Bartleby the Scrivener is a contemporary narrative by Herman Melville about the life of Bartleby narrated by his employer, the lawyer. Bartleby is a peculiar individual who defies societal norms and has strange interactions with his employers, colleagues and the general society. The lawyer, Bartleby’s employer, tries to hold rational discussions with Bartleby over his peculiar preferences to no avail. Despite the lawyer’s desire to understand and help Bartleby, he chooses to retain his work reputation over the need to help Bartleby. Therefore, the narrative reveals that although societies accept capitalism as a civilization, capitalism can push individuals to levels where they decide to escape civilization.
In a society run by capitalists, they must continue maximizing their profits to increase their wealth. The lawyer aims to grow his practice, which eventually leads to the need for him to acquire more office space and labor to assist in his daily tasks. The lawyer acquires space in Wall Street and hires three workers; Turkey and Nippers, copyist, and Ginger Nut, the office-boy. Although the lawyer’s firm does well to maintain him and his workers, the lawyer still pays his workers’ meagre wages such that Turkey’s low income could barely afford him a lustrous coat (Melville 1473). The lawyer’s willingness to have Turkey only work in the mornings when he was most productive rather than have him within the office premises when he was less productive and irritable in the afternoon exhibits his capitalist mentality (Melville 1472). The lawyer was willing to overlook some of his employees’ shortcomings as long as they were profitable in some way to him. Similarly, with Bartleby, the lawyer was willing to overlook his preference not to do something as long as he kept copying (Melville 1479). However, the moment Bartleby’s presence and preferences become a nuisance and scandalize his reputation; the lawyer quickly dismisses him (Melville 1489). Capitalists are willing to do everything to protect their sources of income, regardless of the impact it has on their workers.
Employers with a capitalist mindset hardly care about their employees’ well-being, which might have detrimental effects on their employees. The narrative depicts the lawyer as a man who hardly cares about his employees’ well-being unless they have queer tendencies like Bartleby. For instance, nippers had a pretty uncomfortable desk, and the lawyer made no effort to remedy this for him (Melville 1472). Workers tired of the capitalist system may choose to rebel against it leading to behaviors that show an escape from civilization. An individual who escapes civilization acts contrary to the expectations of a civilized society. The society depicted by Herman Melville is one whose civilization required individuals to work and submit to their employer’s demands. For instance, we see that both Turkey and Nippers submit to all of the lawyer’s instructions and use terms such as “With submission sir” when addressing the lawyer (Melville 1472). The lawyer also states that he expected “instant compliance” from his employees when he beckoned them to perform any task (Melville 1475). However, Bartleby does not conform to this expectation defies the expected employer-employee relationship.
Bartleby’s behavior results from a desire to escape civilization. Bartleby severally says that he “prefers not to” perform some of the tasks that the lawyer kept requesting him to perform, such as examining his copies (Melville 1476). Moreover, despite the premises belonging to the lawyer, when the lawyer wanted to access them on Sunday, he found Bartleby using the premises as his home, and Bartleby orders the lawyer to take a walk while he arranges the premises (Melville 1480). Bartleby’s behavior was unacceptable, and it rattled both his employer and his colleagues. It was unnatural for a man to make his work premises his home, hardly eat, be friendless and live a life of solitude as Bartleby did. Furthermore, Bartleby got tired of his job and quit but still refused to leave the premises (Melville 1484). Despite the lawyer’s incessant request for Bartleby to leave the premises, Bartleby refused to comply, eventually forcing the lawyer to vacate the premises (Melville 1490). Bartleby remained within the premises and became a nuisance to the tenants, causing the landlord to have him arrested and placed in jail where he starved himself to death (Melville 1490. Later on, the lawyer discovered that Bartleby was a product of a capitalist system that had exploited his services and, once tired of him, dismissed him without being mindful of the job’s effect on his well-being (Melville 1494). Bartleby’s life illustrates how an individual who escapes civilization can become a discomfort to those around him despite efforts to try and extend help to him.
Although society accepts the capitalist system as a civilization, it can push individuals to levels where they decide to escape civilization. The lawyer in the narrative was a capitalist whose desire was to expand his practice and gain wealth. Expansion of his business led to him hiring extra help for the tasks he did. One of the people he hired was Bartleby, who, although he was a proficient worker, exhibited odd habits such as preferring not to perform some tasks and using the lawyer’s premises as a home. The narrative amplifies Bartleby’s escape from civilization when he refuses to leave the lawyer’s premises despite being dismissed from his duties. Later on, the lawyer learns that Bartleby was a product of a capitalist society that pushed him to escape civilization.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. 9th ed., edited by Robert S. Levine, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 1469-1495.