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Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville Essay

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Updated: Jul 14th, 2021

Bartleby the Scrivener is a famous short story by Herman Melville, which was first published in 1853. The work involves the narrator’s account of an employee named Bartleby, who refused to follow orders and instructions, saying that he “would prefer not to” (Melville 7).

The image of Bartleby and his opposition to the narrator has been interpreted in many ways. Some people believe that the story is an exploration of clinical depression and its impact on all areas of a person’s life, while others view Bartleby as a reflection of Melville’s inner thoughts and apathy. However, given the context of the work, which was written in the period after the American Revolution and the Enlightenment, which was also called the Age of Reason, Bartleby’s image might have other meanings. The present paper will explore the characteristics that make Bartleby a man of his time and comment on the opposition between the character and the narrator.

The story is written from a first-person perspective, and the narrator is a lawyer who employs Bartleby to copy documents. At the beginning of the work, Bartleby appears to be a diligent and hardworking employee. He performs his duties in a timely manner and has excellent handwriting, which impresses his employer. The first instance of refusal occurs after the narrator asks Bartleby to compare two documents, which is not included in his key responsibilities.

Bartleby responds to the demand with, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 7). This stuns the narrator, who is not used to hear this phrase from his employees. As the days go by, Bartleby refuses more and more tasks and eventually ends in prison, where he dies of starvation after denying all types of food.

In the context of the work, Bartleby’s image can be interpreted in two different ways. First of all, the period following the American Revolution is characterized by the formation of the American identity. Freedom has become a significant part of this new identity; to this day, many American people see the freedom of speech, action, and opportunity as the key values of the U.S. society.

British people were widely seen as strictly following the rules, and after the Revolution, people began to reject many established rules and norms in favor of individual freedom and humanism. As the story is set in post-revolutionary America, Bartleby’s actions could thus be seen as a satirical example of the notion of freedom in the American culture. By refusing to comply with demands and instructions, Bartleby thus rejects the old values and norms of the society and executes his right to freedom of choice.

The second possible interpretation of Bartleby’s character is that he represents the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment period. In the Age of Reason, many philosophers expressed their ideas about ethics, human nature, and freedom of choice. For instance, hedonism emphasized that pleasure is the ultimate value in life and that people should avoid making decisions that place them in an uncomfortable position or prevent their happiness (Humphreys). In this light, Bartleby’s character can be seen as a distorted representation of hedonism, since he makes decisions that are the most comfortable for him. For example, he has no place to live, so he stays at the office even after being fired. When Bartleby refuses to eat and starves to death, Melville thus shows that hedonism is incompatible with the contemporary way of life.

Another ethical notion that can be considered with respect to the story is hard determinism. The basic principle of hard determinism is that all actions and decisions are caused by external factors, and thus free will is impossible (Westacott). Bartleby acts in opposition to this idea, exercising his free will whenever he can. This creates a parallel between the character and many philosophers who contested the notion of hard determinism in favor of free will during the Enlightenment period.

The narrator can be seen as the opposite of Bartleby since he follows the rules and expects his workers to do the same. Due to this difference in actions and worldviews, Bartleby’s behavior stuns, confuses, and angers him. Nevertheless, towards the end of the story, the narrator begins to empathize with and even admire Bartleby. He visits the former employee in prison and attempts to find out more about him, but Bartleby does not provide any essential details about his past.

The opposition between Bartleby and the narrator can be interpreted as the conflict between the old and the new society in America. As explained above, the influence of the Revolution and the Enlightenment has contributed to a significant change in Western society. The final lines of the story, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” show the author’s understanding of this change (Melville 29).

All in all, through Bartleby’s character and his disputes with the narrator, Melville made two points. On the one hand, he portrayed the changes to the American identity and society that occurred following the events of the 18th century, thus entering the discourse of freedom and free will. On the other hand, Melville argued that the idealistic view of human freedom that was popular in the American society of the time was incompatible with the realities of life. Hence, according to Melville’s interpretation, the new way of life promoted by contemporary philosophers was to be taken with scrutiny, and the decision to make it part of the new American identity was thus questionable.

Works Cited

Humphreys, Joe. “The Irish Times. 2017. Web.

Melville, Herman. . 1853. Web.

Westacott, Emrys. “ThoughtCo. 2018. Web.

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