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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” Essay

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Updated: Feb 18th, 2019

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a rather untypical sort of stories. Having a generally light-hearted character, the story appears to be extremely educational. It amazes, entertains, and sometimes even terrifies the readers with its main character, Bartleby, and his behavior, which the author often calls “unaccountable” (Melville, 8).

Undoubtedly, the man appeals to its readers in some inexplicable way, and gives new lessons to them. However, an interesting point to explore is not the interrelations between the reader and the character, but between the narrator and Bartleby.

The story is told from the first person singular, thus giving the readers a chance to see everything with the eyes of the narrator. He often tells about his feelings, emotions, and thoughts, which he has in the course of communication with Bartleby. As it may first appear to the readers, the narrator does not understand anything about the man’s behavior. Bartleby’s origin, interests, character, preferences – everything is covered with a thick fog of mystery, and there seems to be no chance to ever approach to his thoughts or feelings.

In addition, a vivid contrast of their perceptions of different situations is presented. Indeed, while the narrator expresses such feelings towards Bartleby, as being “disconcerted”, “consternated”, “perplexed”, “irritated”, and so on, the man remained “oblivious” and “dimly calm”, sticking to his “steadiness” and “unalterableness of demeanor” (Melville, 31).

All the mentioned emotions or their absence proved that the relations between the narrator and the scrivener seem to be rather one-sided. Bartleby is not by any means rude, or impolite; he is simply passive. At the same time, the narrator does not give up his idea to break the ice and become friends with the worker.

This purpose seems unjustified, when at the end of the story Bartleby dies, despite all the attempts of the narrator to help him. However, these one-sided relations implied something more than unsuccessful tries. Despite the fact that Bartleby was not eager to communicate, he helped the narrator to learn a lot of things. Even though the author does not name these things directly, they can be seen in some details of the story.

Indeed, the changes in narrator’s character are obvious throughout the story. Indisputably, these changes were caused by his communication with the scrivener. One of the basic changes is his attitude to life. At the beginning of the story, the narrator mentions: “though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace” (Melville, 2).

From this quote we can see, that the narrator is obviously a rather calm man, who does not let his emotions out, if he ever has any. However, after getting acquainted with Bartleby, the narrator has become rather emotional, and sometimes too expressive. At first sight it may appear that the range of emotions felt by narrator are caused by anger. Indeed, he was treated with disrespect by one of his employees, who only answered to all of his asks: “I prefer not to” (Melville, 15).

However, in case the basic feeling was anger, the narrator could have been more abrupt, or even cruel to the scrivener. But the more reservation Bartleby carried, the more interest he caused in his chief. This proves that the narrator cared for him. Undoubtedly, the narrator felt much of compassion, which testifies his human qualities.

It should be noted though, that these human qualities were revealed by Bartleby alone, as far as before communication with him the narrator never showed them. Therefore, it can be stated that communication with Bartleby made the narrator more open; he did not only try to help, but he was eager to understand the scrivener, indefatigably analyzing his behavior and trying to justify it.

What is more, the narrator admits the above stated idea himself: “I trembled to think that my contact with the scrivener had already and seriously affected me in a mental way” (Melville, 19).

As we can see, the narrator changed not only his behavior, but also his way of thinking. It was a great surprise for the readers to discover that a man, who was described to be a “perpetual sentry in the corner” (Melville, 8), and who barely said a word to one of his colleagues, was eventually admitted by the narrator to have “in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks” (Melville, 20).

All the workers of the office gave up the idea to change Bartleby and accepted him as he was. This is probably the greatest lesson the narrator learned from this scrivener: to take things as they come, not trying to adapt them to his subjective views.

At the end of the story, when the narrator attends Bartleby in the Tombs, he seems to have a completely different perception of the man, comparing to the one that was at the very beginning. When the grub-man calls Bartleby “odd”, the narrator answers that he would rather call him “deranged” (Melville, 46).

That is where we see, that the narrator does not see Bartleby as a demented man anymore, but treats the specific features of his character with respect. What is more, he showed a disinterested will to help, when offering money to the grub-man, in order to keep Bartleby fed well. Such an unselfish devotion to a person, whom he barely knows, attests the deepest changes in the narrator’s consciousness.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Bartleby the Scrivener. NY: Kessinger Publishing Co, 2004.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"." February 18, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/herman-melvilles-bartleby-the-scrivener/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"'. 18 February.

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