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Themes in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Passive Resistance: Bartleby is not a conventionally heroic character. However, his choice not to comply with the rules of the workplace could be viewed as a rebellion against Wall Street materialism. In this way, Bartleby comes to represent the power of passive resistance against capitalism. In this reading, Bartleby’s resistance to his “superiors” is a heroic rebellion against society’s current structure. His lack of desire for food may be the most pertinent example of this rebellion—Bartleby completely rejects his role as consumer, even when this consuming is necessary for his own life.

Mental Health: Alternatively, some critics have read Bartleby’s character as an early literary recognition of depression. While he initially works hard, Bartleby falls into more depressive states over time. His isolation at work compounds into increasingly anti-social behavior, which the lawyer fails to notice. The walls and communication breakdown between employer and employee contribute to this. Readers also learn that Bartleby worked in a dead letter office, a place where undeliverable mail is destroyed, which likely contributed to Bartleby’s depression.

Isolation and Imprisonment: Bartleby’s tale presents issues with social isolation and imprisonment that are brought on by breakdowns in communication, which result in a lack of understanding on the part of the lawyer and a lack of escape for the trapped Bartleby.

Compassion: Melville’s narrative is largely an attack on commonplace conceptions of morality. The lawyer uses Bartleby to feel good about his own morality, seeing his “tolerance” of Bartleby’s eccentricities as a sign of his own charitable nature. Melville exposes how people in modern society tend to only care about themselves, especially in the capitalist world of Wall Street. This is shown most explicitly when the narrator states: “Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay u

Themes Examples in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street:

Bartleby, the Scrivener

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"As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Many of the story’s metaphors draw on food and consumption. When Bartleby first arrives at the lawyer’s office he “gorge[s] himself on… documents.” As the story progresses, his hunger, both for work and for food, fades. In many ways, greed and consumption serve as a thematic backdrop appropriate to the Wall Street setting, where economic interests reign supreme. Bartleby is a complete outsider in his literal and figurative lack of appetite.

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"It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Despite the ultimatum, Bartleby is still in the lawyer’s office. The lawyer argues with Bartleby to no avail and decides to wait before further pressing the matter. In this passage, he recalls the murder of printer Samuel Adams by his client John C. Colt in 1842. Notice here that he appears to suggest that an office atmosphere devoid of “humanizing domestic associations” could provide prime conditions for murder. The lawyer comes closer to understanding the damaging repercussions of an isolated work environment.

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"Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Once again the lawyer makes a point of isolating Bartleby behind a screen, or wall. While the lawyer considers Bartleby “harmless and noiseless” in this space, he fails to recognize the effects of such isolation. By placing walls between them, the lawyer prohibits any opportunity for human connection and understanding.

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"“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

At this point in the narrative, the lawyer has resolved to find one of Bartleby’s kin, fire him, and pass responsibility off to said kin. The lawyer asks Bartleby a series of questions and begs him to be “a little reasonable,” to which Bartleby replies with this statement. This is one of the stronger pieces of evidence for Bartleby’s actions as passive resistance; Bartleby has no interest in participating in logical and fair reason.

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"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.

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