Understanding the Narratora's Behavior Towards Bartleby
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville explores the odd relationship between Bartleby and his boss, the narrator. The narrator is depicted as a moderately successful lawyer, who owns a law firm on Wall Street and employs four Copyists-Nippers, Turkey, Ginger Nut, and Bartleby. The narrator seems to have gained professional standing by being dependable rather than ambitious or brilliant. He does not seem to work hard in his prestigious law firm; hence his stress level is darn low, albeit until Bartleby joins the firm. Before employing Bartleby, the narrator describes himself as an experienced, professional, and self-possessed man. He seems to have figured out the road to success and even acknowledges that, I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best (1). Although he approaches life with an egoistic attitude, his self-interest occasionally compels him to help others. The narrator has managed to work around his two employees weakness so that they complement each other. When he employees Bartleby, he thinks he has found a reliable employee. However, when the narrator asks Bartleby on the third day of his employment to assist in proofreading a document, he responds calmly and politely, I prefer not to. The narrator is taken aback and decides to ask another employee to assist. The narrator is full of pity and repulsion towards Bartleby. However, he remains lenient towards him because he sees himself reflected in Bartleby, he is not confrontational, and Bartleby challenges the logic in his life.
The narrator sees himself reflected in Bartlebys character and this drives his obsession with him. The story is often considered a ghost story because Bartleby acts as an external manifestation of the narrators soul. Widmer notes in his article, Melville's Radical Resistance: The Method and Meaning of ‘Bartleby that the narrator saw Bartleby as as the specter of rebellious and irrational human will, whose very existence he denies.(448). Although the author provides no history about Bartleby, the narrator’s assertion that he 'never feels so private as when he knows Bartleby is there' underlines the narrator's identification with Bartleby. Bartleby reveals the narrator's struggles with cognitive dissonance in his legal practice. He acknowledges that he is not an enviable person by any stretch of imagination. He has chosen the easiest way of life and considers himself an unambitious lawyer a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title deeds (1). The narrator has devoted his life to serving the rich and has forgotten about the injustices visited upon the poor by repressing any underlying knowledge of the inequalities. Yet, Bartleby's introduction into the office fills him with shock, acquiescence, pity, and empathy. Struggling with a difficult employee, the narrator seeks guidance from passion and reason on how to deal with Bartleby. The narrator's viewless office symbolizes his attempts to ignore injustices. Although his closed room impedes his vision of the Wall Street, a representation of injustice, Bartleby, remains ever pervasive. Bartley's presence represents a piece of the narrator's soul that he can no longer ignore, dismiss, or repress. The narrator still tries to escape the ghost in his room by moving to another location. He wants to segregate the feelings inside his soul that are Bartley's presence in his office represents. He reveals the external conflict he faces during his interaction with the lawyer who moves to his old office, and pretends that he does not know Bartleby. Yet, he manages to rationalize the situation and his interactions with Bartleby and runs off to convince Bartley to leave the premises because he knows that Bartley's presence may expose him to shame and ridicule in the papers. Indeed, Bartley represents the narrators character; hence he feels that being harsh towards Bartley is tantamount to self-indictment.
The narrator's attitude towards Bartleby portrays him as unable to confront problems directly. His weakness is apparent from the moment we realize he puts up with two terrible clerks, Nippers and Turkey, because he felt uncomfortable firing and replacing them. The narrator is depicted as a person who backs down from confrontation and opts to rationalize it rather absurdly. However, he seems unaware that he avoids confrontation. Bartley manages to reveal the narrator's weakness by dismantling the narrator's business with a simple phrase, I would prefer not to. He finally stops working completely, adds no value, while scaring away clients, thereby forcing the narrator to move to another office. Bartleys actions render the narrator powerless and unable to rationalize away the difficult employee. He keeps readjusting his understanding of the employee, but Bartleby remains adamant in his refusal to work or comply with the norms. At one point, Bartleby occupies the who office and even locks out the narrator until his work inside is completed. The narrator masks his weaknesses by convincing himself that his actions are made out of self-interest. For instance, he declares that assisting Bartleby is 'a sweet morsel to his conscience'. The narrator keeps finding a reason not to act even when his employees show him downright disrespect. He initially convinces himself that not firing Turkey and Nipper was a good decision and that it 'was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances.' (5). The narrator works with anger and frustration but he does not take any necessary action to address the situation. His non-confrontational attitude towards Turkey, Nippers, and Bartleby makes it hard for the reader to believe him when he says, 'with any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion. (9).
The narrator tries to logically accommodate Bartleby's behavior, but he does not seem to change, forcing the narrator to change his attitude. When Bartleby initially refuses to comply with the narrator's demands he altruistically rationalizes his decision not to fire him stating, Poor fellow! Thought I, he means no mischief. (10). Furthermore, he sympathizes with Bartleby when he realizes that Bartleby lives in his office and even finds a connection between Bartleby's actions and the loneliness of Wall Street. Finally, the narrator decides to rent a new office space when Bartleby refuses to move. At this point, the narrator's actions are not driven by any feelings of sympathy but his own peace. When the lawyer renting the narrators old premises asks the narrator to do something about Bartleby, he denies having any knowledge of him. However, he tries getting Bartleby out of the premises, after being threatened with exposure in the newspapers. He acknowledges that, Fearful then of being exposed in the papers (as one person present obscurely threatened) I considered the matterI would that afternoon strive my best to rid them of the nuisance they complained of. (25). It is quite evident that the narrator has changed from a benevolent boss into an individual who looks after his interest. Nonetheless, he still finds pity with Bartleby's plight because he serves, repeatedly, as his 'ghost,' the conscience 'haunting' the attorney, his moral 'albatross,' the embarrassing secret and continual inhabitant of his walled-in chambers and mind.(Widmer 450).
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street underlines the challenges of the narrator in dealing with his employees. The narrator has a belief that he could manage to deal with the most difficult employees without necessarily firing them. He had successful accommodated Turkey and Nipper, but Bartleby proved to be the most difficult character to deal with. However, his relationship with Bartleby showed that he sees himself reflected in Bartleby, he is not confrontational, and Bartleby challenges the logic in his life.
- Melville, Herman.Â Bartleby the scrivener : a story of Wall-Street. Radford, VA: SMK Books, 2012. Print.
- Widmer, Kingsley. 'Melville's Radical Resistance: The Method and Meaning of' Bartleby'.'Â Studies in the NovelÂ (1969): 444-458.