Bartleby, The Scrivener is a short novel written by Herman Melvin. Set in Wall Street Law Office, the novel details the story of an unnamed narrator who hires a rebellious scrivener, Bartleby, to help relieve the excess workload in his law firm. At first, Scrivener seems to be a productive employee; however, as the story progresses, he becomes resistant and refuses to carry out tasks assigned to him. The lawyer continuously desires to understand humanity and retains Scrivener and the other employees for their significant contribution to the business. Although the narrator seems to be an active society member, his egotistical and materialistic character prevents him from being an eminently safe man as he confesses. Sometimes, the lawyer becomes extremely obsessive with his thoughts, turning all his efforts to his advantage. In Bartleby, the Scrivener, Melvin presents the narrator as a compassionate, materialistic, and self-satisfied boss.
The narrator’s sympathetic character is evidenced by his indisputable efforts to save Bartleby from life’s struggles. The novel shows that the lawyer has employed several scriveners in his law office despite knowing their weaknesses. This makes the readers question why the lawyer would make such a move knowing well that it would jeopardize his business. Even after the scriveners fail in their duties, he gives them the freedom to act as per their wishes to avoid entering into conflicting situations. Bartleby, in particular, who appears to be industrious in the past few following his employment, begins to display resistance towards the given orders. In one incident, the lawyer asks him to proofread the documents to check for errors, and Bartleby states, “I would prefer not to” (7). Even after requesting him to recheck the materials, the Scrivener once again declines the boss’s instructions. The narrator’s reluctance to take action against the Scrivener and the decision to keep the employee in the law firm demonstrates his compassionate attitude towards humankind. Although the narrator gets irritated by Bartleby’s strange behavior, he tries to resonate and states, “To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing” (10). By doing so, the narrator proves compassionate and communicates his intentions to help people despite their adversities.
In terms of character study and analysis, the four characters depicted in the story including the narrator show different types of personalities and characters. For a start, Bartleby’s character is far different from that of the lawyer, Turkey, and Nippers. As for Nippers and Turkey, their behavior is similar and they follow the orders of their employer, the lawyer. However, Bartleby chooses to do things his way and does not follow the rules outlined by the lawyer who is his employer. Rishmawi notes that “we also feel that he is going to stand on the opposite side of the lawyer’s established office of the law, which is built on self-interest and nourished by the rationality of grabbing people’s emotions by satisfying their selfishness” (15). This shows that Bartleby is not portrayed as an obedient and keen employee in the story. By not following the instructions of his employer, he is seen as someone who is on the job to cause chaos and create a go-slow. For instance, when the lawyer expects all of his employees to follow his instructions and orders, Bartleby comes in and invalidates this rule. On the other hand, the lawyer is keen to see that his business thrives. In the process of doing that, he is portrayed as someone selfish and inhumane as far as employee welfare is concerned. Again, the lawyer’s character could also be termed as pretentious. When Bartleby starts to disobey his orders, the lawyer pretends that he is okay with it so long as his law firm is productive. This shows that he fakes his own emotions to stay on good terms with Bartleby. The readers of the story could even ask themselves why the lawyer does not take any action against Bartleby who is an employee.
In addition to being compassionate, Melville also presents the narrator as a materialistic boss concerned about his job instead of employees’ welfare. As an employer, the lawyer possesses a different perspective of the social world than his employees. In the short story, it is evident that the narrator has little interaction with people with middle-skilled jobs despite claiming to be a representative of humanity. Even after differing with Bartleby, he states that he will tolerate his resistance if it does not put his business at risk. This clearly shows that the lawyer does not care about his employee’s welfare but that of his firm. Arguably, the boss’s source of pity for Bartleby results after realizing the employee’s usefulness to his job and fear that a dismissal from the job would make him benefit another employer. The lawyer says, “Yes, Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval” (10). Even for the other scriveners, Turkey and Nipper, the lawyer acknowledges their low economic status and considers keeping them as workers because of the little effort they put to work each day. Even after Bartleby ceases working, the boss decides not to inform the police to evict him but keep him in the office as a valueless employee. Through Bartleby, the novel shows how the boss had become trapped by the capitalist economy to demand his employees dedicate considerable time in exchange for poor pay. This is also the case with many employers in many parts of the world where employees are exploited.
As mentioned the two characters, Bartleby and the lawyer come out as lacking communication skills. This case applies more on the side of Bartleby who cannot face his employer and talk things out. When both of them realize that they heading in the wrong direction, they do not talk about the situation. The lawyer, being the employer should have sat Bartleby down and given him guidelines on how to go about his work. Again, he should have given Bartleby the guidelines on the expectations of the job. On his part, Bartleby ought to have talked to his employer when he realized that he was falling short of expectations. As evident in the story, the two did not hold any talks when Bartleby started to underperform and fail to follow instructions. “In the following, I take up Bartleby as a figure upon which literature, science, and philosophy intersect on the question of human communication” (Pinchevski 28). In any workplace setting, the employer and the employee must be in constant communication. Lack of communication in the firm also leads to poor pay on the part of the employees. Since they are not in proper communication with their employer, the three employees are paid poorly for their services by their selfish boss.
Again looking at the story by Melville, one would realize that it is characterized by negative affirmation in both words and actions. Both Bartleby and his employer do not accept the things that happen in their lives and opt to lie to themselves. For instance, at first, Bartleby does not reveal who he is at decides to act like a diligent and hardworking employee. This makes his employer believe that he can trust him to move the firm to the next level. Later, Bartleby reveals his true self when he goes against his employer’s instructions and does not complete simple tasks assigned to him. “His enigmatic copyist, Bartleby, does little more than to appear forlorn and to perplexingly just say ‘I prefer not to” (Widmer 276). Deep down Bartleby convinces himself that he could achieve the job goals by acting nice and hardworking to his employer. However, this does not work as he is eventually exposed as someone who cannot work under supervision and follow instructions. On the other hand, the lawyer also seems to live under negative affirmation that Bartleby is a good employee. However, deep down, he knows that he cannot order Bartleby anything in the law firm. When he orders Bartleby to do something, he declines to state that he prefers not to do anything. Despite this, the lawyer still keeps him on the job lying to himself that he is a good employee and that he would get better. Generally, negative affirmation is quite evident in the story, especially through the two characters.
To sum up, Bartleby, The Scrivener is a story that depicts the narrator as a compassionate, materialistic, and self-satisfied boss. At the novel’s beginning, the narrator’s empathy makes him employ the scriveners as his workers despite their numerous flaws hindering productivity. However, despite the generous offers, his obsession with his work and numerous references to his employees as inferior beings make him appear a materialistic boss who is also individualistic.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Great Short Works of Herman Melville (1969): 39-74.
Pinchevski, Amit. “Bartleby’s Autism: Wandering along Incommunicability.” Cultural Critique, vol. 78. 2011. pp. 27-59. JSTOR.
Widmer, Kingsley. “THE NEGATIVE AFFIRMATION: MELVILLE’S ‘BARTLEBY.’” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 8. 1962. pp. 276-286. JSTOR.
Rishmawi, George. “BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER- A Character Study.” Bethlehem University Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, 1981, pp. 15-18. JSTOR.