Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street Analysis
by Herman Melville

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Bartleby the Scrivener

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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On his third day as scrivener for a lawyer on Wall Street, Bartleby tells his employer that he “prefers not to” copy any more legal documents. This enigmatic response becomes the scrivener’s constant reply to further requests for copy work.

While Bartleby’s passive resistance toward work angers the lawyer, it also arouses his pity. The scrivener is given six days to leave his job, but he prefers not to leave. Distraught with emotion for this “wreck in the mid Atlantic,” the lawyer asks Bartleby to move in with him. This request does not meet the scrivener’s preference.

The lawyer finally decides to rid himself of Bartleby. He moves his business to an address unknown to the scrivener. The lawyer later learns that Bartleby, refusing to leave his previous “home,” has been declared a vagrant and sent to prison. Here, Bartleby is further surrounded by walls. He responds by choosing not to eat his rations.

Bartleby represents Melville’s concept of man’s existence. Placed in a world with societal expectations, the man who prefers not to conform may retreat into his own “Walden Pond.” However, Bartleby, the former dead-letter office clerk, chooses not to protect himself from those who label him a threat to their materially oriented world.

Similar to Thoreau, who does not escape the tax collector at Walden, Bartleby pays a dear price for his individual preference.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Wall imagery dominates this “story of Wall Street.” The narrator describes the location of his chambers in detail. At one end is seen the white wall of a large skylight shaft: “This view might have been considered . . . deficient in what landscape painters call ’life.’” At the other end is an ugly brick wall, blackened by age, ten feet from the window. Bartleby’s desk is inside the lawyer’s office, so that he can be within easy call, but is in a corner by a small window, which “commanded at present no view at all” because another wall is three feet from the panes. Bartleby stares at this wall when he prefers not to work. He is separated from his fellow copyists by a ground-glass door and is isolated from his employer, “a satisfactory arrangement,” by a high, green folding screen, suggesting the lawyer’s monetary obsession. Thus, there are walls within walls within walls within Wall Street.

The impossibility of the absence of walls is emphasized when Bartleby is removed to the Tombs, where he ignores the limited space in the exercise yard, choosing to stand beside the exterior wall, which both keeps him and protects him from society. He dies there curled into the fetal position (suggesting a possible tomb-womb pun), as if he could return to a state of innocence only in death.

These walls represent more than mere isolation; they are barriers to communication, to understanding, especially in a story told by a man who understands much less than he thinks he does. As in Melville’s greatest achievement, Moby Dick (1851), the walls imply that humankind is incapable of true perception, that understanding the purpose of existence is impossible.

The other major stylistic device employed by Melville is his unreliable narrator, who sees only what is on the surface. It is ironic that in his quest for the easy explanation he decides that Bartleby refuses to work because something is wrong with his eyes. Melville helps establish the tradition of having a tale told by someone who is accurate about facts but who is very subjective in interpreting the motivations not only of others but also of himself. This self-justifying narrator creates the story’s irony, its humor, its greatness.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Triumph of Capitalism
At the time Melville wrote ''Bartleby the Scrivener,'' New York City was firmly entrenched as the financial center of the United States's economy. It had been the nation's leading port during the colonial era, and by the mid-nineteenth century, New York overflowed with banks, credit institutions, insurance companies, brokerage houses, and a thriving...

(The entire section is 2,882 words.)