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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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In "Bartleby the Scrivener," how does the story's humor affect your response to Bartleby?

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"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street" is a darkly comic short story that satirizes the nature of work and its role in ascribing meaning to our lives. The comedy in the story also raises questions about the extent to which human beings have a moral obligation to assume responsibility for and care for their fellow humans.

First, "Bartleby" is funny because of Bartleby's responses to his employer's requests. Whenever his boss asks him to take on a new task or simply to spend some time chatting with him or with his coworkers, Bartleby replies that he would prefer not to. His refusals are unexpected and inappropriate, but they are also delivered in a calm, matter-of-fact way. The contrast between the expected response to one's boss and Bartleby's response is humorous. This humor makes a mockery of the Wall Street law firm—generally a workplace that is viewed as a high-powered place full of ambitious young clerks. By refusing to do more than the simple copying task for which he was hired, Bartleby forces the reader to question what the scope of one's employment should be, how much control an employer can assert over your life, and how much the workplace should dictate behavior. Bartleby exposes his work as basically meaningless—something he can choose to do or not do, with little immediate impact on his life or anyone else's. The emptiness of white-collar work and of the Wall Street workplace is underscored by Bartleby's preference to stare at a blank brick wall instead of doing his work.

Second, "Bartleby" is funny because of the lawyer's reaction to Bartleby and to his other employees. The lawyer is painstaking in giving his worst employees the benefit of the doubt, even when it is clear that they are taking advantage of him (for instance, when Bartleby starts to refuse even copyist work, or when Turkey returns from lunch drunk every afternoon). The lawyer clearly sees himself as a humanitarian, but no one has asked him to assume this role. He creates far-fetched explanations for his employees' shortcomings (such as believing Bartleby was going blind when he started to refuse copying tasks) and refuses to fire or even evict them when they are of no more use to his law firm. The lawyer's over-the-top protectiveness of his employees is humorous, but also thought-provoking. It causes the reader to question the extent to which the lawyer is responsible for Bartleby and the other employees, and the extent to which we are obligated to and capable of taking responsibility for our fellow humans. The ultimate futility of the lawyer's efforts forms a darkly comic contrast to his good intentions and constant effort to understand and care for his employees.

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Bartleby is a very funny story, but as is the way with Melville, the humor is very dark. I think the humor comes from Bartleby's complete passivity and the lawyer's inabilty to have any impact on him whatsoever. Sometimes, the humor is very broad, as in the scene where the lawyer asks Turkey's opinion and he instantly jumps to his feet and says he'll "black his eyes for him!" Other times, the humor comes from the lawyer's own comic inability to exert any influence over Bartleby: "Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were," the lawyer says after he is turned away from his own office on a Sunday morning by Bartleby, who is living there. Nothing seems to work: Bartleby won't do any work, won't leave, won't respond to orders of any kind, won't even eat -- he simply prefers not to. Finally, the lawyer decides to change offices, but even then, Bartleby remains haunting the halls of the old building. He eventually is removed by the new tenant, who -- finally -- calls the police. Bartleby dies alone in prison, presumably of hunger.

If we think of the story as funny, then it seems fair to ask what the joke is about. On one level, clearly the lawyer is the object of Melville's satire: all of his scruples, and good wishes towards Bartleby prove to be completely irrelevant. It may also be that Bartleby, in his refusal to participate in life, also is a comic figure: however much he may prefer to not engage with others, he nevertheless is required to exist. Maybe his death is the only real effect the lawyer can have on him, and the only one that can have any meaning for Bartleby. In that case, perhaps the humor of the story points toward the ultimate blankness of existence, as represented by Bartleby staring at the blank wall, and the inability of good-meaning men like the lawyer to do anything about it.

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