Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street Critical Essays

Herman Melville


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

"Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Herman Melville

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 Themes

Much 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.

Critical Reception

"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.

Mordecai Marcus (essay date 1962)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Melville's Bartleby as Psychological Double," in College English, Vol. 23, No. 5, February, 1962, pp. 365-68.

[Marcus is an American poet, critic, and educator who has written extensively on nineteenth-century American writers. In the following essay, Marcus insists that Bartleby represents the narrator's own protests against the impersonality of Wall Street.]

Most interpreters of Melville's haunting story "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853) have seen it as a somewhat allegorical comment on Melville's plight as a writer after the publication of Moby-Dick and Pierre.

Others have suggested that the story dramatizes the conflict...

(The entire section is 2261 words.)

Harold Kaplan (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Melville: 'One Royal Mantle of Humanity'," in Democratic Humanism and American Literature, The University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 159-97.

[Kaplan is an American poet and critic. In the following excerpt, Kaplan explores the metaphysical implications of "Bartleby" by comparing Bartleby and Moby Dick 's Captain Ahab.]

It would be plausible to read "Bartleby the Scrivener" as social criticism; the setting is Wall Street and the man is the palest of the imprisoned office clerks who could symbolize human alienation in modem bureaucratic and technological society. But most would agree that this would be as limited a reading as the same emphasis would be...

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Daniel Stempel and Bruce M. Stillians (essay date 1972-1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1972-73, pp. 268-82.

[In the following essay, Stempel and Stillians consider "Bartleby" to be the result of Melville's interest in Schopenhauer.]

In October 1853 a troubled Matthew Arnold explained why he had chosen to drop Empedocles on Etna from his new collection of poems. Certain situations, Arnold suggested, are intrinsically devoid of the power to provide "poetical enjoyment": "those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which...

(The entire section is 5595 words.)

Morton Kaplan and Robert Kloss (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fantasy of Passivity: Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, The Free Press, 1973, pp. 63-79.

[In the following excerpt, Kaplan and Kloss insist that Bartleby exhibits symptoms of manic-depression, and contend that the narrator's veneer of passivity is a neurotic attempt to repress underlying impulses toward aggression and violence.]

Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" is a work of comic irony comparable to such novels as Ford's The Good Soldier or Durrell's Justine, both of which use the device of fallible narrator. In The Good Soldier, for instance, Dowell is an...

(The entire section is 6588 words.)

Marvin Fisher (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Bartleby,' Melville's Circumscribed Scrivener," in The Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 59-79.

[Fisher is an American educator whose books include Going Under: Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850's (1977). In the following essay, Fisher provides an overview of several critical approaches to "Bartleby," and insists that Melville intended Bartleby to be representative of humankind generally.]

"Bartleby" is certainly the most familiar of Melville's short stories, reprinted in dozens of anthologies and analyzed by scores of critics. It would be hard to say something new about this early study of...

(The entire section is 7578 words.)

Christopher Bollas (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Melville's Lost Self: Bartleby," in American Imago, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1974, pp. 401-11.

[In the following essay, Bollas argues that a psychological interpretation of "Bartleby" demonstrates the value of psychoanalysis to literary criticism.]

Herman Melville's short novel "Bartleby" is, a tale about a "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn" young man who answers an advertisement for a position as a scrivener. He is accepted for employment, disrupts the routine of his new environment when he "prefers not to" engage in certain assigned tasks, forces the employer to feel a resourcelessness that compels him to move his office. It ends...

(The entire section is 3496 words.)

R. K. Gupta (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Bartleby': Melville's Critique of Reason," in Indian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2, June and December, 1974, pp. 66-71.

[In the following excerpt, Gupta insists that the narrator of "Bartleby" represents reason, and that Bartleby, in confounding the narrator, emphasizes the inability of pure reason to negotiate human behavior.]

"Say now, that in a day or two you will begin to be
a little reasonable:—say so, Bartleby."

"At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,"
was his mildly cadaverous reply.


(The entire section is 2211 words.)

Ted Billy (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eros and Thanatos in 'Bartleby'," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 21-32.

[In the following essay, Billy interprets the narrator and Bartleby, respectively, as fictional projections of eros and thanatos principles in Melville's own psyche, and considers "Bartleby" a portrait of psychological conflict between the life and death instincts.]

The final comment of Melville's narrator in "Bartleby the Scrivener" ("Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!") acts as a synecdoche for the irreconcilable struggle that animates the novella. This brief statement of commiseration does more than merely link Bartleby's predicament to the universal human situation....

(The entire section is 3756 words.)

Milton Kornfeld (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bartleby and the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1975, pp. 51-6.

[In the following essay, Kornfeld claims that Bartleby is distinguished by his refusal to correspond to social roles.]

Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" has been read as an attack on capitalism, an allegory of the frustrated artist in a commercial society, a study of passive resistance, an expression of melancholy, the absurd, the perverse, the irrational—the catalog is exhausting and seemingly endless. Some of this is helpful in elucidating the story, even useful from the teacher's perspective since "Bartleby" is a perennial favorite of...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)

Allan Moore Emery (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Alternatives of Melville's 'Bartleby'," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, September, 1976, pp. 170-87.

[In the following essay, Emery explores themes of freedom and limitation in "Bartleby," particularly emphasizing the doctrines of Jonathan Edwards and Joseph Priestly.]

In recent years Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" has attracted its share of critics, many of whom have rightly proclaimed the tale to be an ingenious treatment of the theme of freedom and limitation. Nevertheless, two questions of preëminent importance remain unanswered: What is the precise nature of Bartleby's revolt? And how ought we to characterize the...

(The entire section is 6067 words.)

Robert E. Abrams (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Bartleby' and the Fragile Pageantry of the Ego," in ELH, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall, 1978, pp. 488-500.

[In the following essay, Abrams contrasts Bartleby's acceptance of his involuntary and subconscious motivation with the social and "willful hypocrisies" of the narrator.]

Probing the "mysterious" wellsprings of preference and motive, Melville observes in Pierre that "no mere mortal who has … gone down into himself will ever pretend that his slightest … act originates in his own defined identity." An innocuous but involuntary habit, for example, can sneak up on one unawares. Man's "texture," writes Melville, "is very porous, and things assumed upon the...

(The entire section is 4240 words.)

Robert N. Mollinger (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Literary Work: Herman Melville's 'Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street'," in Psychoanalysis and Literature: An Introduction, Nelson-Hall, 1981, pp. 85-96.

[Mollinger is an English scholar with extensive training in psychoanalysis. In the following excerpt, Mollinger considers "Bartleby" to be a portrayal of basic human, psychological needs, focusing especially on Melville's portrayal of oral fixations.]

In Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" Bartleby's lack of motivation to work, his employer's motivation for putting up with him, the imagery, and even the actual subject of the story have yet to be fully clarified. The...

(The entire section is 4385 words.)

Dennis R. Perry (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Ah, Humanity': Compulsion Neuroses in Melville's 'Bartleby'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall, 1987, pp. 407-15.

[In the following essay, Perry contends that the character of Bartleby is not schizophrenic, but neurotic.]

Psychoanalytic critics of Melville's "Bartleby" have been remarkably consistent in their diagnoses of the enigmatic scrivener as schizophrenic. Along with the tale's nearsighted narrator, they have isolated Bartleby as a fascinating case study while overlooking the importance of his relationship to the other characters in the tale. The problem with such readings is that, in isolating Bartleby as a psychological aberration,...

(The entire section is 3546 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bebb, Bruce. "'Bartleby': An Annotated Checklist of Criticism." In Bartleby the Inscrutable: A Collection of Commentary on Herman Melville's Tale "Bartleby the Scrivener," edited by M. Thomas Inge, pp. 199-238. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1979.

Catalogue of criticism organized chronologically by publication date.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. "Bartleby, the Scrivener." In A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville, pp. 19-78. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

Overview of critical perspectives accompanied by an extensive list of essays and books about "Bartleby."



(The entire section is 1014 words.)