Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wallstreet by Herman Melville, 1853

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by Herman Melville, 1853

In the 1853 story "Bartleby," Herman Melville anticipates the alienation theme so common in the works of contemporary American writers. He poses the question: "Why would someone prefer the independence of homelessness to the meager security that society offers the homeless?" By asking and not answering this question, he offers a puzzling story unusually open to interpretation.

Though this short work is best known simply as "Bartleby," its full title—"Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street"—is significant. At the beginning of the story, the title character is a scrivener, or law copyist, the mid-nineteenth-century equivalent of a human photocopying machine. But very soon, he ceases to scriven.

When Bartleby stops, is he still the scrivener? Can he be? Does he, and do we, acquire identities only through work? Or do people have inherent value whether or not they produce labor? The analogy between Bartleby and all of humankind becomes explicit in Melville's final two sentences: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" The concerned tone of this last line, and of the story, belongs to a narrator who, like his money-driven society, ironically drains Bartleby's life of energy even while mouthing pious personal concern for him.

The subtitle, "A Story of Wall Street," drives home this point. Although Bartleby works for a Wall Street lawyer, not a stockbroker, his placement in the nation's financial center has obvious economic implications. Wall Street is also an important verbal symbol. Walls of many kinds recur in the story, making Bartleby seem like a laboratory subject trapped in a maze with no exit. Dead ends, blank walls, or dead walls reinforce this image of hopelessness. As Leo Marx's 1953 essay "Melville's Parable of the Walls" points out, Bartleby works in a stultifying office: from Wall Street its two windows look out on a white wall and "a lofty brick wall, black by age," located within ten feet of the office workers. In the office itself Bartleby is seated near a small window, "which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy backyards and bricks but which owing to some subsequent erections commanded at present no view at all. Within three feet of the panes was a wall," further enclosing Bartleby. The lawyer-narrator, whose office is divided in two by "ground-glass folding doors," has even "procured a high green folding screen which might entirely isolate Bartleby from [his] sight."

Having stopped work, Bartleby continues living at his desk, eating little, responding "I would prefer not to" to his employer's and fellow workers' requests. "For long periods," the narrator relates, "he would stand looking out … upon the dead brick wall"; he would be "behind his screen … in one of those dead wall reveries of his," around the clock, seven days a week. Wall Street is compared to Petra, a Middle Eastern city desolated in the ninth century A.D. and covered by sand until archeologists unearthed it in 1812. (Petra, the Greek word for "rock," draws a further analogy between Wall Street and Petra as two lifeless sealed tombs.) In his dismal abode Bartleby stays, even after the narrator fires him. The narrator later finds him in "The Tombs"—the city jail—staring at "a high wall." The architecture of the Tombs is distinctly Egyptian looking, with formidable walls and pillars.

References to Egypt, Petra, and Carthage aside, much of "Bartleby" is rooted in the ancient world, particularly in the Bible. Melville, a lifelong rebel against his strict Dutch Reformed up-bringing, juxtaposes biblical ethics with those of contemporary Wall Street, most scathingly by quoting Jesus from John 3:34: "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye shall love one another." Though briefly inspired by the command to treat Bartleby kindly, the narrator quickly reverts to ignoring it, behaving as if the absolute command were limited to occasions when such love is convenient or when the recipient is suitably grateful. The narrator soon blithely rationalizes his disobedience and then abdicates the limited responsibility for Bartleby he had assumed, letting his ex-landlord charge Bartleby with vagrancy.

The narrator's passivity mirrors Bartleby's, although the narrator remains unaware of any parallel between himself and his clerk. As he tells the story, his mood ranges from patient to angry to Christian to vengeful and finally to compassionate, while Bartleby is expressionless throughout. As the story's conflict heightens, Bartleby grows increasingly passive. The effect is comical. The narrator seriously claims to seek an active solution. His extreme moodswings, however, show his self-deception, while Bartleby's nihilistic calm speaks to his self-knowledge.

Bartleby has also been viewed as a representation of Jesus Christ, the master whose commandment the narrator ignores. Accepting his impending death calmly, Bartleby responds to his persecutors' questions indirectly but with omniscient contempt. Further parallels have been suggested: between the narrator and Pontius Pilate, between the narrator and Melville's father-in-law, between Bartleby and Henry Thoreau, and between Bartleby and numerous others, particularly Melville himself.

Like Bartleby, Melville had made a comfortable living as a scrivener of sorts: his adventurous sea tales of the 1840s had great commercial success. But in the 1850s the author refused to plagiarize his own adventure stories. Instead, he insisted on writing his own way, a way that seemed to spell his artistic extinction; the dense Pierre and the dark Moby-Dick practically destroyed him as a commercial writer. Yet to continue copying themselves, Melville and Bartleby could not.

—Steven Goldleaf

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Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wallstreet by Herman Melville, 1853

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