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Book Review: Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville

Updated on November 18, 2014

Summary

Bartleby, the Scrivener is a short story by Herman Melville, an American writer. In this narrative, the narrator who is a successful lawyer talks about a new employee in his firm, Bartleby, who has an impeccable character. Bartely is hired as a new scrivener to help in his small law office. The character of Bartleby is depicted as a quiet, and anti-social despite his initial efficiency in work matters. In his first moments at the narrator’s firm, Bartely works quite well as a copyist, but as time goes, he refuses to help out with any of the other office tasks, and states more openly that, he prefers not to do so. This response subsequently shocks the lawyer and other employees, but Bartleby will not just do whatever asked of him. There are also two more characters, Nippers and Turkey who are also scriveners in the same office with behaviors that parallel to each other. The aim of this papers it to evaluate the setting and characters and relate to the central idea (Nelson and Clara).

Theme

In this story, the author has brought the themes and his main concept in a unique way. The major theme contained in the Bartleby the Screenver is corporate discontent that is so prevalent in many of today’s businesses. In fact, the narrator is focused at disclosing the emptiness of today’s business life. Though the work environment is depicted as cheerless and sterile, there are those who are able to adapt to it with different level of success. Another notable theme in this story is doubling which is depicted by the different behaviors of the characters. This paper will therefore analyze this story using two significant themes, the theme of doubling and corporate discontent.

The theme of Doubling

Despite the narrator having been depicted as a successful person, he is nonetheless a victim of progress. This is because despite being the one who hired Bartley, he is subdued by his antics and forced to move to a new office. Through the doubling theme, the author suggests the connection, which individuals have with others. Turkey and Nippers may be compared to two faces of the same coin just like Bartebly. Further, the sense of responsibility and compassion are brought out in the relationship between Bartebly and the narrator. Despite the narrator going to greater lengths in his efforts to assist, Bartebly, he nonetheless fails in this endeavor. In light of this, we may be compelled to ask ourselves if there are limits for helping a person, especially if their life is at stake. Another question that may come to mind is whether an individual’s sufferings may be fuelled by our lack of compassion.

How the Characters Have brought out the theme of Doubling

The narrator has depicted Turkey and Nippers, the two scriveners as being opposite of each other. While Nippers is not productive and unable to work in morning hours at the narrators organization, Turkeys has similar characteristics, but in the afternoon hours whereby; for many days, he is seen drunk while in the office. Further, the ambition of Nipper reflect Turkey’s resignation to his position, as well as the eventfulness of his job. This difference in job ambitions is probably derived from their age differences. Nipper who is relatively younger than Turkey has ambitions of advancing his career into something more than a scrivener. On the other hand, Turkey laments to the narrator that he should consider his age while evaluating the issue of productivity. In addition, the vices of these men are also parallel to one another and they are appropriate according to their age. Alcoholism as a vice develops with time. On the other hand, ambition is a feature that is most volatile among the youth who are interested in developing themselves, their careers and in changing their lives.

Corporate Discontent

Bartebly’s repeated statement of “I prefer not to” has been considered as a critique of the rising materialism that was prevalent among the culture of many American organizations at that time. It should be noted that the particular law firm discussed in this story was in Wall Street, a fact pointed out by the story’s subtitle which is the Story of Wall Street”. At the time when this book was written, Wall Street was a hub of financial activity in U.S and Melville just like many other authors at this time were sensitive to financial matters, and their management in the American culture (Marx 603). In light of this, Bartleby’s stubbornness in refusing to do what he is being asked could be considered as a rebellion to economic control.

Setting

The setting of this story is in a law office, with occupants who are depicted as men or rather employees with odd characters, and who are only connected to their work. In most cases, a business-based building gives no room for any personal interaction and neither does Melville’s context (Abrams491). In particular, we could learn nothing from both the narrator and other characters beyond their office life and activities. In light of this, we have to ask ourselves if such a story would be possible if it was in an alternate setting. The crisis of the story is highlighted and its emotional nature brought out by the office and city setting. Furthermore, the city and the office setting in particular shows how lonely workers maybe, the work environment, and the day-to-day activities and conflicts that involve employees.

The Main Character

Right from the story’s beginning; Barleby has been given a striking description. He can be compared as someone who is already dead. In fact, his description befits that of a ghost or a corpse. In particular, he does not portray any form of human passion or expression, one who is engrossed in his indoor work and somebody who already beaten. His popular and consistent articulation in “I would prefer not to” (Melvine) when he does not want to comply may translate to his exhaustion instead of mere deviance. This is hereby; used by the narrator to showcase how some workers are exploited and reach a point where they can no longer do what is expected of them.

Interestingly, Bartleby gets away with his uncooperativeness despite the fact that he a passive character, subsequently casting a spell over the narrator. He makes it clear to the narrator that his refusal does not imply that he is incapable of doing it not that he will not do it, but he prefers not to do it. The statement that “I will prefer not” (Melvine) which he repeats frequently is an emphasis that portrays his feelings and emotional response instead of some ethical or philosophical choice. Bartleby gradually begins to be detached from the world in phases when he begins with the statement that “I prefer not to”. He continues to reiterate on this statement and renouncing other aspects in the world including the worldly duties. This simply means that though Bartleby was a man who liked his job and that he was industrious, he had come to be discontented with the organization and how it was being run. The behavior was therefore, a form of rebellion to the boss, who is the narrator.

Conclusion

In this story, the narrator has presented characters as different personalities to depict the individual differences among employees in the business world. Further, the setting has also been used in illustrating the environment in a work setting. However, the author has exaggerated the silliness of the two characters beyond what can be believed in reality. However, this has offered a valuable comic relief in a tale that can be described as both upsetting and somber.

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    • Nyamweya profile imageAUTHOR

      Silas Nyamweya 

      4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

      For more information on this hub, contact me at silasnyamweya@gmail.com

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