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Bartleby, the Scrivener


In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the narrator, an anonymous lawyer, describes himself as one who lives a simple and mundane life. According to the narrator, his philosophy on life is that “the easiest way in life is the best way”. He is a man who takes few risks in life and tries to conform to the norm of society. However, after hiring a new scrivener, Bartleby, the narrator finds himself pulled into an existence of confusion and conflict.


The protagonist informs us that for thirty some odd years he has maintained a descent business preparing documents for the wealthy. He also makes it known that he stays away from the court room because he is not ambitious and he is known to be extremely safe. By the narrator’s own admission he knows very little about his employees; he knows only what he sees at the office. Turkey, one of the narrator’s law copyists, is productive in the morning and drunk in the afternoon. On the other hand, Nipper is plagued by indigestion in the morning and productive in the afternoon. Instead of confronting his employee’s the protagonist reasons that one counteracts the other. Hence “when Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off and vice versa.” By doing so the narrator is justifying the situation and life at the office goes on as usual. As long as the scriveners are productive the narrator allows for their short comings; therefore, avoiding any conflict. When business increases the protagonist decides to hire a new scrivener instead of demanding more of Turkey and Nipper (again avoiding discord).


The new scrivener Bartleby, bring a new element of surprise to the office. To the narrator’s delight Bartleby works diligently from daylight to dark. On the other hand, the protagonist is displeased with him because he is too passive. The office atmosphere is quiet and serene just the way the narrator likes it; however, now he complains that Bartleby in not cheerful and that silence bothers him. But he does not expose that fact because he wants to prevent any conflict. Bartleby is asked to join in on the proof reading of a legal document. Bartleby refuses. The narrator is stunned; he can not believe nor justify why Bartleby chooses not to participate in what is clearly part of his job description. The protagonist runs through his mind all the things that he is going to put forth to Bartleby as to why he cannot refuse. He starts with anger and then he resorts to analyzing the situation and then he is just plain taken back. At this point he decides that he is to busy to worry about it now; therefore, this discussion will have to take place later. The protagonist has just evaded another conflict.





Over and over again the protagonist appeals to Bartleby’s humanity, begging that he give in and do a decent mans work, for it is at this point Bartleby has given up working altogether. To no avail will Bartleby comply. The narrator is very confused. In his own words he states that he would have fired any other individual that was disobedient; however, he respects Bartleby’s passiveness and his diligent behavior of “I prefer not to”.


The protagonist, never claiming to be a religious man, is now quoting verses from the Bible; he is depending on the scriptures to give him the inner strength that clearly he does not have. He claims that it is his desire to help Bartleby yet the thought that sustains him is that this good deed is really going to benefit him in the here after.


Melville relates to us, that it is through the protagonist’s desire to avoid conflict that he examines his own responsibilities for the well-being of his fellow man. Also, it is through the protagonist’s own confusion that he tries to reason with, to bribe, and to befriend Bartleby. However, in the end like everything else in the protagonist’s life it is easier to put the burden on someone else.


“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”





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