What in the world is this story about? What is wrong with Bartleby? Is he lazy or crazy?

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Bartleby is neither lazy nor crazy. We are led to believe (though the lawyer stresses that he doesn't know with certainty) that Bartleby suffers from despair.

He starts off in his job as a hard worker who impresses his new boss, the lawyer. Then he decides that he would "prefer...

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Bartleby is neither lazy nor crazy. We are led to believe (though the lawyer stresses that he doesn't know with certainty) that Bartleby suffers from despair.

He starts off in his job as a hard worker who impresses his new boss, the lawyer. Then he decides that he would "prefer not to" work. He simply looks out of his window all day at the blank wall a few feet away.

The lawyer, luckily for Bartleby, is compassionate, as he puts up with his employee doing no work, though he finally moves offices to try to get rid of him. In the end, the lawyer finds Bartleby in the appropriately-named Tombs, a prison, where he refuses to eat and dies.

Later, the lawyer hears that Bartleby once worked in the dead letter office in Washington D. C. This was where all the letters that never arrived at their destinations went to be dealt with and discarded. This constant reminder of the failure and futility of human attempts to communicate and connect filled Bartleby with hopelessness, the lawyer surmises. Eventually, the sense of despair at the meaninglessness of life caused Bartleby to shut down.

Melville goes to pains to show that this is a choice Bartleby makes to exert control over his life. His repeated phrase "I prefer not to" emphasizes that he is taking charge of his destiny, lending him dignity. He is not a victim but an agent of his demise.

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On the face of it, it does appear that Bartleby is crazy. After all, his behavior would seem to suggest that something's seriously wrong with him. There can't be too many cases of someone acting in the same way. Not even the most experienced psychologist would be likely to come across something like this.

And yet, one could just as easily argue that Bartleby is not crazy at all, that he's in full control of his faculties. He's simply given up the ghost; he doesn't want to be a part of this world anymore—a world he no longer really understands and which doesn't understand him.

In this day and age, it's relatively common for people to drop out of mainstream society and adopt different lifestyles. But in Bartleby's day it was virtually unheard of. That's why his behavior appears so strange. If he were living today, Bartleby would probably just quit his job and head out into the wilderness. But that option simply wasn't available back in the 19th century. So he just sits there at his desk, refusing to budge or do anything. The world won't stop for him, so he will stop for the world.

If the story is about anything, it's that we all need to take a step back from the world from time to time and smell the roses. That wasn't really possible for someone in Bartleby's day, and so his unique way of dropping out of society just looks weird.

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It wasn't until C. G. Jung published his book Psychological Types that the terms "Introvert" and "extravert" which he coined came into general usage. But people had always known that such types existed. Authors had been creating introverts and extraverts for many centuries. Hamlet, for example, is an introvert. Falstaff is a good example of an extravert (or extrovert). Introverts like solitude and prefer to work alone. Melville seems to have created Bartleby mainly to show an extreme example of an introvert, long before the term itself was coined by Jung.

Since Jung's time psychologists have been devising tests of introversion/extraversion based on his book. Now they have scales on which to classify individuals from 1 to 100, with 1 being extreme introversion and 100 being extreme extraversioin. Bartleby would probably rank close to 1 on such a scale. Some of these tests can be taken free online by searching for "introverion-extraversion self tests." One such test consists of 81 simple questions, such as "Do you prefer working alone or working with others?" 

It is interesting to  try to classify literary characters, and even authors, as introverts or extraverts. Holden Caulfield of Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye is an obvious introvert, as was Salinger himself. William Faulkner seemed like an introvert, as does his character Quentin Compson in The Sound and the Fury.

In "Bartleby the Scrivener" Melville obtains his effect largely by contrasting the introvert Bartleby with his employer who is an obvious extravert.

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As the psychological double of the lawyer who confines his life to Wall Street, Bartleby represents the imaginative side of the attorney.  He works industriously until the lawyer puts up a screen between the two.  Then, in a very significant three day period, the imagination of the scrivener dies and Bartleby merely responds, "I prefer not" to any requests of the lawyer.

See the essays and criticism section on enotes and also read the responses in the Question Group for more insights.

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How miserable it would be to live as unhappily as Bartleby lived.  He was discontent and unfulfilled.  His office space was cramped and uninspiring--even his window had only a view of a wall.  His job, copying the tedious legal contracts others wrote, is not satisfying in any way, either.  The passive-aggressive behavior of Bartleby is a reflection of his discontent with his world--a world in which nothing was expected of him but rote, tedious behavior.  He simply turned that around and gave it back to them in the form of his life's mantra:  "I would prefer not to."

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Bartleby could appear to be crazy, but he is quite misunderstood.  He is a true artist at heart and is not fulfilled because he is not able to reach his potential as such.  He is stuck in an office doing work he objects to doing.  He is out of his element.  Bartleby is not lazy, nor is he crazy, in my opinion.  He is clearly misunderstood and cannot express his feelings and emotions clearly to others.  This severely limits his ability to make others understand his true needs and desires.  He reacts in the only ways he knows how.  He retreats into his own "world" in his mind and will not let anyone into that world.  Because he refuses to do this, he ultimately dies after starving himself. 

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