“Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville is a complex short story with few solidly agreed upon interpretations. At first reading, the character of Bartleby evokes sympathy — pity, even. He is a man without a home and without a purpose, and is forced into inaction by his life circumstances. After more careful reading, however, it becomes evident that Bartleby is a man who controlled the world around him by quietly and politely refusing to act. Bartleby is opposition personified — he has power and wields it effectively and with purpose.
Bartleby is the protagonist in this story. He is the only character that has a proper name, which gives him an air of importance that the merely nicknamed scriveners and even the Lawyer do not possess. The narrator shows Bartleby’s power from the very first paragraph of the story by saying: “I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of” (Melville 300). The Lawyer is a collector of eccentric employees, so for him to give Bartleby sole consideration for this story speaks to his notoriety. The Lawyer has a high profile position in the community, so he has clearly heard of a great number of scriveners, but to him Bartleby is the most interesting. For Bartleby to be more worthy of mention than even the Lawyer, (who thinks quite highly of himself) shows exactly how much of an impression Bartleby has made on his life.
The first hint of the unrest to come happens almost immediately after Bartleby’s uneventful arrival:
As if long famished for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically (Melville 307).
Given the repetition of the task, (and it being the beginning of the industrial revolution) Bartleby’s seemingly mechanical application makes sense. It seems, however, that the Lawyer realizes that this task brings Bartleby no joy and this unnerves him. His other scriveners are happy to work, and go about their business with purpose; while Bartleby seems to be incapable of connecting with his menial job. It is almost as if the Lawyer has a premonition of how much Bartleby will change his way of living.
The Lawyers confidence in Bartleby is further eroded the first time he asks him to examine his own copy. “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” (Melville 308). This is the exact moment in the story when Bartleby starts to exert his quiet power. As a result of his refusal, the other scriveners are forced to examine his copy, which takes longer and throws off the balance of power. By politely refusing to follow protocol, Bartleby has effectively thrown a wrench into the machine and tied the Lawyers hands.
Bartleby’s firm refusal becomes a mantra of sorts. If he was asked to do anything, “…it was generally understood that he would prefer not too – in other words, he would refuse point-blank” (Melville 314). The word prefer starts to creep about the office, finding its way into common usage even though no one in the office used it much before. The Lawyer tries to reason with Bartleby, and even gets angry and unreasonable with him, but Bartleby refuses to budge. I view this as the moment when Bartleby is in the height of his power. An entire group of workers sidestep him because they can’t understand his impertinence, and have also adopted the most powerful word in his painstakingly crafted response. A lowly scrivener bests his superiors, simply because he has the nerve to oppose their spiritless expectations.
The Lawyer seems to realize the power Bartleby holds, because (after an embarrassing episode where Bartleby won’t let him into his own office) he says:
“Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were. For I consider that one, for the time, is a sort of unmanned when he tranquilly permits his hired clerk to dictate to him, and order him away from his own premises” (Melville 315). The Lawyer claims to feel pity towards Bartleby because of his seeming lack of a place in the world, but his actions show that Bartleby terrifies him. Someone who has never questioned his place in life could never truly understand Bartleby and his refusal to conform.
When the Lawyer is unable to rid himself of Bartleby — because he refuses to leave, the Lawyer is outraged. He says, “What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?” (Melville 325). Bartley simply walks away, and the Lawyer is once again at a loss for how to handle the situation. I see this scene as the Lawyer trying to shame Bartleby into earning his keep, or at the very least into finding some way to become a productive member of society. Once again Bartleby turns his back on sensibility, and the Lawyer chooses not to do anything about it. Bartleby seems to understand that the Lawyer’s hands are tied as long as he doesn’t outright refuse, and he uses this to his advantage.
After a time, the Lawyer seems to give up entirely on trying to change Bartleby. Bartleby effectively out-maneuvers him at every turn: “Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had all been predestined from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom” (Melville 326). Of course, Bartleby’s hold could not last forever, so after unsuccessfully trying to kick him out of his offices, the Lawyer moves out of the office entirely and leaves Bartleby behind. Bartleby so unnerves the Lawyer that he can’t wait to be rid of him, which is its own brand of power.
Bartleby’s struggle against the programming of his time does not quite end there because he still refuses to leave the office and plagues the new tenets with his presence. The Lawyer is forced to go back and talk to Bartleby because he is, “Fearful then of being exposed in the papers” (Melville 330). Bartleby did not even follow the Lawyer to his new place of business, and yet he still won’t be ignored. Even in the end when Bartleby ends up dying in jail, he is still standing in the way. Someone has to take the time to clear his body and bury him. Progress will be slowed, if only for a day.
Bartleby was a powerful force for change, without allowing himself to be changed by the demands of a world that he could not meaningfully participate in. I see his quiet resistance being equal in power to the sit-ins conducted during the race riots. He refused to budge because he had already been stripped of his humanity by the mechanics of the system, and was trying to prevent anyone else from being doomed to his fate. It was impossible to ignore Bartleby, and he stopped progress long enough to force people to at least acknowledge the reality of the situation for people like him. People who were displaced by the “progress at all costs” mentality of the industrial revolution. The last sentence of the story shows how much the Lawyers life and opinions have been changed by the lowly scrivener’s actions. He ends with, “Ah Bartleby! Ah Humanity!” (Melville 336).