Bartleby, the Villain in Bartleby, the Scrivener

Powerful Essays
Bartleby, the Villian in Bartleby, the Scrivener

Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," poses many moral questions, but refuses to answer them nicely and neatly. Unfortunately, Melville's ambiguities have lead to some unusual interpretations concerning the ethics of the unnamed lawyer who narrates the story. While it may seem perfectly obvious to most of us that he goes out of his way to be sensitive to Bartleby's needs, beginning with the narrator's allowing him to refrain from certain duties, to refraining from all his duties, to letting him make his office his lodgings, to offering him beyond what he owes Bartleby and securing him another position, to even inviting him to live with him in the lawyer's own home. As Harold Schechter puts it, the narrator is meant "to be a model of terrestrial morality" (359). And, as Donald H. Craver and Patricia R. Plante explain,

The most widely accepted contemporary interpretations

of "Bartleby" have centered upon the theme of the

brotherhood of man or a variation thereof. Through

Bartleby's passive resistance against all that the

methodical law office serves, the unnamed narrator is

gradually turned away from his prudent, and safe, and

uncommitted position until he stands scorched by the

blazing revelation that we are, all of us, at once

interdependent and forlorn (132).

Yet still there are critics who maintain the lawyer has no set of ethics at all--that everything he does is out of self-interest and is immoral.

One of the critics who feels this way is Thomas Pribek. Pri...

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...rator who fails at saving the unsalvageable, because he at least tried.

Works Cited

Craver, Donald H., and Patricia R. Plante. "Bartleby or, the Ambiguities."Studies in Short Fiction 20.2-3 (Spring-Summer 1983): 132-136.

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street." Anthology of America Literature: Volume I: Colonial through Romantic. Ed. George McMichael. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1993. 1301-1326.

Mitchell, Thomas R. "Dead Letters and Dead Men: Narrative Purpose in 'Bartleby, the Scrivener.'" Studies in Short Fiction 27.3 (Summer 1990): 329-338.

Pribek, Thomas. "The 'Safe' Man of Wall Street: Characterizing Melville's Lawyer." Studies in Short Fiction 23.2 (Spring 1986): 191-195.

Schechter, Harold. "Bartleby the Chronometer" Studies in Short Fiction 19.4 (Fall 1982): 359-366.