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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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Student Question

Which passages in "Bartleby the Scrivener" show the narrator and Bartleby as main characters?

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In "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall street," by Herman Melville, there are several passages in which the narrator would seem the main character with his internal struggle of how to best deal with the scrivener who refuses to leave the narrator's place of business, even though the younger man refuses to work.

Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom...I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain.

A passage that reflects that Bartleby was the main character might be the following:

Going up stairs to my old haunt, there was Bartleby silently sitting upon the banister at the landing.

'What are you doing here, Bartleby?' said I.

'Sitting upon the banister,' he mildly replied...

'Bartleby,' said I, 'are you aware that you are the cause of great tribulation to me...Now one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for some one?'

'No; I would prefer not to make any change.'

'Would you like a clerkship in a dry-goods store?'

'There is too much confinement about that. No, I would not like a clerkship; but I am not particular.'

'Too much confinement,' I cried, 'why you keep yourself confined all the time!'

'I would prefer not to take a clerkship,' he rejoined, as if to settle that little item at once.

'How would a bar-tender's business suit you? There is no trying of the eyesight in that.'

'I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am not particular.'

His unwonted wordiness inspirited me. I returned to the charge.

'Well then, would you like to travel through the country collecting bills for the merchants? That would improve your health.'

'No, I would prefer to be doing something else.'

'How then would going as a companion to Europe, to entertain some young gentleman with your conversation,—how would that suit you?'

'Not at all. It does not strike me that there is any thing definite about that. I like to be stationary. But I am not particular...'

This extended passage further illustrates that Bartleby could be seen as the major character in the story. After all, once he arrives at the narrator's place of business, his actions become those which drive the plot. The narrator is mesmerized by Bartleby, confounded by his passive behavior, and the narrator is at a loss as to how to handle him. Bartleby seems to manipulate the narrator until the narrator packs up his office and moves, in order to leave Bartleby behind.

It is quite possible that the main character at the start of the story is the narrator, but that once Bartleby appears, he becomes the main character by his continued refusal to comply to the demands put to him, and his repeated response, "I would prefer not to."

It is difficult to know which is correct: the narrator as the main character or Bartleby as the main character. The eNotes summary probably says it best:

The story's enduring appeal largely stems from its well-crafted ambiguity. It is highly admired for its remarkable ability to accommodate multiple interpretations.

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