"Bartleby, the Scrivener"
The following entry presents criticism of Melville's short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" (1853). See also, Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and "Benito Cereno" Criticism.
The account of a young man's inability to conform to business life on Wall Street in the mid-nineteenth century, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is hailed by some scholars as the first modem American short story for its break with the dense moralizing, overt allegorizing, romantic characterization, and strict form of more traditional tales. The symbolic suggestiveness and narrative ambiguity of "Bartleby" has gamered it more critical attention than any of Melville's other short stories.
Plot and Major Characters
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" is narrated by a Wall Street lawyer who deals in investment opportunities for wealthy clients. The narrator hires a man named Bartleby as a scrivener, a clerk who copies legal documents. Bartleby works diligently at first but gradually begins to decline his responsibilities with the statement "I would prefer not to." Bartleby eventually stops working entirely and stares at the wall immediately outside of a window in the law office. Only when clients are unnerved by Bartleby's idiosyncratic behavior does the narrator take significant action; he moves his business to another building rather than forcefully remove Bartleby, who "would prefer not to" quit the lawyer's service. Bartleby then refuses to leave the vacated building and is consequently jailed for vagrancy. The narrator, feeling somehow responsible for Bartleby's condition and incarceration, visits Bartleby, whom he finds dead from self-imposed starvation. At the conclusion of the story, the narrator relates a rumor about Bartleby's previous occupation: employment in the postal service's dead-letter office, the final repository of lost or otherwise undeliverable mail.
Major ThemesMuch of the story's complexity originates from the limited perspective of the narrator, who reveals much about himself while he relates the few facts known about Bartleby. As a result, differing and sometimes conflicting interpretations have been advanced. Some critics focus on the narrator, variously characterizing him as self-serving or well-meaning. Others have examined Bartleby, who they perceive as comical, nihilistic, Christ-like, or devoid of a social persona. Bartleby is most commonly identified as emblematic/symbolic of the writer alienated by society for his refusal to "copy" the formulas of popular fiction; many critics contend that Melville intended "Bartleby" to be autobiographical in this respect. Other commentators, focusing on the bleak mood and tragic conclusion of the story, consider the story a condemnation of capitalist society or a disheartening existentialist commentary. Others interpret the story as a satire of specific individuals, a parable about failed Christian charity, or an explication of contemporary philosophies. Another influential school of critics approach "Bartleby" from a psychoanalytic perspective, diagnosing Bartleby as schizophrenic, compulsive neurotic, manic depressive, or autistic.
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" was Melville's first published short story. Out of financial need, he contributed stories and sketches to popular magazines throughout the mid-1850s; his previously published novels, including Moby-Dick and Pierre, were favorably reviewed but earned him little income. Melville's short fiction received scant critical or popular attention until the novella Billy Budd, left in manuscript at his death, was published in 1924. Its appearance sparked critical attention that revived interest in the Melville canon. Since then, "Bartleby" has attracted a particularly extensive collection of criticism.