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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville
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What kind of self-portrait does Melville paint in “Bartleby the Scrivener”? Is he laughing at his failures? Lashing out at a society that doesn't get his desire to be original? Mocking his own foolishness in believing he could be well-received in this kind of society? Or does he use Bartleby to vent his own desires to give up on life, to prefer not to even live?

“Bartleby the Scrivener” may be analyzed as a self-portrait of Melville by addressing similarities between various characters and the author. The setting and context of the story also shed light on Melville’s beliefs about the negative effects of nineteenth-century American capitalist society on ordinary people and on human creativity.

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In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” author Herman Melville draws effective portraits of an array of characters, especially the first-person narrator, who is a lawyer, and a hapless scrivener who works for him. While the title suggests that the story is about the clerk, Melville’s decision to make the lawyer the narrator...

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In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” author Herman Melville draws effective portraits of an array of characters, especially the first-person narrator, who is a lawyer, and a hapless scrivener who works for him. While the title suggests that the story is about the clerk, Melville’s decision to make the lawyer the narrator allows him to present a man who lacks true empathy and self-awareness but prides himself in possessing ample amounts of both qualities. Because the reader meets Bartleby only through the attorney’s eyes, it never becomes clear exactly what motivates Bartleby to “prefer not to” follow his boss’s orders. Furthermore, the reader may question the lawyer’s reluctance to take more decisive action, as he flees and leaves it to the landlord to remove the unmanageable clerk.

Through interpreting similarities and differences between these two main characters, one could analyze the story as a self-portrait of Melville. The lawyer is telling the story from the perspective of old age, as he reminisces about his early years on Wall Street. This historical context also informs the ways that Melville may situate himself within the workings of American capitalism of previous decades. As a teenager, Melville himself had worked as a bank clerk, and his experience convinced him not to continue working in business. A strong contrast between Melville and Bartleby is, of course, that the scrivener died young and in prison. Melville, like the lawyer, has survived. The limited success of his novels had discouraged him, yet he continued to write.

When it seems that the lawyer has concluded his tale, recounting how he found Bartleby dead in the prison yard, he provides a bit more information about the scrivener’s work life prior to beginning employment with the lawyer: he had been a clerk in a “dead letter” office. This occupation, as the lawyer describes it, may provide the closest link to Melville’s view of himself. As a writer, his vocation involves handling papers and thinking about people who “died despairing; … unhoping; [or] stifled by unrelieved calamities.”

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