Bartleby: The Trail From Unnoticed Depression To Untimely Death

It is a known secret that mental illnesses have the ability to make a person’s life quite turbulent; this includes impacting their work-social life and general ability to work. With the political climate of the modern era warring between calling for safe spaces in work and educational environments versus brushing off these concerns as overdramaticism, it certainly poses the question: how did employers in the past deal with and view employees with mental illnesses that may have impeded their ability to work? Published in 1853, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” follows an unnamed narrator, who works as a lawyer and just hired another scrivener, Bartleby. Bartleby is rather reluctant to do much work, showcasing peculiar habits and averting responsibilities by passively saying “I prefer not to” until it ultimately leads to his untimely demise. It should be safe to say that no man of normal cognitive function would deny the most basic of necessities: food, water, and social interaction. There are plenty of peculiarities surrounding Bartleby, but the one that seems to truly puzzle the audience is trying to define why he is the way that he is. There is an avenue that could easily answer the question: mental illness, specifically clinical depression.

Clinical depression is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “A mental health disorder characterized by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life” (Hall-Flavin). Bartleby’s down-sliding progression is not him exercising civil disobedience or trying to prove some sort of point by subtly abusing himself; it is simply a man not receiving the proper treatment and understanding he needs. Bartleby represents a man out of the realm of normal cognitive function, as evident by the spiral of refusals that lead to his doom. The narrator of the story does seemingly try his best to help, but ultimately there is more he could have done for Bartleby to assist him in functioning to the best of his capabilities by ultimately showing more compassion towards him through correcting his coworkers’ inappropriate behaviors towards him. This also reflects on the way, in the modern era, we value a person based on their ability to work; Bartleby, like so many others today, do not have the tools at hand needed to work in the traditional sense, and this diminishes their value in society because they do not fit the mold of what is deemed a “normal” citizen.

Herman Melville, through the diction he opts to use to describe Bartleby, hints to the audience that there is more to Bartleby’s refusals than he lets on. In one of the first descriptions of Bartleby, the narrator says about his work ethic that “…he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (Melville 1163). The word choice that Melville uses to describe Bartleby’s work ethic is very reminiscent of someone having to force themselves to work because something else is distracting them, particularly something that exhausts them—a quality commonly found in patients with depression. According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, “It [depression] may also adversely impact multiple areas of employee performance, including focus and decision making, time management, completing physical tasks, social interactions, and communication.” Depression, which Melville hints through his use of words with quite dim connotations, most certainly affects employee productivity and work ethic, and could very well be the reason why Bartleby is noted to work mechanically; he is already overexerting himself by working, so he has no other energy left to work happily or interact with coworkers. Not only does Melville bring forth the representation of depression through Bartleby’s work ethic, it is shown through his mannerisms when he communicates with others as well as the observations of his daily activities.

Again, via diction, Melville shows more aspects of Bartleby’s mental health by the very particular words he chooses and the connotations they carry to describe Bartleby and his mannerisms. Bartleby is described to have “dimly calm” eyes (Melville 1164), is observed by the narrator that he “…never went to dinner…he never went anywhere” and that “He was a perpetual sentry in the corner” (Melville 1166). Melville’s choice to make Bartleby’s eyes “dimly calm” brings with it the connotations that Bartleby is complacent and apathetic, common symptoms of depression, and that feeling of numbness and general apathy towards life is being reflected in his eyes. On top of this, he is said to never eat and never go places, and the description of Bartleby as a sentry makes him seem like a vigilant statue that, perhaps, does not have the energy in him to move—another common sign of depression. This can be backed up by the Mayo Clinic, which states that signs of depression are: “Reduced appetite and weight loss” and “Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements,” which can come with complications such as “Family conflicts, relationship difficulties, and work or school problems…social isolation.” The way his behavior aligns so well to symptoms of clinical depression cannot be just a coincidence; Bartleby exhibits all of these symptoms and complications, which is evident in the way that Melville uses specific diction to describe Bartleby’s appearance and physical behavior—making it apparent that Melville purposefully made these choices to align Bartleby with symptoms of clinical depression. However, there may be objections when applying the modern label of clinical depression to Bartleby.

Some may hold the belief that clinical depression is not applicable to Bartleby because Herman Melville published the short story in 1853, long before the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was published in 1952. Critics may think that the label of clinical depression is a modern invention, so there is no possibility that Melville could have written a character with such an infliction because it was not called depression back then; this, however, is a mistaken pattern of logic. Yes, the symptoms that Bartleby exhibits were not called depression when Melville originally published “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street”—this cluster of symptoms was actually deemed melancholia, and was founded much farther into the past than when the story was published. According to the Oxford Handbook of Mood Disorders, melancholia was originally discovered by Hippocrates and the school of Hippocratic physicians, and the symptoms included much of what Melville describes Bartleby as embodying: a strange refusal or aversion to food and a sort of despondency about the patient (Horwitz et al). In fact, they claim that “[Depression] has a lengthy and readily identifiable history… it is perhaps the most easily recognizable psychological disorder throughout history; similar symptomatic descriptions occur over a 2,500-year span” (Horwitz et al). Spanning much beyond this, there is evidence that occurrences of depression go as far back as to the city of Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia. Of course, they were not cognizant of depression as a mental disorder, but instead thought of it as a spiritual infliction; nonetheless, it has been said that, “Babylonian accounts of mental illness are notable for their objectivity and the absence of subjective feelings and thoughts” (Reynolds and Wilson). There is actual textual evidence that Babylonians in the first Babylonian empire in the second millennium (2000-1001 BC) had written down regarding the ritual treatment for such an infliction, in which they described the symptoms:

“…if his limbs often hang limp, and he is sometimes so frightened that he cannot sleep by day or night and constantly sees disturbing dreams; if he has a “weakness” in his limbs (from) not having enough food and drink; and if (in speech) he forgets (cannot find)the word which he is trying to say; then, as for that awīlum, the anger of (his) god and goddess is upon him” (Reynolds and Wilson)

These symptoms are consistent with those that the school of Hippocratic physicians describe, as well as the more modern DSM from 1952 onwards. Therefore, it is highly likely that Herman Melville was able to write a character with depression, because, even though the term itself is a modern invention, the symptoms and actual disorder have been around for much, much longer.

The way in which Melville phrases his sentences gives further insight into the way that Bartleby embodies a person with depression. Going back to the description of his work ethic, Melville makes an interesting choice in the way he structured his sentences: “I should have been delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (1163). Melville splits these sentences in two, even though he could have written it as one complete sentence. The way in which he splits these sentences changes the tone of what is being said by the narrator—it sounds as if the narrator is put off by Bartleby’s behavior, like it bothers him to see that one of his employees is not working happily; he is working as if the job itself depresses him, and the mere implication of that confuses and possibly disturbs the narrator. There is another instance of syntax, but this time showing the relationship between Bartleby and the narrator: “’What is wanted?’ said he mildly. ‘The copies, the copies,’ said I hurriedly” (Melville 1164). This interaction structurally serves one central purpose: to characterize Bartleby’s passive behavior. By juxtaposing Bartleby’s bland response with the narrator’s excitable one, Melville is characterizing what could possibly be Bartleby’s depression because of how unresponsive he is to the narrator’s tone. Melville also opts to focus on the way that Bartleby’s peers interact with his behavior, particularly in the way his peers speak to the narrator about it.

Everyone else in the office notices Bartleby’s behavior, and they all have unique interactions with it. They are not the kindest to Bartleby, and this is reflected in what they tell the narrator and what narrator does—and does not—do. There are two primary instances where Bartleby’s peers should have been reprimanded for their behavior regarding Bartleby: when Ginger Nut called him crazy and when Turkey threatened to punch him. The first instance, goes as follows: “’I think, sir, he’s a little luny,’ replied Ginger Nut, with a grin” (Melville 1165). Here, the narrator should have told Ginger Nut that this comment was inappropriate because it essentially makes fun of Bartleby for something they do not have total understanding of, in addition to it just being a generally inappropriate thing to say about a coworker. The narrator does nothing to discourage thus behavior, so he is failing not only Bartleby, but himself and his employees as well by not stopping this behavior before it gets out of control. As a result of being complacent with this comment, the animosity towards Bartleby from his peers only gets more violent.

The second instance is much more serious and certainly deserved punishment. Turkey says, “’Shall I go and black his eyes?’” to which the narrator responds, “’You refer to Bartleby, I suppose. No, not to-day, Turkey…pray, put up your fists’” (Melville 1167). As a result of his irresponsible management, the narrator inadvertently cultivated a work environment that had the very real possibility to be violent towards Bartleby. The way that Melville structures the narrator’s response also speaks volumes. The narrator sounds annoyed at having to “correct” his employee’s behavior, so he does the absolute bare minimum that barely constitutes a correction, let alone a punishment. According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, the more appropriate steps to take are to educate employees about depression in the workplace and encourage discussions around mental health to help normalize the topic and inspire employees to seek help when they are struggling (Center for Workplace Mental Health). By doing this instead of brushing off inappropriate employee conduct and getting frustrated with Bartleby, the narrator could have potentially saved Bartleby’s life. Even though this story was written in 1853, this is all very reminiscent of how poorly mental health is handled in the modern era of the workforce.

The story of Bartleby warns of the dangers of unaddressed depression in the workplace. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),

“Approximately 80% of persons with depression reported some level of functional impairment because of their depression, and 27% reported serious difficulties in work and home life” and “Only 29% of all persons with depression reported contacting a mental health professional in the past year, and among the subset with severe depression, only 39% reported contact” (CDC).

This shows an alarmingly high rate of depression, and an upsettingly low rate of treatment. This low treatment rate can be attributed to the way in which mental health disorders are frowned upon in Western society. Depression, which is one of the most common mental health disorders for adults, is greatly stigmatized in the United States for a handful of reasons. For men especially, they feel pressure from years upon years of Western gender stereotypes that dictate how men need to act stoic and self-confident; because of this, they often feel pressured to ignore their feelings of depression and other mental health disorders, as that may affect their status in the eyes of their peers—which is exactly what happened to Bartleby. Another reason that mental health is stigmatized is because of the way Americans pride their individualism, or the belief that everyone is their own self-sufficient individual.

Americans often take individualism to the extreme, which results in social isolation and deterioration of mental health. A study done of several individualistic cultures showed the devastating effects of individualism on mental health: “Research suggests that, for both societies and individuals, having individualistic values is associated with increased rates of completed suicide and suicidal behavior. Ecologic…studies yield positive associations between individualism and suicide” (Eskin et al). Since the story of Bartleby takes place in the United States, it is of no surprise how individualism could have impacted Bartleby as a person. Because of his employers carelessness and fellow employees’ cruelty, it is no wonder why Bartleby deteriorated to the point of his own death like he did; the narrator did not value Bartleby as a living and breathing person, he only held value for him as long as he remained an obedient worker, and lost patience with him when he just did not have the ability to provide results. This is reflective of today, where so many people feel pressured to come in to work despite any mental or physical illness, because their worth is dictated by their ability to work; if they do not work, they do not get paid, and therefore they are of little value to society.

There are a great many people who feel the sting of the way the current system works here in the States; people who have more to offer than just their ability to work. I myself have mental disorders that make it very hard to meet basic needs, let alone function at the level that makes me valuable. I feel this pressure every day; pressure that I cannot do enough to prove my worth because I cannot work a “normal” job. Bartleby represents how so many of us feel: numb and struggling. There is a way, though, to ensure that people do not share the same fate as Bartleby. We need to start valuing people as people, not as cogs in a workforce machine that only has value as long as it works and is replaced as soon as it becomes faulty.

Works Cited

  1. Hall-Flavin, Daniel K., M.D. “Severe, Persistent Depression.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation forMedical Education and Research, 13 May 2017,
  2. “Depression (Major Depressive Disorder).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for MedicalEducation and Research, 3 Feb. 2018,
  3. “Depression.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control andPrevention, 13 Feb. 2020,
  4. “Depression.” Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, American Psychiatric AssociationFoundation, 2020,
  5. Eskin, Mehmet, et al. “Is Individualism Suicidogenic? Findings From a Multinational Study ofYoung Adults From 12 Countries.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media S.A., 3 Apr.2020,
  6. Horwitz, Allan V., et al. “History of Depression.” The Oxford Handbook of Mood Disorders,edited by Robert J. DeRubeis and Daniel R. Strunk, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp.2–10.
  7. Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street.” The Norton Anthology ofAmerican Literature. 9th ed. Eds. Robert S. Levine et al. Vol. 1. New York, NY: W. W.Norton
01 August 2022
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