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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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Analysis of characters and narrative perspective in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"

Summary:

In "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street," the narrative is delivered from the first-person perspective of an unnamed lawyer, who serves as both the employer and observer of Bartleby. The characters include Bartleby, a scrivener who exhibits passive resistance, and the lawyer, who represents the complacent societal norm, along with other clerks who embody various human flaws and attitudes toward work.

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Whose point of view is "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" told from?

Everything in the story is seen from the point of view of Jonas, the protagonist.  So I think that you would say that the story is told from his point of view.

However, you should not say that the story is told from a first person point of view.  You do not have Jonas narrating the story saying "I did this" and "I thought that."  Instead, this story is told from a third person limited point of view.  The narrator always talks about "Jonas" and not about "I."  That is third person.  It is limited because the narrator only knows Jonas's thoughts and not those of anyone else in the story.

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Whose point of view is "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" told from?

It is told from the lawyer's point of view. This makes him an unreliable narrator, as he readily admits he is a "man of assumption". This means he allows his prejudices to prevent him from revealing the accurate details.

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Who is the main character in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"?

While it might seem that Bartleby is the main character, he is so unknown and unknowable that I argue that he is not.  In fact, the main character is the unnamed "lawyer" who must deal with Bartelby's behavior.  The story is told exclusively from his point of view, and his reactions are totally dictated by the non-reactions of his employee. 

(P.S.  My cat's name is "Bartleby."  I've always thought that his motto, "I'd prefer not to," is the perfect slogan for a cat!)

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Who is the protagonist in Bartleby the Scrivener?

It's Bartelby's story. He is the main character, and what happens in the story is all about him and what he does or doesn't do. This most singular of characters is unusual in that he's both the protagonist and the antagonist at the same time. Bartleby is the protagonist in the sense that he's the leading character. Yet he's also the antagonist in that he proves to be his own worst enemy. Ultimately, Bartleby is undone by himself, by his stubborn refusal to do anything at all. It is Bartleby's paralyzing inertia, his complete lack of action, that paradoxically represents a kind of action in itself. Even if you sit completely still and don't move a muscle, you're still doing something. And it's this stillness that, ironically, makes Bartleby much more of a protagonist than he would have been had he just carried on with his work as before.

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Who is the protagonist in Bartleby the Scrivener?

There are two candidates for the role of protagonist: Bartleby, himself, or the lawyer who narrates the story. The lawyer is a seemingly admirable character: level headed, compassionate, and concerned for Bartleby. Nevertheless, the second part of the question, I would argue,——whose story is it?——tips the scales in favor of Bartleby. This is undoubtedly Bartleby's story. The lawyer tells the story because of his deep fascination with and perplexity over the behavior of Bartleby. The lawyer casts himself as a supporting player.

Bartleby, at first, is an exemplary scrivener. (A scrivener copied documents.) The lawyer is pleased, until Bartleby stops working. When the lawyer inquires as to why Bartley has stopped working, Bartleby's only explanation is that he "prefers not to."

Eventually, the lawyer must get rid of Bartleby, which involves changing offices and having Bartleby carted off. Bartleby dies, but the lawyer can't stop thinking about this man who simply and quietly stopped working without explanation. The lawyer learns that Bartleby once worked in the post office's Dead Letter office, where he processed letters that never arrived at their destinations. The lawyer concludes that this previous job had a negative effect on Bartleby, rendering him hopeless.

One could interpret Bartleby as a hero, if in a dark way, in that he stands up against doing meaningless work day in and day out. He lives with integrity by not doing what he can no longer stand to do. His integrity is self destructive, and one might wish he had taken positive action to change his life, instead of simply stopping. Nevertheless, he sticks to his principles and prefers death to a life without meaning.

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Who is the protagonist in Bartleby the Scrivener?

The protagonist of this story is the narrator, a Wall Street attorney whose name we never learn. The very obvious antagonist is Bartleby. Even though the gist of the story is how strange Bartleby is and the odd things he does, it is the narrator's story of how he dealt with of this man who constantly prefers not to. What we know about Bartleby comes only from what the narrator tells us. We don't know his thoughts or feelings or motivations.

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Who is the protagonist in Bartleby the Scrivener?

The protagonist is the character who changes the status quo. For example, in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire it is obvious that Blanche Dubois is the protagonist, since she enters from the outside world and moves into the small apartment of Stanley and Stella, disrupting their normal routine. In Bartleby the Scrivener it must be Bartleby who is the protagonist, even though he might be described as a passive-aggressive type who does very little to disrupt the office routine. Just his presense there is enough to create conflict. The narrator becomes upset and distracted. His employees become contentious. Bartleby in his quiet way is a rebel who creates discord. The narrator may feel that this new employee could set a bad example for his other employees. If Bartleby can refuse legitimate requests, then the others might start doing the same thing. The protagonist is very often the character who, like Blanche, comes in from the outside. What is interesting and amusing about Bartleby as a protagonist is that he does very little to upset things, but what he does do is enough.

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Who are the main characters in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"?

The major characters of Melville's "Bartleby" are as follows:

  • The narrator, described as "a rather elderly man" who holds the office of Master in Chancery and acts as a lawyer dealing in the business of "rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds" (Melville).
  • Bartleby, the eccentric new hire at the law office. He is described as "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!" Bartleby causes great confusion and anxiety for the narrator throughout the story, often refusing to do assigned tasks by simply stating, "I would prefer not to" (Melville).
  • Ginger Nut, a young errand-boy and student at the law office. Ginger Nut is roughly twelve years old and performs menial tasks at the office such as cleaning, sweeping, and fetching snacks for the law copyists.
  • Turkey, a law-copyist who is frequently messy, prone to error, and red-faced.
  • Nippers, a law-copyist described as a "whiskered, sallow" man of roughly twenty-five years with an often irritable temperament (Melville).
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Who is the main character of "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street?"

We are mediated and instructed by the lawyer’s narration. So he is an unreliable narrator. But he is our eyes and ears of the world of the story. In that respect, he is the main character because we see the world through his eyes and his mind. But the story is not about him. In that respect, the main character is Bartleby. Without Bartleby, there is no story. You could choose either one. If we had insight into Bartleby’s mind or if we had an objective, omniscient narrator, it would be much easier to determine who the main character is.

In fact, since we get the entire story from the narration of the lawyer, we necessarily have to take him at his word. Does Bartleby really do all these things? If he does, how does the lawyer’s interpretation add or subtract from our understanding of Bartleby? The lawyer admits he is not ambitious and sort of goes with the flow of business and history. Bartleby represents the opposite, utilizing free will seemingly for the sake of free will itself. In this context, the narrator and Bartleby are reflections of two approaches to life: passivity and free will. In this context, the main character is “any” modern worker. To take it a step further in the psychological dimension, Mordecai Marcus suggests that Bartleby is the narrator’s psychological double. Like the book/film Fight Club, Bartleby is symbolic of the narrator’s underlying desire to escape the monotony of the modern working world. In this case, both are the main character because Bartleby is a manifestation of the lawyer’s psyche.  

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

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.

Additional Source:

http://www.uncp.edu/home/canada/work/allam/general/

glossary.htm#protagonist

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What is the climax of "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"?

A literary climax is defined as that moment or event at which the final outcome of the story is determined. This may be the most emotional and exciting moment in the story but that is not a defining characteristic of a literary climax, which means that a climax may also be a moment at which a quiet decision is made or a revelation occurs or a moral or mental dilemma is solved. In "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street," the climax occurs when the lawyer runs out of his old office having failed to extract from Bartleby any idea of what he would want to do and failing equally to convince to do something for the interim since the building landlord was requiring he vacate the premises of the lawyer's old office.

Before this moment, unable to convince Bartleby to act reasonably, the lawyer had circumvented the peculiar problem of Bartleby by escaping to new law offices, leaving Bartleby behind, trespassing on the landlord's property. After this moment, when the lawyer runs out and away from Bartleby, he takes a small vacation. The resolution of the story is hereby set. Events are now out of the lawyers hands and equally out of Bartleby's hands because the lawyer is Bartleby's agent for activity (such as it is) and the lawyer is gone. When the lawyer returns, he learns that society (the landlord in particular) had no choice but to imprison Bartleby as he was trespassing and was without visible means of support. From the climax the resolution is unalterably set and Bartleby's demise, the result of his peculiar form of freedom at the end of his personal Wall Street, is set.

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Analyze the character of Bartleby in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street".

This story of the inscrutable Bartleby is appealing because of its ambiguity.  For, it explores several concepts:  the alienation of man, passivity, nonconformity, and psychological imprisonment.  In many ways, it is most relevant today. 

All that is known about Bartleby's history is that his work previous to being hired by the elderly lawyer was as a clerk in the U.S. post office in the dead letter section.  When he is hired and placed behind a screen, perhaps the memories of his alienation and psychological imprisonment reemerge affecting Bartleby's behavior as a scrivener.  In his former forlorness, Bartleby may have lost what it is to be human, for meaning in life depends upon sharing.  After so long of not sharing, Bartleby has lost his will to live:  "I prefer not to," he says until he prefers not to eat and, eventually dies in prison.

Taken in its historical context, Bartleby's character takes on symbolic meaning.  In the 1850s, the relationship between capitalists and workers had developed to the point that there were highly charged conflicts. (The employer/narrator says, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.") And, the close bond between employer and employee became defunct when machine-orientated production eliminated the need for skilled workers who were closely aligned to their employers.  Thus, Bartleby represents the estranged worker in an uncaring system.

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Analyze the character of Bartleby in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street".

Bartleby is an incomprehensible character to the lawyer and to the reader. In fact, critics often pass Bartleby over as purely symbolic of the era Melville wrote in. In appearance, Bartleby is neat, presentable, tidy, everything that bodes well for his being a good scrivener. And he is...until one day on which he is asked to help with the tedious task of proofreading a manuscript, which takes three people and must be done out loud.

On this occasion, after spending his first days and weeks of employment with the lawyer in industrious silent productivity, Bartleby inexplicably says, "I would prefer not to." The only plausible reason is that speech breaks his wall of silence and forces him into interactions he would prefer not to have.
After this incident, which completely floors the lawyer who is utterly at a loss as to how to gain the advantage of being the employer requiring work from an employee, Bartleby even more inexplicably finds more and more things he would prefer not to do. Eventually, he does noting. He doesn't even go home anymore at night but stays in the office. One supposes he had ceased to prefer to pay his rent as well.

Matters deteriorate so much with Bartleby that he passes his days staring blankly at the blank wall outside his office window. It seems he is shattered by the loss of his wall of silence that separated him from others and is now at a loss himself as to how to proceed. Ultimately, he dies all alone from self-neglect while staring blankly at a blank wall in a corner of a prison yard to which he'd been brought. Perhaps everything about Bartleby can be summed up by a revision to his remark to Mr. Cutlets in the prison yard:  “I prefer not to ___ to-day, ... [it] would disagree with me; I am unused to _____.”

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What is Bartleby's purpose in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street?

I think it is pretty obvious what Bartleby wants, since he is such an obstinate character that he ends up getting what he wants. He wants to do exactly as he is doing. He is a loner, an introvert. No doubt he engages in some kind of mental activity, but we cannot tell whether he is thinking, remembering, or fantasizing. He likes the kind of routine work he does because it does not require much mental effort, but at the same time it provides him with an income which enables him to live his quiet life. He wants to be left alone. He enjoys being alone with his own thoughts. He does not need other people, and the people he has to associate with at the office, including the narrator himself, probably seem as eccentric to him as he does to them. There are people in the world like Bartleby--although there are few who are such extreme cases of introversion and introspection. Melville deliberately contrasts Bartleby with the narrator, who is a good-natured, convivial, tolerant sort of man. Melville also sets his story in the busiest part of New York in order to accentuate Bartleby's isolation.

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What is Bartleby's purpose in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street?

The question is not, "What does Bartleby want?" It is never clear that he wants anything at all. The problem all started here:

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do — namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when, without moving from his privacy, Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

So it's not what Bartleby wants; it's all about what he doesn't want.

There is no question that something is seriously amiss with Bartleby the scivener. But, in this very Kafkaesque tale of the world of business, is there something wrong with Bartleby or is there something wrong with the whole world Bartleby happens to inhabit?

Consider his life. He writes and writes and writes. And what he writes is all copied as if by a machine. Nothing original comes from Bartleby. Nothing. The story takes place before carbon copies, Xerox machines, or computers, where forms had to be hand written and reread over and over and over. And Bartleby plainly states, “I would prefer not to” again and again and again. He shuts down and just refuses.

What does Bartleby want? He wants not to.

He is the reverse image of people who go to work every day at jobs they don't care about doing repetitious, meaningless things and never question what they are doing with their lives for a second.

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What is Bartleby's purpose in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street?

Herman Melville's story of a most passive Bartleby is, indeed, ambiguous, but the ambiguity is well designed.  Is Bartleby another side of the narrator, "the other end of [his] chambers, or is he a separate character? Because the narrator, the lawyer, is a person of almost sixty years who admits to being "filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best," it becomes possible to consider that Bartleby is an alter-ego of the narrator with whom he "remonstrated."  However, Bartleby simply stares blankly at the wall outside his window in a "dead-wall reverie," an act that symbolizes the stultifying effect of his previous job in the Dead Letter Office and his present job of transcribing the words of another. 

Some critics perceive Bartleby as symbolic of the deadening effects of his position as a scrivener and, on a larger scale, capitalism. For, the attorney-narrator finds himself in a position in which he "would rather not."  Imprisoned by the walls of his job as well as the walls of his life, Bartleby, the spirit of the narrator, who is trapped inside the walls of capitalism, languishes and dies, as it is, unable to interpret the significance of making money, if there is one.

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What is Bartleby's purpose in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street?

Melville is fictionalizing the conflict between action and inaction.  In the complicated, commercial, action-driven world of Bartleby and his firm, one's worth, in fact one's very identity hinges on the ability to make decisions, to act in a timely manner, to be an active participant in the day-to-day business of asserting one's will.  By building an opposite character, Melville makes strikingly clear this invisible urge to decide, to live as though our decisions are important.  Bartleby, because of his job as copier, has read all documents of the company, and has seen through the superficial decision-making mentality, and has chosen to no longer decide--"I prefer not to." It's a complex philosophical stance, a precursor to existential literature of the mid-20th century.

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