Themes and Meanings
The wealth of thematic possibilities in “Bartleby the Scrivener” has made it perhaps the most analyzed of all American short stories. Much of this analysis centers on the title character, who is seen as a forerunner of alienated modern man, as the victim of an indifferent society, as a nonconformist—perhaps even a heroic one—who becomes isolated simply for daring to assert his preferences. Another interpretation, built around Bartleby’s role as a writer of sorts, claims that Herman Melville’s story is a parable of the isolation of the artist in a materialistic society that not only is indifferent to its writers but also is bent on their destruction.
Such views, while having varying degrees of validity, ignore the fact that “Bartleby the Scrivener” is dominated by the sensibility of its narrator and his search for the truth, a search that is ironic because he is incapable of any objective understanding of Bartleby and his seemingly perverse preferences. Not Bartleby’s actions or passivity but the narrator’s responses to his copyist are what is important.
Early in the story, the lawyer describes himself as “an eminently safe man,” one “who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” He makes allowances for Turkey and Nippers because that is the easiest way to deal with them, but he is unable to understand why he cannot similarly control Bartleby.
When his initial efforts with Bartleby fail, he attempts to turn the predicament to his advantage. The sentimental narrator tries to change the scrivener from an intractable problem to an opportunity for compassion. However, this compassion, as is appropriate for a man of Wall Street who exults in John Jacob Astor’s name, “for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion,” is selfish: “Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” For him, the moral and the financial seem inseparable.
When compassion proves insufficient, the narrator resorts to philosophical explanations. Reading Jonathan Edwards’s The Freedom of the Will (1754) and Joseph Priestley’s The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated (1777) convinces him that Bartleby has been “billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.” This evasion of responsibility is not the answer, however, because people are talking about him. Because the good opinions of others are essential to his business and his self-esteem, the lawyer is finally forced to act.
Melville is satirizing the materialistic society of his time but in a much larger sense than merely its indifference to writers. Melville is attacking its smug morality, its pomposity, its sentimental, patronizing attitude toward its individual citizens, its simplistic view of the complex and the ambiguous, its persistent ignorance of its responsibilities. Not Bartleby but the self-deceiving narrator is the absurd, pathetic protagonist.