“Bartleby the Scrivener” was written by Herman Melville in 1853. The book is about a scrivener named Bartleby, and he continuously answers people’s questions with “I would prefer not to” (Melville 9). In this short story, Melville is asking his readers what makes people stand out from the crowd, and what makes us individual, independent, and unique? Independence and individuality definitely both have a big role in this story. While being independent and unique are two great things to be, there is a point when you can take it too far, to the point where it starts to affect your life. Conflict often produces character and at times will reveal it.
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Bartleby is an efficient copyist for a successful lawyer at an office building, but he is a quiet and anti-social man. Though he continues to work well as a copyist, he refuses to help or do any other tasks for the office people, and/or repeatedly says “I would prefer not to” (10). Bartleby is always in the office either working or looking out of “dim window” (19) in the sad, and dark world he lives in. The workers then find out that he lives at the office, and his refusal to do nothing but work grows at a much larger scale. As this problem grows, Bartleby announces that he will no longer work as a copyist, and then prefers to stay and live in the office building and do no work. Finally, he is strictly and firmly asked to leave by the lawyer and his workers, but, he still does not leave. Rather than taking more severe measures to get Bartleby out of the office, the lawyer moves his operation to a different office. After that, another practice moves into the building and they find out that Bartleby, the copyist from the previous practice is still living there. The new people complain, but the new people are told that Bartleby does not seem to be able to leave. After trying to deal with Bartleby staying there, they call the police to arrest him and bring him to prison. The story concludes with Bartleby refusing to do anything and not eat in prison, and Bartleby dies from starvation. To conclude things, the narrator/lawyer informs his readers/workers that Bartleby was previously a clerk in a dead letter office who sorted through the mail, leaving readers wondering if these dead letters somehow influenced Bartleby.
In the short story, the character’s attitudes towards Bartleby changes as Bartleby changes. In the beginning, the lawyer, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut do not really pay attention to him, but since he refuses to do other work for the office, they start to get mad. Except Turkey seems to have the same attitude towards Bartleby throughout the story, he is a drunk copyist who has an uncontrollable temper, and through the story, he continues to hate Bartleby and wants to get violent. Also, Nippers, like his coworker Turkey, is just an ambitious, discontent, irritated, non-morning person and exactly like Turkey, he stays this way through the entire short story. The lawyer says, “Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers-ambition and indigestion” (7). Ginger Nut, does not have a pretty big role in the story, he is just a 12-year-old, the youngest worker, his biggest job/role is to get snacks and food for all the copyists. But there is the lawyer, and his attitude towards Bartleby is described in the next paragraph.
The lawyer’s attitude towards Bartleby changes throughout the book from kind, to angry, to firm, to caring. The lawyer at first is kind like a gentleman would be when he first meets and hires Bartleby. He pays more attention to his work in the beginning and knows he is doing good at his job, but then he notices Bartleby and gets concerned when he will not do any other office tasks, then he gets quite angry when he finds out that Bartleby is living there. After that, Bartleby says he will not work as a copyist anymore, but he stays and lives in the office anyway, and now the lawyer must make a decision whether to kick him out, or to be nice and think of something else. The lawyer decides to be nice and offer Bartleby a place in his home, but Bartleby does not take his offer. Then, the lawyer gets strict and firmly asks him to leave the office, but he says no, so the lawyer moves the whole operation to a different office. The lawyer and the workers move to a new office, but Bartleby stays there. Afterward, the new people at the building call the police on Bartleby and take him to prison where he does not want to do anything, eat, or talk to anyone. Lastly, the lawyer goes to visit him and try to talk to him but Bartleby does not want to talk to him, the lawyer tries to talk some sense into him but it does not work, Bartleby continues to not eat and he starves himself to death. The lawyer becomes very curious how this all started and he finds out what may have started all of this weird behavior from Bartleby.
The behavior of Bartleby is a mystery and it is kind of funny but in a weird way, but besides his seriousness and the level of his refusal, he does not change at all throughout the whole story. He starts off like a pretty normal guy, he does his work right, but then he refuses to do anything, eat, or leave the office. He dies and not much happens after that, the lawyer finds out that his previous job was working as clerk in a dead letter office sorting the letters for years. Possibly the dead letters influenced and changed his definition of life.
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Bartleby symbolizes a dead letter because the Lawyer thinks that after reading all those letters that were supposed to go to someone who is now dead or gone must have influenced Bartleby’s perspective on life. Because Bartleby worked at a dead letter office for years, reading and sorting all of them, he is in the state of a dead man, like a dead letter that has never been opened. Bartleby also represents a dead letter because the narrator/lawyer is the sender of the letter, and he wishes to communicate with Bartleby but he can never get through him. This is one of the stronger explanations that explains Bartleby as a dead letter. The idea of undeliverable letters that “speed to death,” even when they go “on errands of life” (29).
Finally, think about how conflict produces character and sometimes reveals it. There was some conflict between the lawyer and Bartleby, or between life and Bartleby. Because he feels like the lawyer possibly just added more stress in Bartleby’s position, making him feel dead, this was kind of an example of failure to communicate. Nearly everything that happened leading up to Bartleby’s death goes back to failure of communication or just more stress in the situation. This all revealed the character of Bartleby to the narrator since he found out that he worked in a dead letter office for years, reading and sorting letters, hundreds of failures to communicate entirely changed Bartleby’s perspective on life and the meaning of working hard.
Word Count: 1266
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