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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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

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I don't think there is a main character in "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street." It is more that we are given the story from a particular perspective. 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.

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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.

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