Who is the protagonist in Bartleby the Scrivener? Whose story is it?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two candidates for the role of protagonist: Bartleby, himself, or the lawyer who narrates the story. The lawyer is a seemingly admirable character: level headed, compassionate, and concerned for Bartleby. Nevertheless, the second part of the question, I would argue,——whose story is it?——tips the scales in favor of Bartleby. This is undoubtedly Bartleby's story. The lawyer tells the story because of his deep fascination with and perplexity over the behavior of Bartleby. The lawyer casts himself as a supporting player.

Bartleby, at first, is an exemplary scrivener. (A scrivener copied documents.) The lawyer is pleased, until Bartleby stops working. When the lawyer inquires as to why Bartley has stopped working, Bartleby's only explanation is that he "prefers not to."

Eventually, the lawyer must get rid of Bartleby, which involves changing offices and having Bartleby carted off. Bartleby dies, but the lawyer can't stop thinking about this man who simply and quietly stopped working without explanation. The lawyer learns that Bartleby once worked in the post office's Dead Letter office, where he processed letters that never arrived at their destinations. The lawyer concludes that this previous job had a negative effect on Bartleby, rendering him hopeless.

One could interpret Bartleby as a hero, if in a dark way, in that he stands up against doing meaningless work day in and day out. He lives with integrity by not doing what he can no longer stand to do. His integrity is self destructive, and one might wish he had taken positive action to change his life, instead of simply stopping. Nevertheless, he sticks to his principles and prefers death to a life without meaning.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The protagonist of this story is the narrator, a Wall Street attorney whose name we never learn. The very obvious antagonist is Bartleby. Even though the gist of the story is how strange Bartleby is and the odd things he does, it is the narrator's story of how he dealt with of this man who constantly prefers not to. What we know about Bartleby comes only from what the narrator tells us. We don't know his thoughts or feelings or motivations.

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