The nameless narrator of the story starts off by introducing Bartleby to the readers as “strange”: But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of (Melville 546). Throughout the entire story, the lawyer will go through numerous thought processes where he tries to reflect and explain why Bartleby is the way that he is but the lawyer never succeeds. We see that the narrator judges Bartleby not based on his limited knowledge of him but exactly because he knows nothing of Bartleby.
He is strange because the narrator has never met anyone quite like him – bizarre, unyielding and utterly devoid of human emotions. He tries to pre-empt any true understanding Bartleby by justifying this young man’s strange behavior to himself. Perhaps this is because of the frustration of many attempts to try and reach out to the pale scrivener that ended up dismissed by an answer of “I prefer not to do so”.
In the end, he just lets everything go with a rumor and a prayer.
In the narrator’s first encounter with Bartleby, he would describe his impression is that of a true gentleman. In his mind, the narrator would compare the new copyist-to-be to the two presently employed copyists, Turkey and Nippers. In direct contrast to the two very colorful and volatile individuals, Bartleby was something novel. He was quiet, neat, and for some reason, he is described in their first meeting as forlorn.
In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now–pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby (Melville 549).
That Bartleby should be “motionless” further indicates Bartleby’s remove from the sphere of common humanity–in contrast to the activity and emotions of the lawyer and his employees, Bartleby is still, lacking in vitality and emotion, thing-like. He is not a “who,” but rather a “what” left like a basket on the lawyer’s doorstep. His motionlessness and thing-like nature is reinforced by the passivity of the construction “it was Bartleby.” (Weinstock) Although Bartleby’s manner suggests unhappiness or discontent, he never actually expresses any emotion in the entire story (Napierkowski). This character trait was merely attributed to him by the lawyer. Perhaps the narrator associates happiness with excitement and emotional outbursts that were characteristic of Turkey and Nippers. Some commentaries seem to suggest this.
Throughout the whole story, the narrator’s impressions of Bartleby would be very eclectic. At first, the lawyer was impressed with how Bartleby worked so quickly without being distracted. The boy would work long hours and never have any need for breaks even for dinner. At this point, there was no reason for alarm. Bartleby did as he was told without any complaints. He was like a mechanized copy machine in an era where people had to copy their own documents manually. This was very advantageous in the lawyer’s line of work. However, in time the lawyer would be anxious about the bleakness and inhumanness of how Bartleby did his work. He was bankrupt of any emotions – never smiling – never engaging in conversation with his co-workers.
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had be been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically (Melville 550).
The conflict would arise the first time Bartleby refuses to check the documents he made for errors. This came as a shock to the lawyer because he was always with the understanding that he was the employer and Bartleby was the employee and as such, Bartleby had to follow his every bidding with regards to his official duties. Apparently, for the old lawyer, this behavior was unheard of for employees in his line of work.
I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I (Melville 550).
The narrator thought that any other time and with any other person, he would have been outraged. But Bartleby’s passivity and serenity caught him off guard. Again, he would describe Bartleby as someone who was not ordinary. From his first refusal, the lawyer has placed Bartleby outside the realm of human possibilities. By his own admission, our narrator, a man of “virtuous expediency,” has been “strangely disarmed,” “touched and disconcerted” (Davis 183). He was confused about what to do with this odd copyist. He decided to just let it go for the moment and let the other two employees work on the examination.
Many of these refusals would follow. Bartleby’s disobedience had no hint of resistance or rebellion. His responses were given merely as a matter of fact and this left the lawyer “unmanned”. Also, these were not mere mechanical or automatic refusals. According to the lawyer, Bartleby seemed to thoughtfully consider the requests before turning them down. … It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did (Melville 551).
Bartleby apparently had no life outside the office. The only thing he knew was work and he never stopped working. They never saw him out of the office (until he was forced out) and they never asked him why. At this point in time, they were allowing the status quo to remain just as long as no real trouble would ensue. Some days passed, the scrivener being employed upon another lengthy work. His late remarkable conduct led me to regard his way narrowly. I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went any where. As yet I had never of my personal knowledge known him to be outside of my office. He was a perpetual sentry in the corner (Melville 551).
There were several occasions when the lawyer would refer to Bartleby as property or valuable acquisition. As much as he wanted to get rid of the unexplainable employee, he was proving to be an asset. He was predictable, he worked very hard and he never had to stop. This dehumanization does not help him at all to understand the poor boy. This revealed the darker side of the narrator – the human side.
As days passed on, I became considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen), his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition (Melville 553).
It was rather weak in me I confess, but his manner on this occasion nettled me. Not only did there seem to lurk in it a certain disdain, but his perverseness seemed ungrateful, considering the undeniable good usage and indulgence he had received from me (Melville 555).
This is another instance confirming the fact that Bartleby never went anywhere except the office. The lawyer discovered this later when he visited his office one Sunday when all other people were either at church or gathering for the recently concluded elections. He found that Bartleby was making his home in the same place where he worked. At this point, the lawyer felt sorry for Bartleby even if he was far from understanding this enigmatic fellow.
Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous–a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage! (Melville 553)
After many other disagreements and stoic refusals, the lawyer would lose his patience with Bartleby and move his business to a different location, leaving Bartleby behind. Later on, Bartleby would turn out to be an inconvenience to the new tenants of the lawyer’s previous office. He would come to Bartleby’s rescue first with compassion by trying to explain to him that he had to leave and that he will be given employment somewhere else. Once again, the lawyer is frustrated by Bartleby’s stubbornness and disinterest in the otherwise attractive proposals of his former employer. The occupants of the office would have Bartleby arrested and locked up in jail.
When the lawyer hears about this, he would immediately go to visit Bartleby. The lawyer then asks the jail personnel to be good to Bartleby because he is a good man no matter how strange he may be: The same day I received the note I went to the Tombs, or to speak more properly, the Halls of Justice. Seeking the right officer, I stated the purpose of my call, and was informed that the individual I described was indeed within. I then assured the functionary that Bartleby was a perfectly honest man, and greatly to be compassionated, however unaccountably eccentric (Melville 613).
In describing Bartleby, the lawyer is actually revealing more of himself. He is revealing his biases and prejudices. He is revealing his materialism, pride and compassion. He reveals different aspects of his personality while Bartleby displays nothing at all. Some writers describe “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as a story wracked with Christian symbols and yet it falls short of Messianic value. Indeed, Melville’s story would seem to be a parody of the parable, as we see a self-professed “saved” Christian attempt the good deeds of the Biblical Samaritan but, ironically, still fall short of Christ’s “divine” injunction, spiritually hampered by his self-justifying, earthbound prudence. (Doloff 357). The lawyer was a good man who honestly wanted to help Bartleby.
The was never unkind to Bartleby even in the times of his gravest impatience. However, it was his earthly prudence that kept bringing him back to rationalizing the situation in terms of how it would benefit him. His feelings for Bartleby undergo several changes in this short story.
He would begin with curiosity, followed by amazement, then impatience, compassion, disgust, and finally friendship. This was a story about the limits of human understanding and compassion. That no matter how little the narrator truly knew about Bartleby, it was the fact that they were “sons of Adam” that created this instant connection and invokes true compassion. In the end, Bartleby was no longer a novelty or an object of fascination. The narrator would refer to him as a “friend”.