In "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street," who was the main character in the story—how do you know?  

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At first I would have, without hesitation, stated that Bartleby is the main character in the short story of "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street," by Herman Melville. The story is named for Bartleby, and the plot revolves around Bartleby's actions. The narrator shares the story of the scrivener in his employ, and his mounting frustrations with the man who simply refuses to comply. However, a little research makes the answer more difficult to assess.

I decided look at the origins of the word "protagonist," which one source defines as the primary character of a…

literary...narrative, around whom the events of the narrative's plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to share the most empathy.

Another source defines the protagonist more simply as…

the main character or lead figure in a novel, play, story, or poem.

Originally, in ancient Greek drama, the main character was the leader of the chorus. This changed and the main character was then the actor who walked onto the stage first. Even another distinction was made to distinguish between a main character and a lead figure.

In some pieces of literature, it is difficult to tell who the main character is. In Shakespeare's Othello, Iago is a character around which the "play's controversy" revolves. He is not the title character, and the plot most directly centers around Othello and his wife, Desdemona. So who is the the main character? Or is one a lead figure? Confusion is introduced, but there is more.

With that said, in 1671, writer John Dryden referred to his understanding of the word "protagonist" in a broader way, that put another spin on your question. Dryden wrote…

Tis charg'd upon me that I make debauch'd persons ... my protagonists, or the chief persons of the drama.

Now we have to decide if someone is a main character or a lead figure, or if there are two protagonists. The dictionary defines protagonist as the main character or lead figure. Dryden introduced the concept of multiple protagonists, and sources indicate that while one character may at first be perceived to be the "main" character, the arch-villain can also be perceived as a protagonist.

My answer to you is that there is evidence to support the statement that both Bartleby and the narrator are main characters. Narrators can be main characters as seen in Edgar Allan Poe's tales of "The Black Cat" or "The Cask of Amontillado." It is generally stated that Dryden's broader use of multiple protagonists is not wrong, and that it should not offhandedly be discounted. This means there is room for discussion and disagreement depending upon the perceptions of those who read the story. The answer will depend upon the definition of "protagonist" that one chooses to use.

In using this material in a classroom setting, I would seek out the advice of your instructor to see how he/she perceives the concept of the main character vs lead figure, and the broader concept of multiple protagonists, for clarification.

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