Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener is a multi-faceted short story. There are many different approaches to understanding and interpreting this piece of literature. One of the most intriguing interpretations is to see Bartleby as a psychological double to the narrator of the short story. Bartleby is a very unique character in the story, one which most people cannot seem to figure out. This may be because in the reality of the short story, Bartleby simply does not exist except in the lawyer’s mind. Many critics would argue that Bartleby is the mentally unstable character throughout the short story. But there is a good possibility that the lawyer is in fact the mentally unstable character, for Bartleby is only a figment of the lawyer’s imagination. Bartleby exists solely to provide the lawyer with an escape from the barren and impersonal society in which he lives.
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The lawyer’s unusual obsessive concern with Bartleby coupled with the fact that Bartleby has no known historical background is the perfect indication that Bartleby has emerged from the lawyer’s subconscious mind. Bartleby is seen as mentally ill because of his erratic and unusual behavior, but only appears this way to the lawyer, who in the short story is the only character with any substantial contact with Bartleby. Bartleby is also described as eating very little other than a few ginger nuts and never leaving the lawyer’s office. “I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed that he never went anywhere” (Melville 1100). These factors also strongly indicate the strangeness of Bartleby as well as his limited contact with the world outside of his employer’s office. These factors are all the more reason to believe that Bartleby has been conceived in the lawyer’s mind.
After Bartleby refuses to work any longer as a copyist he becomes somewhat of a parasite to the lawyer. He becomes dependent on the lawyer for mysterious reasons. Other than the obvious reason that Bartleby needs a place to live, his relationship with the lawyer remains a mystery. Although clearly a love hate relationship, it is otherwise vague. Bartleby is also very persistent in refusing to leave the lawyer’s office or the lawyer’s presence in general. Despite the bribes and threats made by the lawyer, Bartleby continues to stand firm in his resistance, perhaps as an indication that Bartleby cannot leave, that is not his role.
Bartleby serves as a boost to the lawyer’s ego. The lawyer talks of Bartleby as a charity case and refers to himself as a “Good Samaritan” type for allowing Bartleby to stay at his office and later at his personal home without pay. The lawyer is using Bartleby as a way to earn himself merit points. He says in the short story, “Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval” (1101). The lawyer so detests his profession that he desires to do some good in the world. Bartleby becomes his own personal experiment to do good works, while also challenging himself to go beyond the comfort of his Wall Street home.
The lawyer also displays some odd behavior throughout the short story in relation to Bartleby. He places a screen around Bartleby’s desk which could be seen as an attempt to close Bartleby off from the other employees as a method of compartmentalizing his unconscious figure. He confesses he wants to “isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice” (1098). The lawyer also admits that Bartleby has a certain kind of hold over him that is not evident in any of the other relationships in the story. He admits that Bartleby has a “wondrous ascendancy” over him (1109). This further proves that the relationship between Bartleby and the lawyer is unusual at best. The lawyer believes that Bartleby is sent to him for a divine purpose by an “all-wise Providence” (1111). The lawyer is obviously not entirely lucid when thinking this is the case. He has conjured Bartleby up in his mind to escape the realities of the harsh Wall Street world he lives in. The lawyer is in a profession that constantly consumes one’s time and also one’s emotions. He needs a release and it becomes Bartleby.
Unfortunately because the lawyer becomes so consumed in Bartleby his work suffers. He is not able to keep business flowing because Bartleby has refused to copy any longer. Bartleby’s inconvenience and unreasonable attitude is brought to the lawyer’s attention by his co-workers, Nippers and Ginger Nut. They represent the voice of reason when they tell the lawyer that he is being illogical allowing Bartleby to continue to stay at the office while not being employed any longer and failing to pay rent. They try to shed light on the lawyer’s situation by telling him to get rid of Bartleby because he is useless. This evolves into an internal struggle for the lawyer because Bartleby has become in many ways his confidant and friend, “I had a singular confidence in his honesty” (1102). He has come to rely on Bartleby to be consistently present, “he was always there; first in the morning, continually through the day, and the last at night” (1102). It is apparent that although the lawyer should give up Bartleby, he does not want to.
Bartleby’s role is also to criticize the world in which the lawyer lives. In his subconscious mind, the lawyer feels like he is caged by his profession. He is walled off from the world by Wall Street. The pressure of the lawyer’s profession is further shown by the description of the two eccentric scriveners he works with. Nippers and Ginger Nut cannot get through the day without a drink. They are obviously unhappy with their professions and frustrated with their existences. With Bartleby’s refusal to do work, he is challenging the lawyer to do the same. But instead the lawyer underestimates Bartleby and unknowingly shrugs off the challenge.
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The walls in the story are symbolic of the limitations that both the lawyer and Bartleby feel. They entrap these characters into feeling as if there is no way out of the profession that they have chosen. Furthermore the walls can be symbolic of the limitations that society imposes on all of its members. Such limitations include rules imposed by the government, norms that everyone is expected to follow, and the thought that once a profession is chosen one must stick with that profession until the end. Bartleby is attempting to challenge these limitations by not actively participating in the society in which he lives, another internal desire of the lawyer. He ultimately fails by dying within the walls of a prison yard, symbolizing his inability to actively resist the limitations.
Bartleby’s continued refusal to do work within the Wall Street office mirrors the internal struggle in the lawyer’s mind. Bartleby resounds with his insistence that he “prefers not to” conform to the pressures and unhappiness of mainstream society. This attitude appropriately represents a voice deep within the lawyer himself. He wants to change his way of life but he does not know how. He envies Bartleby’s ease of quitting in order to maintain his integrity and composure. The fact that Bartleby refuses to leave the lawyer is a further indication of the ongoing protest in the lawyer’s mind.
Ultimately Bartleby’s lesson to the lawyer is not heard because he is eventually dismissed and locked up in prison. His lesson fails to reach the lawyer because Bartleby is suppressed by society. The ending note of the story seems to be a warning that everyone must conform and stay within the limitations that society imposes. A warning of what is to come to those who question.
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