If ever there are two opposite themes offered in the telling of one tale, it is in Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener”. As his perspective swings between the objective and subjective, so swings the theme from comedy to tragedy. Regardless of the two perspectives from which Herman Melville relates the story of Bartleby, the telling of a tragic story with humorous subjectivity, the story’s plot and outcome determines the categorization. In fact, had Melville not peppered the story with his narrative, light-hearted, internal musings, and shared with the audience a “grasping at straw” style of rationalization, the main theme could only have been categorized as tragic. Regardless of the two perspectives from which Herman Melville relates the story of Bartleby, the telling of a tragic story sprinkled with humorous subjectivity, the actual story line, through its progression should determine its categorization. For this reason, Bartleby the Scrivener, is a tragedy.
Throughout the story Melville relates the many troubling incidents experienced with the mysterious copier. Bartleby’s reactions to his superior are so unlike those which most of us have ever experienced, human nature causes the reader to attempt to apply logic to his eccentricities. When asked to proofread a copy, Bartleby’s outrageous answer is, “I prefer not to”. Having just been introduced to Bartleby and still formulating a first impression, the audience is required to grapple with a logical explanation for his troubling behaviour. At that point, Melville introduces his first bit of comic relief, enlisting the audience’s empathy in stating, “To befriend Bartleby; to humour him in his strange wilfulness will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience”. Since there is no excusing Bartleby’s behaviour, Melville finds solace in rationalizing his reaction and the reader is quick to empathize, having found no explanation for the behaviour.
When his conscience no longer provides for rationalizing the acceptance of Bartleby’s strange behaviour, Melville invites the reader to appreciate the behaviour’s usefulness. To some degree, the “little guy” in us is somewhat envious of Bartleby’s statement, “I prefer not to”. How many times would we have used this statement in our lives if we had no fear of the repercussions? As the story progresses and Bartleby’s behaviour is becoming the norm, the banter between Mr. Nippers, Turkey and the lawyer becomes filled with the word “prefer”, the expression which has caused everyone such grief up to that point. After suggesting that Bartleby “would prefer to take a quart of good ale every day”, Turkey states, “Oh. Prefer? Oh yes – queer word. I never use it myself”. He then replies, “Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I should”, upon being asked to leave the room. Melville is calling on the reader’s “little guy” to relate to the subconsciously driven behaviour of the characters.
As the employer becomes more agitated, as a result of his circle of friends and acquaintances’ comments, Melville shares his mental gymnastics with the reader. His though process begins with the suggestion that, allowing Bartleby’s occupation of his offices would result in him having to “mason up his remains in the wall”, when he died. This not being a logical solution, he moves on to the question of whether or not Bartleby could be considered a vagrant. The reader is astonished with his conclusion that, not only will he not force Bartleby to move, he, himself will move without Bartleby. However extreme the employer’s solution has become, the reader can offer no solution and is dragged, empathetically, once again, into the rationalization of the employer, yet still amused by the bizarre situation.
Melville lends humour to one conversation between the lawyer and Bartleby, in the form of contradiction. While visiting Bartleby at the office where he had been left, the lawyer again makes suggestions to Bartleby of ways in which he can better his circumstances. Along with the usual “I prefer not to”, all suggestions were punctuated with, “I am not particular”. It is at this point in the story, although amusing in its use of contradiction, the reader comes to realize that Bartleby is not making any kind of statement in his refusal to conform. Having become more evident as the story has progressed, is the fact that Bartleby’s amusing, shocking and at times humorous behaviour is not personality driven but driven by his mental instability.
As the story winds down, Melville allows no more room for amusement at Bartleby’s expense. Bartleby has wound up in “The Tombs, or to speak more properly, the Halls of Justice”. He has rejected the lawyer’s attempts at conversation and although the lawyer is still trying to make Bartleby’s life easier in the few ways he can, Bartleby refuses to acknowledge it. The sad rumour is shared with the reader, about Bartleby’s experience in the Dead Letter Office, which helps to explain Bartleby’s mental state. Once again, the reader is required to examine his own conscience. Bartleby, as it turns out, if not a product of humanity with all its flaws, is at least an example of it. He draws our attention to this in exclaiming, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street”, should be considered a tragedy, if not in the nature of the story-telling, then in the unfolding of the plot. The characters’ eccentricities, when coupled with the narrator’s take on them, have allowed Melville to present the tragedy in an amusing manner but Bartleby has lead such a sad life ending in such a regrettable way, this short story is tragic in theme.