"Bartleby, the Scrivener" Melville, Herman
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street," first published in two installments on November 1 and December 1, 1853, in Putnam's Monthly Magazine. See also Benito Cereno Criticism, Billy Budd Criticism, Pierre, or, The Ambiguities Criticism, and Redburn: His First Voyage Criticism.
The account of a young man's inability to conform to life on Wall Street in the mid-nineteenth century, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is hailed by some scholars as the first modern American short story for its break with the moralizing, overt allegorizing, romantic characters, form, and other traits of earlier, traditional tales. More critical attention has been devoted to "Bartleby, the Scrivener" than any other short story by Melville, and the work's symbolic suggestiveness, thematic depth, and narrative ambiguity ensure its continuing appeal. Lea Bertani Vozar Newman has observed: "Whatever other chords 'Bartleby' may touch in the reader, the alienation that links this story to works by Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Camus attests to its modernity."
Plot and Major Characters
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" is narrated by a Wall Street lawyer who deals in investment opportunities for wealthy clients. A recent hire, Bartleby, works diligently at first copying legal documents but gradually begins to decline his responsibilities with the statement "I would prefer not to." Eventually Bartleby refrains from all copying and stares at the wall immediately outside of a window in the law office. Only when clients become affected by Bartleby's idiosyncratic and unnerving behavior does the lawyer take significant action, choosing to move his place of business to another building rather than fire Bartleby, who "would prefer not to" quit the lawyer's service; Bartleby refuses to vacate the 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 occupation prior to becoming a scrivener: Bartleby worked in the postal service's dead-letter office, where all lost, improperly addressed, or otherwise undeliverable mail ends.
Major ThemesOf "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Lewis Leary has stated: "Its charm resides in what Melville preferred not to reveal, so that no one key opens it to simple, or single, or precise meaning." Much of the story's complexity originates in the limited narrative perspective of the lawyer, who unintentionally reveals more about himself than he intends while relating the few facts known about Bartleby. As a result, differing and sometimes conflicting themes have been attributed to the story. Some interpretations focus on the lawyer, variously characterizing him as self-serving or well-meaning; Bartleby has been perceived as psychotic, comical, nihilistic, Christ-like, or devoid of a social persona. As well, Bartleby is commonly identified as the por-trait of a writer alienated by society for his refusal to "copy" the formula established by popular writers. Other commentators, focusing on the bleak mood and conclusion of the story, describe "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as a condemnation of capitalist society, a statement on the absurdity of life, or a disheartening existentialist commentary. Further intepretations present the story as a satire of specific historical individuals, a parable about failed Christian charity, a critique of contemporary philosophies, or a metaphor for the divided psyche of an individual; still another set of essays explicate "Bartleby, the Scrivener" in terms of Melville's other works.
Written in the wake of Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852), which were regarded as critical and popular failures during his lifetime, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is Melville's first published short story. Financially strapped by the poor reception of his earlier efforts, Melville began contributing stories and sketches through the mid-1850s to popular magazines as a source of steady income. His short fiction was on the whole favorably received but Melville died generally unknown and unappreciated. The novella Billy Budd, left in manuscript at his death, was not published until 1924. Its appearance, along with Raymond M. Weaver's 1921 biography Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic and other critical attention, led to a revival of interest in the Melville canon. Most commentators at this time emphasized the autobiographical element of "Bartleby, the Scrivener," contending that the author intended to depict an artist misunderstood by society. Another early and influential school of critics applied a psychological approach, diagnosing Bartleby as schizophrenic, manic depressive, autistic, or mad. The complex and subtle critical history of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is best encapsulated in essays by Lea Bertani Vozar Newman and Milton R. Stern.