Literature · Short Stories

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville (Short Story Analysis)


Bartleby the Scrivener” tells the story of a wall-street lawyer and his over-worked employees. His work life gets shaken up when a strange man named Bartleby works for him. Unlike the others, Bartleby begins passively refusing to do the menial work expected of him.

What is a scrivener? It’s a copyist who writes out copies of documents word for word. They also have to go back and make sure every word is accurate. The narrator states about the occupation: “It is a very dull, wearisome and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable.” I think most would agree that the job would be extremely dull.

Which leads to the point of the story: Many people are stuck in the cycle of doing these non-fulfilling, menial jobs. Such jobs can take over a person’s existence and put them in a place of total conformity. The story shows how these painfully boring tasks take a toll on someone’s mental health with the character of Turkey. After a certain time of the day he starts behaving madly by “making blots” on the paper and worst of all he throws his pens on the floor.

So what’s the solution? Well, Turkey is an example of someone whose been stuck in the corporate machine too long. The solution would be to give the man a break. However, the narrator and said machine don’t recognize this solution at all.

Then we have Bartleby, the title character and rebel of the story. When asked to do that inane task he says, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby represents a sort of passive resistance. He doesn’t cause a ruckus or riot: he instead calmly refuses to do what is asked of him.

However, there are flaws in this type of resistance. Which is made clear by the fact that Bartleby doesn’t really cause any change to the status quo. When Bartleby refuses to leave an office, eventually he is simply moved out of the way. In other words, he’s sent to prison and dies.

Bartleby can still be considered a rebel but he’s also someone that has really just given up. He’s not someone who wants change, he more so just doesn’t care anymore.

“Bartleby” is my favorite of Melville’s writing. Not only is it making a good point, it’s also pretty funny. (People nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut; Bartleby nonchalantly replying ‘I would prefer not to’ and the narrator having to move his entire office because Bartleby refuses to leave, ha!).

I know many people loathe Melville’s more famous works like “Moby Dick” and “Billy Budd” but I have a feeling even many of them would enjoy this story.

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