Bartleby The Scrivener: Literary Analysis

Bartleby the Scrivener could be referred to as a story about eliminating its title character, about the narrator's attempt to get rid of Bartleby, and Bartleby's solid capability to be constantly there. It is the story of an unnamed attorney and his staff member, Bartleby, a copyist of law files.

Faced not just with Bartleby's rejection to do work (first to "check out" copies against the original, then to copy entirely), however also with the contagious nature of the specific words of his rejection (Bartleby's strange "I would prefer not to"), the storyteller concludes that, before Bartleby "turns the tongues" any additional of those with whom he enters contact, he "must get rid of" Bartleby.

At the exact same time Bartleby feels "mobbed in his personal privacy" (27) when the other office employees crowd him behind his screen, they in turn are gotten into by his peculiarity - his private idiom "prefer." Bartleby's presence breaks down the clear distinctions in between public and private, expert and domestic, between "privacy" and "the mob.

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" By pinpointing Bartleby as the "cause" of transmittable language (language "turned" bad), the narrator desires to stop the course of a procedure (the "turning of tongues") currently in progress. However eliminating Bartleby is as difficult as eliminating a chronic condition; the narrator emphasizes a phrase which appears textually in italics: "he was constantly there" (20 ). Bartleby is, as the narrator calls him, a "nuisance" (40 ), an "unbearable incubus."

As a character in the story with a body, he moves really little, however the couple of words he speaks break out at unexpected moments in the workplace.

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Every effort the narrator makes to control the passive Bartleby and his transmittable language stops working hilariously (Schehr 97). The storyteller experiences a curious stress in between the difficult crucial (on the level of the story) to eliminate the subject, and the impossibility (on the level of the narration) to compose his complete bio (Bartleby's "history"). Hence, Bartleby is likewise a fable about composing history or biography.

In attempting to write what he thinks of as Bartleby's biography, the narrator merely misnames his writing project, or he emphasizes it from the wrong point of view. In search of Bartleby's origins, the narrator does not simply narrate (as he thinks) the history of Bartleby the Scrivener; he relates rather the story of his own anxiety vis-a-vis Bartleby. In particular, he relates his anxiety over the scrivener's silence - and modes of breaking that silence; for we could say that, rather than speaking very little or in particular ways, Bartleby has particular ways of occasionally breaking silence.

It is this violence in speech, this unexpected eruption, which the narrator fears. The narrator, whose acquaintances describe him as an "eminently safe man," who likes nothing better than the "cool tranquility of a snug retreat" (4), is thrown decidedly off kilter when faced with what he terms Bartleby's "passive resistance" (17). Bartleby's weapon is his total indifference to truth, whereas the narrator seeks a second opinion on truth from the other office mates. Bartleby could be seen as the one solid block around which the narrator writes his own story about truth rather than the truth about the Bartleby story.

Bartleby's passive resistance actually generates the story -- confronted with it, the narrator creates theories (his doctrine of assumptions, for instance), carries on debates with himself, and seeks the counsel of others -- all with the opaque Bartleby as the core. In reconstructing Bartleby's story, the narrator follows an implicit logic which he never directly states. It is the logic of cause and effect. (He is not deliberately hiding this logic, but because he takes its validity for granted, he never comments on it critically.') Believing in the possibility of finding a specific, locatable, and nameable cause to Bartleby's condition (as he is able to do with the other office workers, Nippers and Turkey, whose moods vary according to their diets and the time of day), the narrator thinks that by eradicating the cause of the problem, he can alter the effects, the effects of Bartleby's speaking condition in the office space. McCall follows the same logic as the narrator in seeking causes of Bartleby's behavior.

He mentions remark that when the narrator asks Bartleby to run an errand for him at the post office, "that is probably the last place, if the rumor is correct, that Bartleby would ever want to go. " (McCall 129). The narrator never considers that his line of reasoning might be faulty — that Bartleby's condition may not be linked to a specific, locatable, nameable cause. We as readers may be placed in the same position as the narrator in that we never know either the origin of Bartleby's condition; we witness primarily its effects, or symptoms, in the story.

These symptoms reside not only in Bartleby as individual character, but in the very way the narrator tells the story about that character. Rather than speaking about the cause of Bartleby's condition, one could more aptly speak about the ways in which its effects are spread to other characters within the text. When the narrator impatiently summons Bartleby to join and help the others in the scenario of group reading, Bartleby responds, "I would prefer not to" (14). Hearing this response the narrator turns "into a pillar of salt" (14). (Faced with Bartleby's responses and sheer presence, the narrator oftentimes evokes images of his losing, then waking to, consciousness. ) When he recovers his senses, he tries to reason with Bartleby, who in the meantime has retreated behind his screen. The narrator says: "These are your own copies we are about to examine. It is labor saving to you, because one examination will answer for your four papers. It is common usage. Every copyist is bound to help examine his copy. Is it not so? Will you not speak? Answer! " (15)

The narrator is exasperated when Bartleby does not respond immediately to the logic behind his work ethic. "These are your own copies we are about to examine. It is labor saving to you. " Examining or reading copy is a money saving activity, from which every member of the office profits (four documents for the price of one reading! ). "Every copyist is bound to help examine his copy. " To the contract the lawyer emphatically demands from his employee, a bond based on an exchange of reading, Bartleby replies three times, gently, "in a flutelike tone," "I (would) prefer not to" (15).

By refusing to read copy, Bartleby refuses to consent to the economy of the office. It is perhaps only to another type of reading, one not based on a system of exchange and profit, which Bartleby consents. Although the narrator says he has never seen Bartleby reading — "not even a newspaper" (24) — he does often notice him staring outside the window of the office onto a brick wall. Staring at the dead brick wall (in what the narrator calls Bartleby's "dead-wall reveries") may be Bartleby's only form of reading, taking the place of the economy-based reading demanded of him in the process of verifying copies.

About halfway through the story, the lawyer/narrator visits his office on a Sunday morning and, discovering a blanket, soap and towel, a few crumbs of ginger nuts and a morsel of cheese, deduces that the scrivener never leaves the office. Realizing the full impact of Bartleby's condition, he states, What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. (25) The narrator clearly locates the disorder in Bartleby. Seeing himself in the role of diagnostician and healer, he himself is faced with the "hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill" (24).

The narrator's concern about an individual medical cure should more aptly be a concern about an obsessively private rhetorical debate or a dangerously idiomatic group contagion (Perry 409). Despite his assumption that Bartleby is incurable, or perhaps precisely because he can effect no cure, the narrator beleaguers himself throughout the story with questions or commands to do something about Bartleby (McCall 9). If the private man's disorder can be passed on to another (one) person, what happens when the condition is let loose out of close quarantine into the public space of the office? Bartleby walks a precarious tightrope between comedy and tragedy (Inge 25). The tragic dimension often resides in the narrator's turning inward on himself (a sort of tragic compression), then putting himself on trial, an interior moment of accusation which eventually results in the collapse of the narrative in a single sigh or exclamation ("Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity! " 46). The comic effects are often related to the authoritarian attempt (and failure) to contain the spread of idiom as contagion (Perry 412).

If Bartleby has been a figure for tragedy in the lone meditation of the narrator, he becomes a figure for comedy in his contact with his office mates Nippers and Turkey. The more the narrator tries to regulate the contact between the three, the more hilarious — and significantly out of control — is Bartleby's influence. The effort to contain or control tends actually to promote the epidemic proportions of the narrative. It is the narrator himself who uses a vocabulary of contagion in relation to Bartleby. He says he has had "more than ordinary contact" (3) with other scriveners he has known.

Bartleby exceeds this already extraordinary contact - he has been touched by "handling" dead letters (Schehr 99). Some critics reproduce the narrator's language of contagion in talking about Bartleby. McCall, in his study on The Silence of Bartleby, describes "our" response, the collective readers' response, to reading the tale: As we go through the story, we watch with a certain delight how Bartleby is "catching. " We root for the spread of the bug. (145) In a somewhat less delighted vein, Borges says, "Bartleby's frank nihilism contaminates his companions and even the stolid man who tells Bartleby's story. " (Borges 8) In the office scenes where the employees and boss come inevitably together, the "bug" word is Bartleby's "prefer. " Nippers uses it mockingly against the narrator as a transitive action verb when he overhears Bartleby's words of refusal to the narrator's plea "to be a little reasonable. " Bartleby echoes, "At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable" (26). If Nippers is suffering from his own peculiar and chronic condition of indigestion, he takes on the symptoms of Bartleby's condition when he exclaims to the narrator, Prefer not, eh?...

– I'd prefer him, if I were you sir, I'd prefer him; I'd give him preferences, the stubborn mule! What is it, sir, pray, that he prefers not to do now? (26) Whereas later in the story the narrator totally loses his critical skill to "catch" himself in his speech, in this exchange he is still able to articulate the effect Bartleby's "word" is having on him. He notes anxiously, Somehow, of late, I had got into the way of involuntarily using the word 'prefer' upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions. (27) It is this qualifier "not exactly" which is of particular interest.

Bartleby's use of words is "not exactly" wrong. "Prefer" is so insidious because it is only slightly askew, dislocated, idiosyncratic. As McCall accurately notes about the power of Bartleby's "I prefer not to," "one must hear, in the little silence that follows it, how the line delivers two contradictory meanings, obstinacy and politeness. "(152) The line calls just enough attention to itself so as to attract others to its "profoundly mixed message" ("its perfect yes and no") in an imitative way (McCall 152). "Prefer" is as inobtrusive, as contagious, and as revolutionary as a sneeze.

The narrator lets it out of his mouth involuntarily. When Turkey enters the scene and uses the bug word without realizing it (without Nippers' italicized parody or the narrator's critical comments), the narrator says to him, in a "slightly excited" tone, "So you have got the word, too" (27). In this pivotal sentence, the verb "get" implies "to receive" (as in "to receive a word or message"), but more strikingly for our discussion here, it implies the verb "to catch" - one "catches" the word as one would "catch" a cold.

The narrator attempts to monitor the contagion by naming the bug and pointing it out to the others. But the word mocks everyone's will to control it "prefer" pops up six times in the next half a page — four times unconsciously in the speech of one of the employees, and twice consciously (modified by "word") in the narration of the lawyer. Bartleby could be described as a story of the intimacy - or anxiety - a lawyer feels for the law-copyist he employs. The narrator arranges a screen in the corner of his office behind which Bartleby may work.

Pleased with the arrangement of placing Bartleby behind the screen in near proximity to his own desk, the narrator states, "Thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined" (12). The narrator idealizes the possibility of a perfect harmony between privacy and community in the work environment, but it is precisely the conflict between these two spatial "conditions" which generates the story, defining not only Bartleby's "idiocy," but the narrator's as well.

The narrator most characteristically encounters Bartleby "emerging from his retreat" (13) or "retiring into his hermitage" (26). The screen isolates Bartleby from the view of the narrator, but not from his voice.

Works Cited

  1. Borges, Jorge Luis. "Prologue to Herman Melville's 'Bartleby" in Herman Melville's Billy Budd, "Benito Cereno," "Bartleby the Scrivener," and Other Tales, ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987 Inge, Thomas M. , ed.
  2. Bartleby the Inscrutable. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979. McCall, Dan. The Silence of Bartleby. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989. Melville, Herman. "Billy Budd" and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Perry, Dennis R. "'Ah, Humanity': Compulsion Neuroses in Melville's Bartleby. " Studies in Short Fiction 23. 4 (fall 1987): 407-415. Schehr, Lawrence R. "Dead Letters: Theories of Writing in Bartleby the Scrivener" Enclitic vii. l (spring 1983): 96-103.
Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Bartleby The Scrivener: Literary Analysis. (2021, Jun 10). Retrieved from

Bartleby The Scrivener: Literary Analysis essay
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