“Bartleby the Scrivener” is a complex story, so I am going to zero in on one particularly interesting and intelligent aspect of it. Due to the power of the message even this one particular aspect will be complex, of course. The first thing to note is that the story has a first-person narrator. The narrator, an anonymous lawyer, is in fact a major character in his own right. Ostensibly the story is about Bartleby and his actions as a scrivener. However, what the story is really about, in a sense, is the effect Bartleby seems to have on the narrator. We learn a great deal about the narrator, but more importantly, we see him undergo several rather significant changes. These changes bring to light Melvilles comment on the oppression and lack of compassion in the emerging capitalist economy.
The narrator’s initial self-characterization is important to the story. He is a “safe” man, one who takes few risks and tries above all to conform to societies norms (Melville 1109). The most pragmatic concerns of financial security and ease of life are his priorities. He has made himself perfectly at home in the modern economy: he works as a lawyer dealing with rich men’s legal documents. He is therefore a complement or a double to Bartleby in many ways.
Doubling is a recurring theme in “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Bartleby is a phantom double of our narrator, and the parallels between them will be explored later. Nippers and Turkey are doubles of each other. Nippers is useless in the morning and productive in the afternoon, while Turkey is drunk in the afternoon and productive in the morning. Nippers’ ambition mirrors Turkey’s resignation to his place and his sad, uneventful career, the difference coming about because of their respective ages.
Nippers cherishes ambitions of being more than a mere scrivener, while the elderly Turkey must plead with the narrator to consider his age when evaluating his productivity. Their vices are also parallel, in terms of being appropriate vices for each man’s respective age. Alcoholism is a vice that develops with time. Ambition arguably is most volatile in a man’s youth. These characters provide valuable comic relief in what is otherwise a somber and upsetting tale. Melvilles purpose in making Bartlebys personality act complimentary to the narrators is to demonstrate the change in the narrator and therefore make his message accessible.
Increasingly, Bartleby is described in ghostly terms, and a perceptive reader will soon realize that the ghost is in some ways the narrator’s double. Yet, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself (1120). Presumably the lawyer is also a bachelor. They may have more in common than immediately appears to be. Both are probably well acquainted with loneliness. This sense of loneliness and the ways in which Bartleby has been described in phantom terms are now connecting the two characters.
Note how often we see Bartleby as phantom, as when the narrator roars his name until he appears. “Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage” (1118). Later, we learn that Bartleby haunts the building. Like a ghost, he lives in the office when no one else is there, when Wall Street is a desert. A landscape both completely unnatural and forlornly empty (1120). Once again connecting the characters through loneliness.
The narrator senses that there are parallels between himself and the scrivener, and Bartleby’s gloom infects him: “Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam” (1120). Here, the narrator truly connects with Bartleby and so gains a new perspective on himself and the connections between human beings. Bartleby’s plight draws the narrator into depths of feeling that he did not know he was capable of.
Part of Bartleby’s power over the narrator is that the lawyer somehow sees Bartleby as a part of himself. He, too, has been forced to adapt to the business world. But while he has adapted and gone through the consequent numbing (previously unable to feel more than a “not unpleasing sadness”), Bartleby has been bludgeoned to exhaustion. Nothing pleases him about this world. The narrator is changing from this compassionless attitude and wants to help Bartleby. For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me (1120). The lawyer is changing, and is having feelings of sadness (about the human condition?) that he never admitted to himself before.
We had been warned that the narrator is a safe man who thinks the easiest path is also the best (1109). His prudential feeling gets the better of his and his pity for Bartleby turns to repulsion (1121). The narrator’s plight works through the themes of responsibility and compassion. His obligations, in one sense, are nothing. As far as Bartleby is a living, suffering being, and that both men are “sons of Adam,” the narrator arguably should do all that he can. The narrators common sense causes him to come to the conclusion that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder (1121). He sees Bartleby as hopelessly sick. After asserting that after a certain point, pity becomes revulsion, he defends the transformation: “They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill” (1121).
Yet the narrator goes on to describe the transformation as defensive. Although he denies the charge that the pity-to-repulsion change is due to selfishness, his explanation of the motives behind it seem like little more than a selfishness that is philosophically justified. Ironically, on the day his pity turns to repulsion, the narrator was on his way to Church. The narrator never does make it to Church that day, and the symbolism is obvious. Now, one Sunday morning I happened to go to Trinity Church, to hear a celebrated preacher Though he was on his way to see a celebrated preacher, religion’s highest ideals do not win a place in the narrator’s heart.
Also, he says that he is going to see the celebrated preacher as though there was no other reason to go. Melville, it seems, is taking a small jab at religion and its inability to change men meaningfully for the better in the face of this pitiless world that had been created. The narrator will try to help Bartleby return home, but we will see that there are limits to what he feels he can do.
The story progresses to show more of Bartlebys affirmations that he would prefer to do nothing. The narrator’s offer to have Bartleby stay at his own home seems initially generous, but this belated offer of hospitality comes from a fear of scandal: a lawyer has threatened to publish the case in the papers. Yet one of the accomplishments of the story is that our narrator has become, basically, a decent man. When Bartleby chooses to stop copying altogether, the narrator feels that he has no choice but to move offices to get rid of the scrivener. His abandonment of Bartleby is in no way exceptional, nor are we meant to see the narrator as more cruel or uncaring than the rest of humanity. If he fails Bartleby, we also must concede that most of us would fail him as well. The prudent choice here would be to go to the authorities and, except for the possible scandal, have them take care of Bartleby. The narrators personality has at least become more compassionate if not wholeheartedly.
What we notice here, therefore, is a series of rather significant changes not in our main character (ostensibly the main character is Bartleby) but in our narrator.
Good-bye, Bartleby; I am going–good-bye, and God some way bless you; and take that, slipping something in his hand. But it dropped to the floor, and then,–strange to say–I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of. (1129)
Finally, as the narrator better understands his connection to Bartleby, the ghostly descriptions of Bartleby are now extended to the narrator. He describes going up the stairs to his old office as “going upstairs to my old haunt” (1130 Italics are mine). The language is part of the expansion of Bartleby’s ghastly characteristics to the narrator and later, to all of humanity. The narrators change is more evident at this point. He is being described as the same sort of apparition as Bartleby. [Bartleby] now persists in haunting the building generally (1129 Italics are mine). The fact that the similarities are now being shown so blatantly demonstrates the change in the narrator, as they are his own words.
The sequel in Bartleby the Scrivener sees the narrator explaining how Bartleby came to look for a job at his office. The narrator gives a description, which he has fashioned, of the goings on at the Dead Letter Office in Washington. Notice the stories that the narrator associates with these letters: all tragic stories of blocked communications. Since he is creating the stories, it seems clear that he has been touched deeply by his experience with Bartleby. It is doubtful that the lawyer at the beginning of the story, as he pictured himself, could have imagined such personal tragedies. Here we see the denouement. The culmination of the change that Bartleby has affected in the lawyer.
This final sentence shows a depth of emotion that would have been impossible for the narrator at the beginning of the story. This obvious change gives readers the evidence that Melville was trying to display in support of his view of the negative aspects of the business world. This world and the humanity in it had affected both characters. Bartleby of course was the employee whose constant bombardment with the uncompassionate and pitiless world of Capitalism caused him to lose desire to think for himself and as a response to do nothing. The narrator was the employer whose use of the repetitive and routine tasks of his profession caused him to lose compassion and responsibility. The change in the narrator that one can see take place over the course of the story brings these traits and the institutions that founded them into glaring clarity.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. The Norton Anthology
of American Literature. Shorter 5th Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W.
Norton &Company, 1999. 1109-1134