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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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Bartleby's motivation and isolation in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"


Bartleby's motivation in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" is ambiguous, but his isolation stems from his passive resistance to societal norms. He disconnects from the world around him, refusing to engage in expected behaviors, which leads to his physical and emotional isolation. His famous refrain, "I would prefer not to," encapsulates his withdrawal and detachment.

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Discuss Bartleby's isolation in terms of his motivation in "Bartleby the Scrivener".

In Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street, some experts look at our title character "in symbolic terms." I do not agree.

One theme in the story is individualism. He is unable to develop a sense of individuality:

...scriveners create nothing of their own...

In his new job, he works behind a wall—isolated—staring out a window with only the view of a brick wall and "grimy back-yards" to "inspire" him. Freedom and imprisonment are also themes. His imprisonment is seen in his environment, while his freedom (or lack of it) is seen in his need to take a job doesn't fulfill him, but pays the bills.

The lawyer (unnamed) who has hired Bartleby is the story's narrator. Our perceptions are influenced by how he sees Bartleby. Some critics feel the lawyer is unsympathetic—one who cares nothing for his unusual employee; I believe the lawyer empathizes with Bartleby and genuinely wants to help.

The lawyer is not high-power and driven by greed or ego. He is happy to provide his services in a less stressful environment than some law offices adopt. The lawyer is happy with his situation, and we can infer that he is not the kind to "push" his employees.

In need of additional help, the lawyer looks for another scrivener.

In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open...I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.

This forshadows, perhaps, who Bartleby is—"pitiably" and "forlorn." Without being sure why, we can infer that Bartleby arrives somehow already "damaged." The established rapport among the other office workers could have made Bartleby feel more isolated.

When Bartleby begins, he is at first all the lawyer could wish for— a hard worker described as someone who has been starving for an outlet—using the following extended metaphor:

At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion.

Perhaps this was the last part of Bartleby that had survived his previous "ordeals," an element of the man that was originally so focused and hard-working. Soon, he refuses to do thing, simply saying, "I would prefer not to."

Regardless of what is said to him...

...Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there.

"Hermitage" reflects Bartleby's isolation as well. Overtime, he simply seems to "disappear:"

Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.

The lawyer learns that Bartleby was once employed in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and comments:

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?

If this job pushed Bartleby toward his gradual diminishment, losing the old job only slowed his progression toward "extinction."

Ultimately, the lawyer is forced to move the office and Bartleby, refusing to leave the premises, goes to jail. Here he is now completely isolated from society. He is able to devote all of his time to simply ceasing to be: he starves himself to death and dies in jail, afflicted by some form of mental illness, it would seem—characteristic, perhaps, of his sense of isolation from mankind.

The lawyer is there when Bartleby dies, perhaps believing he is not in heaven and at peace, saying he is...

With kings and counselors...

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What motivates Bartleby's behavior in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"?

We never find out definitively why Bartleby shuts down and decides he "prefers not to" do any work whatsoever. However, the sympathetic and kind-hearted lawyer employer who takes an interest in him comes up with a theory that he presents at the very end of the story.

The lawyer has discovered a "rumor" that Bartleby once worked at the Dead Letter office in Washington, DC. This office is a central clearing house for all the letters that never reached their destined audience. The lawyer surmises that having to deal with the futility of communication—all the fervent and heartfelt letters that never arrived at their destinations—had a depressing effect on Bartleby's already despairing mind. This job made him find a sense of futility in all human endeavor. As the lawyer puts it:

Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?

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What motivates Bartleby's behavior in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"?

Possibly the best example of an introvert in all literature is Herman Melville’s Bartleby, who works as a scrivener, a law-clerk whose chief duty is to make exact copies of important documents in the days before the unrelenting Industrial Revolution destroyed many dreary but formerly secure office jobs by producing photocopy machines, word processors, scanners, fax machines, and other such devices. Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” has received considerable attention from critics searching for its “meaning.” But Melville, like Moliere in his play "The Misanthrope," may only have meant to call attention to the fact that such people as extreme introverts exist, not only in convents and monasteries but in law offices and everywhere else.

Bartleby’s job is ideal for a man of his introverted personality type. The work can not only be done in complete isolation but actually requires solitude because of its exacting nature. Interruptions or distractions could cause the scrivener to make mistakes, which would not only jeopardize the accuracy of the document but even jeopardize the outcome of a legal case, since lawyers characteristically seek flaws in their opponents’ evidence and can make much out of a punctuation mark. Melville’s intention may be deduced from the interest readers have shown in this particular story. We are interested in Bartleby as a character because we recognize him as an example of introverts we have personally known, perhaps even as a caricature of ourselves.

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What motivates Bartleby's behavior in "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street"?

Herman Melville's Bartleby in "Bartleby the Scrivener" is both a simple and a complex character. This is actually a good question, since almost the only thing we know about Bartleby is what he would "prefer not to" do.

We know he begins his job in this law office as an industrious scrivener, and he only gets recalcitrant when he is asked to work with others and proofread aloud. From this we can make a general assumption that Bartleby is motivated by working at something which is solitary and does not require human interaction.

Other than that, we know that he is NOT motivated by money, people, or even the reality of imprisonment. His previous job at the post office in the dead letter office seems to have sucked out of him all common human emotions such as friendship and love. Instead, he seems to be moved only by his need for solitude.

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