Bartleby, the Scrivener' A Story of Wall Street

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In the first paragraph the narrator is keen to set the scene, for his story of a former acquaintance by the name of Bartleby. The lawyer does not mention his own name and refers to himself as a man of elder years. In his life time he has employed many copyists and he could recount many stories about them, but none were as eccentric or as enigmatic as Bartleby. The narrator informs the reader that he has no knowledge of his background and can only recount what he has witnessed. To further accentuate the point of being reliable, he professes to be a calm and well-respected individual amongst his profession and has significant business. With these words you sense that the lawyer is judicious, a pillar of society and is trusted in high circles and this is emphasised with the name dropping. This is a testament to his character and further proof that his telling of the tale is most trustworthy. What is interesting is the narrator is an enigma also, apart from the absence of his name, the information he gives is from a professional view point only. To further his objective the narrator precedes to inform the reader what type of employer he is. The following passage gives a very descriptive account of his employees. easy-going nature. He endures the unusual behaviour of his clerks, in fact the narrator feels this is so significant that he omits very little from their characters. Interestingly, similar to the narrator, their real names are not specified. They lack identity and are only named through nicknames which is linked to their appearance. This may suggest you lose yourself when you work in the material world, like Wall Street.

The lawyer mentions he goes to church and makes biblical references throughout the text, such as himself and Bartleby are the sons of Adam, he remarks of an incident when he turned to a pillar of salt, (The punishment of Lot’s disobedient wife, Genesis 19.26), when Bartleby refuses to examine a copy. There is also a mention of him giving the grub man at the tombs some silver (maybe at the time he felt like Judas). The references hint that he is a pious individual, which adds to his credibility. However, there are examples in his narrative, when his reliability is undermined by his continual contradiction of his handling of the situation concerning Bartleby.

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For example, in the second encounter the lawyer has with Bartleby’s passive resistance, he is perturbed by his manner, which defuses the situation. But he declares if it had been another person they would have had a dishonourable dismissal and, yet he still employs Nippers and Turk. This signifies that morals and capitalism are at odds with each other, and with the lawyer the latter has the upper hand. There can be no doubt that Bartleby affects the lawyer, as he alternates between positions of confusion, sorrow and his tone echoes these sentiments. However, his good intensions are overshadowed by his unrelenting attention with his own self approval, and his status amongst his peers which demeans his kind-heartedness towards Bartleby. The lawyer’s charitable inclinations are short lived, and he finds justification not to fulfil his moral intentions. Bartleby’s behaviour has the influence to divide the lawyer into different emotional states and this is echoed with the dividing walls of the chambers. The narrator is very descriptive of his premises and writes that he has a view of imposing walls, and within his chambers glass folding doors divide the office into two parts.

An area for the copyists and another part for the lawyer. Depending on his mood, these doors are either open or shut. When he employs Bartleby, he is determined to have him within reach, so he is put on the lawyer’s side of the glass door. He places Bartleby desk beside a window, but it offers no view, and only a little bit of light due to the wall from another building facing the window. The lawyer is pleased that he was able to obtain yet another divide in the form of a high green folding screen, to obscure Bartleby from his vision. With this graphic telling of the layout of his offices, the reader gets a sense of the isolation, alienation and the lawyer’s complete lack of awareness.This lack of awareness is most obvious when Bartleby decides to do no more writing. When the lawyer asks for an explanation, Bartleby replies “Do you not see the reason for yourself” in a matter of fact tone. The narrator assumes his eyesight is weakened from working in the dim light. But could this be mirroring the lawyer’s own short- sightedness of Bartleby’s dilemma. Such a poignant remark, might move another person to delve deeper, but the reader is mindful that the lawyer observes outward appearances mostly, (the naming of his employees). This short- sightedness extends to the office.

The walls of glass in the chambers separate the occupants and the lawyer is contented to get another high screen for Bartleby, which adds to the detached atmosphere. The opening and closing of the glass doors, is personal to the lawyer and signifies whether on a whim, he decides to communicate with his staff. This limiting of communication leads to miscommunication, which is prevalent throughout the narrative. The majority of this narrative is through the words of the lawyer, so why did Melville use this particular narrator for the story? Melville use of the narrator’s diction is used to highlight the lawyer’s character, the use of double negatives highlights this confused individual, which is most evident with his dealings of Bartleby. Through his contradictions he cuts a slightly comical figure which is ironic, if the lawyer’s stable character is used to emphasise the unstable character of Bartleby, such as in binary opposition. The failure of both the lawyer and Bartleby to understand each other is seen through written and verbal expression. Words can be misconstrued, and not reach their intended target, the meaning gets lost. Uttering these words andrefusing to write shows the power of a word and the control it contains, this is especially noted when everybody starts to say ‘prefer’ , in the office, and are unaware they do so.

Similar to words, the walls act as a barrier and have the effect of separating the occupants. The narrator is not concerned with the walls inside and outside his office, they suit his purpose. The walls may represent the business he has built, or the walls may embody society.The walls (society), obstruct the writer’s flow of ideas as they are static. In curtailing the writer’s ambitions, upon the whims of the establishment, order is maintained. Nevertheless, it may only take one individual to upset the status quo, and the narrator has met such a person. Though it may seem Bartleby did not accomplish his objective, in a strange turn of events he is being written about, which is ironic. The narrator was affected by him so much, he is compelled to write about Bartleby to exorcise him from his mind, maybe to ease his conscience. The reader is informed that Bartleby had worked as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, he asks the question, does it not sound similar to dead men? Is the narrator suggesting that Bartleby was a dead man walking? and this is a satisfactory conclusion. Will it deflect from his behaviour? Withholding material changes a reader’s perspective on events, and the narrator leaves the great reveal to the end. The dramatic statement at the end, ‘Ah Bartleby’! ‘Ah humanity’, proposes that to the lawyer, Bartleby demise was inevitable, and mankind had a part to play.

In conclusion it has been demonstrated the critical role of the narrator. Through his eyes, the reader appreciates how disconcerting and mystifying Bartleby’s behaviour is. The entire story depends upon the reaction and responses to Bartleby, and how one man can unsettle another, if they do not conform to social demands. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that the lawyer’s inertia (which mirrored Bartleby’s) participated in the tragic events. However, this story is subjective, and it is dependent upon the reader to come to their own verdict. Melville may have used the narrator as an extreme version, to highlight mankind’s fallibility, or maybe he was taunting the institutions of society, like Wall Street.

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