Character Analysis in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

Bartleby: The lawyer hires Bartleby to be a scrivener, a scribe who copies court and legal documents, for his law firm. While initially a prolific worker, Bartleby slowly begins to resist direct instruction, repeating the phrase “I prefer not to” when asked to do something. The lawyer becomes increasingly frustrated with Bartleby’s refusal, becoming almost pathologically obsessed with what he interprets as Bartleby’s apathy. The cause behind Bartleby’s non-conformity, isolation, and inability to work have been widely addressed by critics and readers since the story’s publication in 1853. Some have pointed to his previous work at a dead-letter office, a postal office location that disposes letters addressed to deceased people or people who have disappeared, as the source of his depression.

The Lawyer: The lawyer is the narrator of this story. He is about sixty years old, holds the office of Master of Chancery, and is well known in the Wall Street community. His attitude towards life is simple: he believes the easiest way of life is the best one, seeing work as a central component of this life. He finds controversy scandalous and therefore uses bribes, withdrawal, and logical arguments to make controversy go away. His insistence that he is an honorable man throughout the text make him less trustworthy as a narrator. He maintains a detached relationship with his employees relatively successfully until he meets Bartleby. His emotional entanglement with this scrivener breaks his professional detachment, revealing his own disillusionment with the isolation of the American workforce.

Character Analysis Examples in Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street:

Bartleby, the Scrivener 19

"restive horse is said to feel his oats..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This cliche means a horse gets energetic once it eats. The lawyer dismissively suggests that Turkey is excited about his coat. This reinforces the lawyer’s elitist attitude towards his subordinates.

"“A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.”..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This is a Biblical quote from John 13:34. Adam is the Biblical character who was thrown out of Eden for eating an apple from the tree of knowledge. Here, the lawyer figures his conscience as his pious self versus a more self-serving self akin to Adam. He uses this quote to guide himself back towards the “righteous” response to Bartleby. This is an example of how the lawyer sees himself in a Christian framework and attempts to guide his actions by Christian morals.

"John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat,..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

John Jacob Astor’s presence in this story draws attention to the class conflict prevalent in this time. The Astor Place Riot of 1949 was the most deadly and violent class conflict in a series of disturbances in New York City from 1840–1850. Astor had built an elaborate Opera House that effectively separated the rich from the poor. At this time, theaters were a place in which all classes could gather equally. The riots culminated in 25 deaths and 120 injuries when the state militia shot into the crowd. Astor represents the rich upper class against which the working class and immigrant classes were fighting. The narrator’s love for Astor indicates that he is of the upper class.

"I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Notice how the lawyer makes a subtle argument to the reader as to why they should continue reading this story. If the absence of Bartleby’s biography is an “irreparable loss” then the ensuing tale about Bartleby must be an essential part of literature. In this way the lawyer compels the reader to continue reading and suggests that his short story is already great literature. This subtle claim demonstrates the lawyer’s pride and self-importance.

"“Do you not see the reason for yourself?” he indifferently replied...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Bartleby’s comment is perplexing for two reasons. First, Bartleby defends his refusal to work without any explanation and yet assumes the lawyer would understand. Second, Bartleby asks whether the lawyer does not see the reason, which is particularly strange because “his eyes looked dull and glazed.” As the story progresses, Bartleby’s behavior becomes increasingly puzzling.

"I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The lawyer begins to grasp the nature of Bartleby’s affliction. Despite the signs of suffering on the surface, it is Bartleby’s “soul that suffer[s].” We cannot be sure precisely what the lawyer means by this, for the word “soul” is complex and carries religious connotations. It is clear, though, that the lawyer is indicating something deeper and more perplexing in Bartleby’s nature.

"A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

In this passage, the lawyer reflects on the biblical book of Genesis as he considers his relationship with Bartleby. The lawyer envisions himself and Bartleby as “sons of Adam.” In Genesis, Adam’s sons are Cain and Abel. After Cain murders Abel in a fit of jealousy, he asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The lawyer’s empathy for Bartleby, his sense that he is Bartleby’s keeper, evokes a deep feeling of “fraternal melancholy.”

"the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The word “dishabille” refers to a state of partial or unconcerned dress and in French literally means “undressed.” This state is characteristic of Bartleby’s nonchalance and figuratively suggests his apathy and lack of vitality.

"Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Bartleby’s first words serve as a common refrain repeated throughout the narrative. Many scholars have heralded Bartleby’s statement as a declaration of passive resistance. While it certainly can be read this way, it is important to consider the grammar and meaning of the words employed. The past tense modal verb “would” is used to indicate polite deference; the verb “to prefer” means to indicate a preference or a predisposition for one thing over another. Bartleby is essentially indicating that he would rather not perform such work, but he is also not refusing to do so. That he is allowed to have his way is entirely due to the lawyer’s willingness to indulge him.

"I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The lawyer alludes here to Cicero, the ancient Roman politician, of whom he owns a plaster sculpture. The lawyer cites the sculpture as an object that is, like Bartleby himself, cold and inhuman. The comparison is strange in that Cicero was a figure known for his powerful persona and bold speaking style, qualities which Bartleby does not possess.

"So that Turkey's paroxysms only coming on about twelve o'clock, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A “paroxysm” is an episode in which a disease becomes more acute in its symptoms. Melville uses the word humorously, referring to how Nippers and Turkey experience bouts of ill temper at alternating times of day.

"was no other than a dun, and the alleged title-deed, a bill...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A “dun” is a debt collector. Though the lawyer either does not know or does not discuss the nature of Nippers’s activities outside the office, it is likely that they are of a clandestine nature.

"with his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The adjective “cadaverous” ascribes a corpse-like quality to someone or something. The adverb form, used here, carries similar meaning. The lawyer states that Bartleby’s “nonchalance,” or indifference, is simultaneously respectful (“gentlemanly”) and without life (“cadaverously”). Some form of the word “cadaverous” appears three times throughout the story to characterize Bartleby.

"There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

In this sentence, Melville uses alliteration and consonance to give greater life to the characterization of Turkey. Notice the series of syllables beginning with fl; the fullness of the sound, as well as its repetition, conveys Turkey’s flustered demeanor.

"Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. ..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Having just discovered that Bartleby has been living in the law offices, the lawyer considers that he and the other workers may be the only people that are close to Bartleby. Yet they know nothing about him. The lawyers here states that while happiness is easy to see because people are willing to share their happiness, misery and depression is often hidden below the surface. Unless Bartleby decides to share, the lawyer will have no way of knowing how Bartleby actually feels.

"To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This is another rare moment in which readers learn of the lawyer’s rationale for humoring Bartleby. The lawyer notes that Bartleby is still a useful employee. By accepting Bartleby’s flaws, the lawyer can perform what he considers a charitable gesture that requires little effort on his part, fulfilling his desire to lead an easy life and present himself as a charitable Christian. Thus the lawyer can be seen as acting out of his greed for self-righteousness, rather than genuine good will.

"Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Bartleby has repeatedly stated that he “prefers not to” join the others in reviewing his proofs. The lawyer’s response here is one of the few moments in the narrative when he explains his rationale for allowing Bartleby to have his way rather than follow the orders of his superior. Since the lawyer decides to humor Bartleby, he ends up giving more work to his other employees and himself. What would be easier for him is to have Bartleby perform the work required of a scrivener. This contrasts with how the lawyer originally presented himself as someone who is “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.”

"According to my humor I threw open these doors, or closed them...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

While today we most readily associated the word “humor” with laughter and good feeling, this noun, particularly in this construction, simply refers to one’s mood or disposition. Since the lawyer can open and close these doors as he pleases, this reveals his privileged position of power compared to his employees; they have no say in the office layout nor in whether or not the doors are open or closed.

"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...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This is one of the few instances of the lawyer talking about himself. The story that follows reveals this statement to be largely untrue. Careful readers will notice that the way the lawyer-narrator presents himself is not supported by his actions—in particular, consider how he deals with the behavior of not only Turkey and Nippers but also Bartleby. Such a blanket statement ought to give readers pause and read closely to learn more about the lawyer.