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Workplace Culture in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” Essay

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Updated: Dec 4th, 2020

Introductory Research


Many attitudes are developed to the short story written by Herman Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener” in 1853. It remains one of the best stories about the strangest law-copyist. In this essay, the analysis of “Bartleby the Scrivener” helps develop a strong understanding of the culture of the modern workplace compared to the one preferred in the previous centuries and the factors that influence people’s perceptions of their duties and responsibilities.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville was an American writer and poet during the Renaissance period. He was born in New York in 1819, and he got scarlet fever when he was young due to which his vision was permanently impaired (“Herman Melville Biography”). He spent several years at sea, being captured by cannibals and jailed. When he returned home, he shared his personal experience in short stories, novels like Moby-Dick, and poems. Despite a unique writing style and exclusive imagination, Melville died at home, staying a poorly recognizable author. His fame as one of the best classic Renaissance authors came late after his death.

“Bartleby the Scrivener”

“Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of the most ambiguous works created by Melville. The story questions such issues as autonomy, respect, and privacy in the workplace (Lantos 4). Bartleby is an office worker who differs from other employees by his “powerful defiance” and the ability to negate “all the conventional, social, political and theological norms” (Kelly). His attitude to his obligation, the manner of communication, and attitudes towards the people around attracted attention and provoked discussions.

Comparison of the Environment

At the beginning of the 20th century, the job of clerks was unclear and unnatural. When all the people tried to achieve benefits by working at farms and producing goods, clerks spent time at offices. Although today’s clerks are involved in a variety of activities like phone calls, e-mails, communication, and delivery of information, a common opinion about this kind of work remains the same.


Attitudes Towards Stand Out

The necessity to stand out in office work causes a number of debates and questions. According to Saval, “an encapsulation of how the office reduces all titanic conflicts to petty grievances and simmering resentments” depends on how well the condition of “I would prefer not to” is introduced and explained (11). In the story, Bartleby does not want to stand out and demonstrate his unique skills and intentions to earn or be promoted. At the same time, he demonstrates his individuality, thus counterpointing Saval’s interpretation of standing out and achieved results.

The Concept of the “Cubicle”

Evaluating the architectural aspects of the chosen short story and personal changes of employees, it is possible to conclude that the concept of the “cubicle” that was actually introduced at the end of the 20th century penetrated each character in its unique way. The chamber was “considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in… life”, and windows “commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade” (Melville 2). The story shows how such conditions made each character exist in a cubicle with specific rules and understandings.

Nonproductivity in the Story

The way of how Bartleby complete his law copying tasks helps comprehend better a historical view of work as physical labor. His boss never saw him reading, writing, or spooking to someone but “looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall” and “standing in one of those dead-wall reveries of his” (Melville 14). This type of nonproductivity and “I prefer not to” concept depicted the nature of clerk office that is calm, not aggressive, and emotion-free.

Employees’ Caricatures

There are three other important characters in the same environment. Their caricatures are developed in different ways, proving a variety of working skills. Turkey is a confident old man who believed in the power of his experience and knowledge but lacks enough qualities to become a leader and prefers to have some backup. Nippers is a good worker who is dissatisfied with something because of his ambitions. Finally, there is Ginger Nut, who runs errands instead of developing his practical skills.

Narrator’s Position

The role of a narrator is critical in the story. He introduces himself as an “eminently safe man” with “a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (Melville 2). The absence of criticism and mistakes in his copyist profession makes him a self-confessed egoist who always underlines his true good intentions and the desire to avoid complications and conflicts either in life or at work.


At the end of the story, the reader learns that Bartleby worked at the “Dead Letter Office”. Such a discovery explains the character’s emotionless behavior and the lack of interest in the promotion and professional development. He has already realized that everything had to end up with death, and office, clerical work cannot save him or change his life but just postpone an evident reality of life.

Works Cited

.” Biography. 2015. Web.

Kelly, Stuart. “.” The Guardian. 2017. Web.

Lantos, John D. “Bartelby in the NICU.” Hastings Center Report, vol. 46, no. 6, 2016, pp. 3-5.

Melville, Herman. . 1856. Web.

Saval, Nikil. Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. Doubleday, 2014.

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