About Bartleby, the Scrivener""


Like many artists, Melville felt constrained to choose between art and money. The turning point of his career came in 1851. With the publication of Moby-Dick, he grew disenchanted with his attempt to please the general reader. Instead, he cultivated a more spiritual language to express the darker, enigmatic side of the soul. Like his letters, Melville's style became tortuous and demanding; his themes questioned the nature of good and evil and what he perceived as upheaval in universal order. Pierre, his first published work after Moby-Dick, with its emphasis on incest and moral corruption, exemplifies his decision to change direction. His readers, accustomed to the satisfying rough and tumble of his sea yarns, were unable to make the leap from straightforward adventure tale to probing fiction. The gems hidden among lengthy, digressive passages required more concentrative effort than readers were capable of or willing to put forth.

Challenged to delve into the perplexities of morality, Melville avoided the more obvious superficialities and plunged determinedly into greater mysteries. For the sake of economy and speed, his output dwindled from the full-length novel to the short story, a stylistic constriction with which he never developed ease. One of the most obtuse of these short works, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," subtitled "A Story of Wall-Street," was published for $85 in Putnam's magazine in November and December 1853; its focus is on the dehumanization of a copyist, the nineteenth-century equivalent of a photocopy machine. Suggesting the author's own obstinacy, the main character replies to all comers, "I would prefer not to," thereby declaring his independence from outside intervention.

Characterized as a symbolic fable of self-isolation and passive resistance to routine, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" reveals the decremental extinction of a human spirit. Throughout Bartleby's emotional illness, it is sheer will that supplants the necessary parts of his personality that atrophy during his tenure at the Wall Street office. The humanistic theme, which ties one of life's winners inextricably to the pathetic demise of a loser, relegates the two central characters to a single fraternity, their shared belonging in the family of humankind. The subtle insights which give the unnamed narrator no peace also grip the reader in a perplexing examination of the nature and purpose of charity.

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