An Analysis of Tragedy and Humor in "Bartleby the Scrivener"

In Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," two contrasting themes, comedy and tragedy, intertwine to create a unique narrative. As the perspective oscillates between objective and subjective viewpoints, so too does the thematic tone of the story. Despite the humorous subjectivity woven into the narration, the overarching plot and its ultimate outcome categorize "Bartleby the Scrivener" as a tragedy.

Comedic Rationalization in the Face of Eccentricities

Throughout the narrative, Melville recounts the perplexing incidents involving the mysterious scrivener, Bartleby. Bartleby's unconventional responses, such as his infamous "I prefer not to" when asked to proofread, defy conventional human behavior.

As readers grapple with the challenge of understanding Bartleby's actions, Melville introduces moments of comic relief. The narrator's internal musings, characterized by a "grasping at straw" style of rationalization, aim to soften the impact of Bartleby's eccentricities.

The audience is urged to empathize with the narrator's dilemma, as evidenced by Melville's reflection: "To befriend Bartleby; to humor 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.

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" This rationalization becomes a coping mechanism for both the narrator and the reader, offering a light-hearted perspective on an otherwise perplexing situation.

The Subconscious "Little Guy" and the Power of Preference

As the story unfolds, Melville invites readers to appreciate the potential usefulness of Bartleby's peculiar behavior. The recurring phrase "I prefer not to" becomes a symbol of resistance, appealing to the "little guy" within each reader.

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The internal struggle of the characters, exemplified by Mr. Nippers and Turkey, reflects the innate desire to assert personal preferences in the face of societal expectations.

The evolution of the characters' dialogue, filled with the word "prefer," underscores Melville's exploration of subconscious motivations. Even Turkey, who initially claims not to use the word, eventually succumbs to its influence. Melville cleverly taps into the reader's empathy by highlighting the subconsciously driven behavior of the characters, creating a connection between the audience and the story's eccentric personalities.

Rationalization and Mental Gymnastics

As the employer becomes increasingly agitated by societal commentary on Bartleby's presence, Melville delves into the mental gymnastics of the narrator. The absurdity reaches its peak when the narrator contemplates drastic solutions, from masoning up Bartleby's remains in the wall to questioning whether Bartleby could be considered a vagrant. The reader is drawn into the narrator's extreme thought processes, empathizing with the struggle to find a logical resolution to the unconventional situation.

Despite the absurdity of the proposed solutions, the reader remains entertained by the bizarre circumstances. Melville skillfully combines humor with the unfolding tragedy, creating a narrative that challenges societal norms while engaging the reader in the narrator's attempts to rationalize the irrational.

The Unveiling of Mental Instability

Melville introduces a twist as the story progresses, revealing that Bartleby's behavior is not merely a manifestation of a quirky personality but rather a result of mental instability. The contradiction in Bartleby's responses, exemplified by his repeated assertion, "I prefer not to" along with "I am not particular," highlights the underlying turmoil within his mind.

As the narrative draws to a close, the tone shifts from amusement to a somber acknowledgment of Bartleby's tragic fate. Confined to "The Tombs," Bartleby rejects the lawyer's attempts at assistance, providing a poignant glimpse into his deteriorating mental state. The revelation of Bartleby's experience in the Dead Letter Office serves as a poignant explanation for his condition, prompting readers to reflect on the complexities of human nature.

The Tragic Denouement

Ultimately, "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street" unfolds as a tragedy, not only in its storytelling nature but also in the trajectory of its plot. While Melville skillfully infuses humor into the characters' eccentricities, Bartleby's life concludes in a regrettable and sorrowful manner. The reader is left to contemplate the profound statement, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!" as Melville underscores the tragic theme that resonates beneath the surface of the amusing narrative.


In conclusion, Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" masterfully weaves elements of comedy and tragedy into a narrative that challenges societal norms and explores the complexities of human behavior. The oscillation between subjective and objective perspectives enhances the richness of the storytelling, creating a nuanced portrayal of eccentric characters grappling with their inner struggles. While the story provides moments of amusement through humor, the underlying theme remains tragic, leaving readers with a profound reflection on the inherent complexities of humanity.

Updated: Dec 15, 2023
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An Analysis of Tragedy and Humor in "Bartleby the Scrivener". (2021, Jun 03). Retrieved from

An Analysis of Tragedy and Humor in "Bartleby the Scrivener" essay
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