However, our reaction, as readers, to his description of himself perhaps is not exactly what he might wish. He writes like a lawyer; there is a certain carefulness and circumlocution to the way he describes himself. Take, for example, this transitional paragraph: “Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employées, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.” His style is ponderous in the way of legal documents; there is a certain contrast between this sort of style and the promised amazing story of Bartleby. It might be a good story, but our narrator doesn’t seem to be a very exciting storyteller.

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It characterizes him first as an authority, by establishing how long he's been in the profession and how many scriveners he's seen. It establishes him second as a different kind of authority. That is to say, he says he's the kind of lawyer who does not appear in court. Therefore, while learned and experienced, he is not given to ego. This report is, in its way, research rather than drama.

Third, it shows he has self-knowledge and a kind of cynical humility. This can be seen when he refers to how much he prefers an easy life.
And finally, his statement that he likes safety will make Bartleby's actions all the more impressive.
Greg

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