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Bartleby the Scrivener Explicatory Essay

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Updated: Oct 19th, 2019


Materialism has taken precedence over humanity in contemporary society. Melville had foreseen this fact when he wrote Bartleby the Scrivener. This is a masterpiece expounding how materialism can derail humanity and men turn into selfish brutes that care less about fellow men. Bartleby the Scrivener revolves around a “scrivener”, working for a lawyer who doubles as the narrator.

After the lawyer places an advert in the local newspaper, Bartleby applies for the position of a copyist and the lawyer hires him. The first few days in job are great for Bartleby, given his swiftness and accuracy in writing. However, as the story unfolds, things change as Bartley starts to shun his duties for no good reason.

The Lawyer tries to fire him but he cannot hear anything of that sort. Finally, Bartley ends in prison on charges of vagrancy and dies few days later. This story is important for it highlights how philistinism and consumerism rose in American society and its effects on charity and humanity.


As aforementioned, the Lawyer, who runs a law firm on Wall Street, is the narrator. He apparently has two copyists, Turkey and Nippers but they do not astound him as Bartleby does.

Turkey is the Lawyer’s age mate (over sixty years) and even though he is a prudent copyist, as afternoons approach he wears out quickly and makes silly mistakes in typing. On the other side, Nippers, a twenty-five year old energetic lad, is the precise opposite of Turkey. He has issues in the morning sessions but as afternoons approach, he concentrates more in his work giving better results.

However, this story concentrates on Bartleby, a newly employed copyist. His enormous output in the job delights the Lawyer for he works day and night without complaining. However, Bartleby’s vibrancy lasts for a few days after which he starts to refuse doing his job. After the Lawyer consults him to do some work, he says, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 5).

The Lawyer does not realize this stance would later turn to a mantra until Bartleby uses it often and sticks to it. Bartleby, courteously but firmly refuses to do his routine job; something that puzzles the Lawyer, who calls it “passive resistance.” The Lawyer seeks to find out why Bartleby does not want to do his job; however, he gets the same reply of ‘…not to’.

Bartleby’s behavior puzzles the Lawyer forcing him to ask other copyists what they think about Bartleby. They confirm that his actions are strange and unreasonable. After a final try to get Bartleby do his job, the Lawyer rushes out to attend some business but he vows to investigate the issue.

After scrutinizing for a few days, the Lawyer realizes that Bartleby does not leave the office or take lunch or tea; he only takes snacks that Nuts, the errand boy brings him. The lawyer rues that, “nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance” (Melville 12).

Nevertheless, he starts pitying Bartleby for he concludes that whatever he does, he does it involuntarily. The lawyer resolves that he will “cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval” (Melville 21), by keeping Bartleby as his workers for he thinks if he lets him go, he would be mistreated by other employers; therefore, to the Lawyer, he is doing charity to Bartleby. Nevertheless, Bartleby does not care and he refuses to do any work even collecting some letters from the post office.

As the story unfolds, the Lawyer passes by his office on one Sunday morning only to find Bartleby inside, wearing shirtsleeves. Bartley asks the Lawyer to come back after few minutes but when he returns, he finds Bartleby gone; however, he can clearly tell that Bartleby lives in the office.

The Lawyer pities Bartleby more and even though he tries to gather information about his life, Bartleby does not divulge anything significant. After couple of days, Bartleby tells the Lawyer that he will never write; something that makes the Lawyer suspect Bartleby has lost his sight.

However, to the Lawyer’s disappointment, Bartleby insists that even if he regains his vision, he would not write. Consequently, the Lawyer asks Bartleby to leave the office but he quietly refuses. Regardless, of this, the Lawyer thinks that by letting Bartleby live in the office, he would be practicing some good Christian habits.

However, after few days, Bartleby’s presence draws attention of some friends and customers and the Lawyer decides to move his business to another apartment to save it. Few days, the new tenant of the Lawyer’s previous apartment visits the Lawyer and asks him to deal with Bartleby. The Lawyer states clearly that Bartleby is no longer his worker so he has nothing to do with him.

Few days later, the new tenant comes back to the Lawyer and pleads with him to talk with Bartleby and the Lawyer agrees. To his disappointment, he finds that Bartleby is stubborn as ever and even after the Lawyer invites him to come live in his house, Bartleby refuses. The Lawyer simply leaves for he cannot do anything more and this leads to Bartleby arrest on charges of vagrancy.

The Lawyer pays Bartleby a visit in jail but he does not even want to see him so Bartleby refuses to talk to him. Even after the Lawyer arranges with prison warders to feed Bartleby well, he declines to eat. As the story closes, the Lawyer finds Bartleby dead under a tree shade in the prison compound. The story ends by revealing that Bartleby previously worked in the offices of the Dead Letter but new administrators fired him. The Lawyer cannot help thinking whether copyist job was so depressing to make someone mad just like Bartleby.

Why Read the Story

The worthiness of this story comes from its two major themes, materialism, and charity. Given the time that Melville wrote this story, it highlights how materialism was on the rise around this time. The strategic setting of the story in The Wall Street echoes this theme because; The Wall Street was popularly becoming a hub for financial gains.

Melville uses Bartleby’s passive resistance to carry out his duties symbolically. It symbolizes the passive resistance that people had towards economic control. Therefore, this story is important for it underpins how Americans rose to materialism that is so prevalent in contemporary America.

On the other side, this story tackles charity work, giving insight of how philistinism and consumerism corrupted it. The Lawyer has a new definition for charity as he defines it with respect to cost and returns. He says, “Poor fellow! Thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence I can get along with him. If I turn him away he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval.

To befriend Bartleby will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience” (Melville 32). The Lawyers thoughts are clear in this context. Even though he sympathizes with Bartleby, he sees an opportunity to use him for he is useful. He cannot believe another employer ‘using’ Bartleby.

In pretext of helping Bartleby, by practicing good Christian habits, he only leverages self-approval by “cheaply purchasing delicious self-approval for his conscience” (Melville 21). He approves his conscience by pretending to keep Bartleby as a worker.

If anything, he frequently asks Bartleby to do some writing which will largely benefit him. The Lawyer’s ‘charity’ actions come under question when he decides to move his business because Bartleby is affecting it. This is not charity work at all.

It is true that the Lawyer offers to take Bartleby into his house but this is an act of justifying his conscience. Materialism overrides charity in this context; the fact that the Lawyer decides to leave Bartleby, shows that money is important to him than ‘charity.’ Melville highlights how materialism drowned good principles like charity work.

People’s consciences tell them that they need to uphold humanity; regrettably, the quest to get more money overrides this natural call of conscience. Therefore, this story is informative and this qualifies its worthiness.


Melville, through his story, Bartleby the Scrivener, highlights crucial issues that are important for anyone to know. Through Bartleby’s quite resistance to carry out his duties, the reader can get a picture of how rise of materialism gave people impetus and zeal to resist economic regulation. On the other side, the Lawyer tries to justify his conscience by offering ‘half-baked’ charity actions. He does not want to let Bartleby leave; he offers to keep him and pretend he is charitable to purchase a sweet conscience.

Materialism has taken the better part of people’s lives and they do not care what is happening to others. Naturally, human beings have ‘humanity’ conscience that compels them to help others. However, they do not have time for that; therefore, they resort to shoddy charity actions like the Lawyer, to ‘purchase’ their peace of mind.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby the Scrivener; A Story of Wall Street.” Plain Label Books, 1977.

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