A Character in Melville Who Wouldn’t

By Kabir Altaf

Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, tells the story of a Wall Street lawyer who employs two scriveners (clerks). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator’s business picks up; he advertises for a third scrivener and eventually hires Bartleby for the position. At first, Bartleby produces high quality work, but one day when the lawyer asks him to help proofread what he has copied, he replies “I would prefer not to.” This eventually becomes his stock response every time he is asked to do any work outside of copying. Eventually he even refuses to do any copying. However, the lawyer finds it impossible to fire him.

The lawyer finally does attempt to fire Bartleby, giving him twice as much money as he is owed but Bartleby refuses to vacate the office, saying only that he “would prefer not to.” The lawyer is forced to relocate his entire office, leaving Bartleby alone in the original location. However, even after moving to a new location, he is not free of Bartleby. The new tenants come to see him and beg him to do something about his former employee. Though the landlord has thrown Bartleby out of the rooms, he sits on the stairs all day and at night sleeps in the building’s front doorway. The lawyer visits Bartleby and attempts to reason with him, even inviting him to stay in his own home. Bartleby continues to refuse and the lawyer gives up and leaves. A few days later, he learns that Bartleby has been taken to prison. He visits him there and bribes a turnkey to make sure that Bartleby gets plenty of food. A few days later, he finds that Bartleby has died of starvation, having refused to eat.

Melville is elusive about Bartleby’s character and motivations. In part, this has to do with the author’s choice of point of view. Melville chooses to tell the story using the limited first-person perspective of Bartleby’s employer. The narrator cannot see inside Bartleby’s head and can only describe events to the reader or relate what he has been told by Bartleby or others. If Melville had wanted to provide the reader with a clear picture of Bartleby, he would have used alternative narrative modes. For example, he could have used a third-person omniscient point of view. In this case, the narrator would tell the story from the “God position”, being able to get inside the thoughts of all the characters in the story. Alternatively, Melville could have had Bartleby narrate his own story, in which case it would have been easy to tell the reader what was going on in his mind. One can argue that Melville deliberately chose to have the story narrated by a third person so that he could leave Bartleby as an ambiguous character.

What I found most interesting in Bartleby was Melville’s characterization of the central figure. Although this novella was written before the advent of modern psychology, Bartleby’s symptoms seem to be those of someone who is suffering from major depression. He is unmotivated and takes no interest in his work. He refuses to tell the narrator any details of his previous life. He is isolated and seems to have no existence outside of his employer’s office.

Finally, he even lacks the will to ensure his own survival, not even making sure that he eats enough to stay alive. His inability or refusal to respond in any other way than “I prefer not to” seems to indicate a state of catatonia. Melville’s narrator describes Bartleby’s symptoms as follows:

I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer…I was quite sure he never visited any refectory or eating house… that he never went anywhere in particular that I could learn; never went out for a walk… that he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world; that though so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health. And more than all I remembered a certain unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid haughtiness, say, or rather an austere reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities…

This description fits what psychologists now identify as the symptoms of major depression. Melville’s novella does a powerful job of describing such a mental state.

Bartleby can also be seen as a rebel against the sterility and impersonality of business.  His frustration is that of many intelligent people who are underemployed.  His work consists of copying documents by hand and checking them against the original. This is tedious and laborious work that does not require the use of the worker’s intelligence or creativity. It is not hard to understand why someone would reach a point where they are unable to go on. In his essay “Pushing Paper,” published in the Spring 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, cultural historian Ben Kafka refers to Bartleby as “one of the smartest inquiries into the psychopathology of paperwork.” Kafka notes that, by refusing to work, Bartleby forces us to recognize that what he does is labor and that paperwork is also work.

Even in the 21st century, when the clerk’s job has been made so much easier by computers, I’m sure that many office workers wish that when asked to take on yet another mindless task, they could get away with telling their boss “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby has the courage to no longer be simply a cog in the wheel, and from this perspective can even be seen as a heroic figure. Melville’s novel can even be seen as a precursor to Absurdism, a philosophical school of thought that deals with the conflict between the human tendency to seek value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Absurdism is primarily a twentieth century philosophy, yet Bartleby’s recognition of life’s futility prefigures the attitudes of later literary characters such as Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger. In his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus defines man’s situation as absurd and argues that human beings have three ways of dealing with this situation: suicide, belief in a transcendent realm (the “leap of faith”) or an acceptance of the Absurd. Bartleby’s death by starvation can be seen as suicide, since he lacks even the will or desire to remain alive.

Though it is an extremely short novel, Bartleby the Scrivener contains a wealth of ideas.  The central character can be seen as clinically depressed or as a rebel against the sterility of business. The presence of all these ideas makes the work a literary classic and as alive today as when it was written more than a hundred years ago.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.


  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 01:32h, 30 May Reply

    Kabir: I haven’t read this novel but from your description of the character it does fit into Camus’ philosophy of absurd. Although I have known some people, intelligent and ambitious who for some reason succumbed to drugs, lost interest in life and allowed destructive drift to their life. But the character in the book seems to have made a conscious decision to waste away.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 18:43h, 30 May Reply


    Yes, I see Bartleby as an example of a person who sees life as inherently futile and without meaning (he recognizes that it is absurd). Of course, Camus would then argue that although life is absurd, it is up to the individual to find some meaning in it. Bartleby is unable to find any such meaning in his work, and thus allows himself to waste away.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:08h, 08 June Reply

    Kabir: It would have been nice to have pushed this analysis further. You have left it with the two obvious inferences – either Bartelby is depressed or he is protesting the futility of work. Your conclusion is that there are a wealth of ideas in the novella. Are there other ideas that you have not touched upon?

    You claim Bartleby is intelligent – what is the evidence in the story for that? If he is, why doesn’t he seek more rewarding work?

    I felt it could have been interesting to link the two inferences instead of leaving them as either/or possibilities. Is it the futility of work that feeds the depression or is the depression that makes the work seem futile and erode the effort to seek alternatives? Could one use that to say something about life today for a particular class of workers with limited choices? What are your own thoughts about the possibilities of such a relationship? And if it exists, what might be the modern ways out of the conundrum?

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 03:18h, 10 June

      SA: Your conclusion :’either Bartelby is depressed or he is protesting the futility of work’, how have you arrived at this?

      From the description of Kabir it seems that the character is neither depressed nor protesting against work. He seems to have arrived at a significant juncture in life and made conscious decision not to participate in life therefore ‘I would rather not’ his stock reply.

      It is more of a philosophical response rather than reaction to any physical stimulus.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 12:38h, 10 June

      Anil: I have not read the novella so don’t have a conclusion of my own. It was my impression that in his review Kabir arrived at the two possibilities to explain Bartelby’s conduct. My suggestion was that, if the reading was accurate, these two tendencies might not be independent; they could well feed upon and reinforce each other in the way I mentioned.

      Your reading (or your interpretation of Kabir’s reading) could be more in tune with Melville’s intention. In fact, to me, it seems a more powerful and appealing narrative but, again, without having read the original, I am not in a position to say more.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:31h, 10 June Reply

    Anil: I have now read the novella (It is just about 60 pages and accessible here: http://www.bartleby.com/129/). My reading is quite different from Kabir’s and I will elaborate it later. Meanwhile, it would be good if you can read the story as well.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 02:40h, 12 June Reply

    SA: I read the novella and must confess I find reading too much work these days. It appears to me that most books have too many redundant words occupying reams of pages.

    I guess I too have a different take than Kabir’s regarding Bartelby. But before that I must mention something that mars the narrative of this unusual story. My main grouse is collection of too many eccentrics in one office. Imagine three clerks in an office and all of them queer; this robs the story of seriousness.

    I don’t find any evidence to suggest that Bartelby possesses higher intelligence that would be necessary for a person to explore existential questions. He is skilled, honest and sincere blah blah but intelligent? I doubt. Therefore the character is unusual but possible and one in urgent need of psychiatric counseling. It would be too much to assign philosophical reasons for his actions. Neither the narrator shows necessary intelligence to make the novel allegorical like Kafka’s “The Trial’ etc. I would like to think Bartelby is not a real character but a metaphor for some affliction, some nagging characteristic of the narrator which once was useful/enjoyable but no more and won’t go away. For instance ‘smoking’ could very well replace Bartelby in some way. It is the last paragraph of novella associating Bartelby with Dead Letter Office that won’t quite gel with this idea.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:32h, 15 June

      Anil: Every reader invariably interprets a text in the light of his/her own background and experience.

      For me, two things became important. First, the subtitle of the novella that Kabir had not mentioned: “A Story of Wall-Street.” And second, the very last line of the text: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

      I take this to suggest that the story is not about an individual but about humanity at a particular moment in time when the new world of industry and finance was being born. The story would lose a lot of its power if one read it as depicting the problems of just one individual, whether Bartleby or the narrator.

      Melville (1819-1891) was able to see ahead of his time some of the social and psychological implications of this emerging economy and he is using his characters as metaphors for the change that he sees.

      The social implications of of industry revolution had been remarked upon earlier by Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his remarks on the division of labor and contemporaneously by Marx (1818-1883) who spoke of the alienation of labor. Melville made these phenomena come alive in the concrete world of finance on Wall Street.

      Copying was the most mindless of tasks (appropriately replaced now by copying machines) and Melville use that as an illustration. It affects all those who do the work to some extent; hence all the workers in the office are afflicted in some way. The new work relations impacted every one; thus even the narrator is affected in not being able to come to terms with the life of the people in his office.

      The other theme that seems important to me is that of individualism and individual agency. This was a big debate at the time the story was written and Melville seems to be coming out against it. He shows the extreme case of Bartleby who takes an individualist stance of protest and non-cooperation against the deadening nature of work and life. But Bartleby is ultimately overcome by the system – he refuses everything but then allows himself to be taken away to the prison without resistance in the end.

      In a nutshell, the novella seems to me a comment on the power and inhumanity of the emerging nature of work at the time which, in Melville’s estimation at least, was beyond the ability of the individual to change.

      In our times there was a popular song “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.” Many people feel like that but Melville seems to be saying in his story that it is not possible to do so. Individuals may die but the system would survive and continue. And it has to this day sucking up and destroying people in a mindless rat race.

      In this context, one can claim that the most serious attempt to “get off” was by the hippie generation of the 1960s (many of whom incidentally went to Goa). But that seems a quaint moment in history now.

    • Kabir
      Posted at 01:40h, 16 June


      I think it is very interesting that different people focus on different aspects of the same work, based on what they are interested in. I focused on the character of Bartleby because I am interested in human psychology, while you looked at the novel from the angle of larger sociopolitical issues.

      I agree with your point that Melville is commenting on the capitalist system and the alienation of labor. You are absolutely right that Bartleby is not able to overpower the system and, despite his death, everything goes on as before. You also make a good point that even the narrator himself is trapped within the system, as today’s corporate executives are. However, I still think that Bartleby can be seen as a rebel against the system. Though his rebellion is not successful, at least he realizes the futility of the system. In this way, I think that there is a valid comparison between him and the later characters of Kafka and Camus.

  • Kabir Altaf
    Posted at 05:19h, 10 October Reply

    SA and Anil–

    I am revisiting my arguments on this post after having attended a lecture by a professor here at LUMS who is teaching “Bartleby” in his “Introduction to English Literature” Class. This professor brought up some critical interpretations of the text that had not jumped out at me when I read it for the first time. Some critics have interpreted Bartleby as a kind of saint/ascetic (hence his gradual rejection of everything– first work, than food, etc). Others have gone so far as to say that Bartleby is supposed to be Christ himself come down on Wall Street– This is not an interpretation that I personally buy because Christ was supposed to have died “for the sins of mankind” and I don’t understand what Bartleby’s death is supposed to have achieved. Christ would also have actively preached something rather than just said “I prefer not to” to everything. However, this professor made the argument that, just by existing, and by his passive resistance and non-conformity Bartleby teaches the lawyer some lessons about humanity and about being a compassionate person. Here is where the last lines “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” become important.

    I don’t necessarily buy all this but it certainly provides food for thought and adds to our earlier discussion.

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