Analysis of the Plot of 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” summary: it is a short story written by the American author, Herman Melville. The story follows a lawyer as he deals with his unusual employee named Bartleby. Bartleby is a peculiar individual who often goes against his boss’s orders. Throughout the story, the narrator’s attitude towards Bartleby is constantly changing; his shiftiness is portrayed through the story’s first-person point of view and a tone shift from confusion and annoyance to pity and helplessness.

The story is told in a first-person point of view and it allows for the readers to get close to Bartleby but still be confused by him. By seeing everything through his employer’s eyes, it is easier to see and identify the conflicted feelings of the narrator. The first-person point of view allows for the tone to be set as well. Because the story is limited to what the narrator sees, the tone is provided through this limited perspective. At the very beginning the lawyer was extremely impressed by Bartleby, he noted, “Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents”. He likes his newest Scrivener better than his other two temperamental ones. This admiration does not last long as Bartleby starts to show his strange side. For example, on pages 10-11, the author states, “I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume; but in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, ‘I would prefer not to.” Bartleby refused to follow the orders of his boss in front of the other employees. In the moment the narrator was stunned and confused. He tries to clear up his confusion by assuming that Bartleby did not hear him and received the same answer he got before, “I prefer not to”. After Bartleby’s insubordination, he says, “I stood gazing at him a while, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do?”. Like many people, he does not understand what just happened to him. At that moment he lets it go, however, he tries to ask his employee to examine papers again only to get frustrated. On page 12 the author writes, “For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt, standing at the head of my seated column of clerks. Recovering myself, I advanced towards the screen, and demanded the reason for such extraordinary conduct. ‘Why do you refuse?’ ‘I would prefer not to.” The narrator’s insight changes the tone from pleased to be confused to frustrated. As the story goes on, the narrator wants to help Bartleby. When he discovers that Bartleby has been living in his office for quite a while, his first emotions are, “those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity”. The enigma is lonely, broken, sick, exhausted, and hardly anybody would feel differently to a fellow human being in need. Therefore, the narrator’s feelings of pity are appropriate in this situation. However, as the story progresses, the narrator’s feelings change: “just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew into my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion”. According to the narrator, his feelings for Bartleby changed not because of inherent human selfishness, but because he realizes he is not able to help Bartleby. For instance, on page 25 the narrator states, “I might give alms to his body; but his body didn’t pain him; it was his soul that suffered and his soul I couldn’t reach”. The narrator’s ending tone was one of sadness because he could not help Bartleby since his pain was internal.

By the narrator’s assessment, it is clear the only way the narrator would have been able to help Bartleby was if Bartleby opened up to him and let him know why he was the way he was. Unfortunately, that was not possible for the young Scrivener. The gloomy ending to the story shows the lawyer as a man who was able to recognize the pain another human soul was going through. This same conclusion could be said about humanity as a whole; the story explores the gradual disappearance of the human spirit as well as other things. Bartleby was plagued with depression because of his previous employment. Being constantly surrounded by the last words of dead people took a major hit to his mental health and soul as a whole. By the end of the story, he no longer wanted to be in this world; his spirit had been degraded to the point of snapping. The narrator recognized this and felt overwhelming sadness when he could not do anything to help his ex-employee.

08 December 2022
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