Bartleby, the Scrivener


Herman Melville

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Bartleby, the Scrivener Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born to a well-off family in New York City in 1819, where he was schooled until his father’s early death in 1832. In 1839 he became a sailor on a merchant ship, and by 1840 Melville made his way onto a whaling vessel, giving him valuable experience that he’d later write about in his first two novels, Typee (1845) and Omoo (1847), adventure stories which were massive commercial successes. Melville returned from the sea to the United States in 1844, docking in Boston. Around this time Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, and the couple had their first child in 1849, the same year that his third and fourth novels, Mardi and Redburn, were both released to little financial success (although Redburn did receive some critical acclaim). In 1850, Melville moved his family to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he struck up a friendship with author Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he eventually dedicated his massive novel Moby-Dick, released in 1851 to critically mixed reviews and financial failure. His next novel, Pierre, released in 1852, was another dud in terms of sales, and led to the end of Melville being considered a popular novelist during his lifetime. Melville then wrote short stories, which were published in magazines, including Bartleby, the Scrivener, The Encantadas, and Benito Cereno. Through the rest of his life, Melville wrote two more novels, and he also traveled to Europe and then East Asia before returning to the United States to take a post as a customs inspector in New York. Towards the end of his life Melville wrote poetry, including a collection focused on his concerns about the morality of the civil war called Battle-Pieces and Aspects of War, released in 1866. In 1867, Melville’s oldest son died from a self-inflicted gun shot to the head. Melville’s next published work was 1876’s Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, which dealt with metaphysical and epic themes. In 1886 Melville’s second son, Stanwix, died, causing Melville to retire from his post as a customs inspector. During his final years until his death of cardiovascular disease in 1891, Melville privately published two volumes of poetry and returned to writing prose (although he never published it). Melville’s novella Billy Budd, unfinished at his death, was published posthumously in 1924.
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Historical Context of Bartleby, the Scrivener

The New York Stock Exchange was founded in March of 1817, and its popularity and importance quickly grew. A seat on the exchange cost 25 dollars in 1817, by 1827 it cost 100 dollars, and by 1848 the price grew to 400 dollars (which, in today’s money, would be more than 11,000 dollars.) During this time, New York surpassed Philadelphia as the financial center of the United States. Whereas in 1827 the New York Stock Exchange traded about 100 shares per day, by 1834 the exchange traded as many as 5,000 shares per day. Also, as technology advanced with the advent of the telegraph in 1844, the scope of the New York Stock Exchange grew and became more powerful. This shift in the importance of Wall Street and the stock market led many people to switch careers, from more rural pursuits like farming and agriculture to desk jobs like clerking or, to use Melville’s character of Bartleby as an example, becoming scriveners. This trend of work shifting from open spaces to enclosed domestic offices likely influenced Melville in the writing of Bartleby, the Scrivener, and it is the backdrop in which the story is set.

Other Books Related to Bartleby, the Scrivener

On the surface, Bartleby, The Scrivener isn’t similar in setting to most of Melville’s other works, as the vast majority of his novels and stories are set in open spaces (typically on the sea), not in enclosed domestic offices. However, thematic echoes of Moby-Dick surface in Bartleby, as Bartleby’s affliction of passive resistance could perhaps be called a kind of madness similar to Ahab’s condition of obsession, and The Lawyer’s waffling about whether Bartleby remains in his life thanks to predestination or because of his own free will is a theme that recurs continually in Ishmael’s mind.An external influence on Bartleby might have been The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, as some critics have argued that this book may have introduced Melville to the concept of the Humors, which was the idea that there are four basic elements at play in humans derived from the four elements of air, fire, earth and water. Correspondingly, it has been agued that in Bartleby the four main characters (the three scriveners plus The Lawyer) each correspond to a different humor: Turkey represents the sanguine, Nippers the choleric, The Lawyer the phlegmatic, and Bartleby the melancholic. The New Testament, which is often heavily alluded to in Melville’s work, is also an undercurrent that flows through Bartleby, and there have been scholarly papers written arguing that Bartleby is positioned as a Christ-like figure in this story—his conflict begins after three days at the office, mirroring Christ’s three days on the cross. However, unlike Jesus, no one puts an end to Bartleby’s suffering, and, at least from The Lawyer’s perspective, Bartleby is granted no salvation. Additionally, the ancient myth of Pygmalion, most famously written about in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is considered by some critics to be a precursor to Bartleby, because there are many references in Melville’s story to the bust of Cicero stationed behind The Lawyer’s desk in his office. Just as Pygmalion can find no love in the real world and only falls in love with the statue he creates, The Lawyer can find no connection with Bartleby until after he has died, the story itself serving as The Lawyer’s (failed) attempt to connect.There are also many works written after 1851 related to Bartleby. Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial deals with similar themes of disconnection in modern society, focusing on governmental bureaucracy rather than the office space. Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist is probably the author’s most comparable story to Bartleby, as it follows the same arc of a worker flourishing, then slowly declining until a death caused by self-starvation. Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger also deals with themes of alienation in modern society, including alienation from one’s own self. Further, any comedy or tragedy set in a modern workplace, such as the TV comedy series The Office or the films Office Space or Glengarry Glen Ross, can be seen as variations on the themes presented in Bartleby.
Key Facts about Bartleby, the Scrivener
  • Full Title: Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street
  • When Written: 1853
  • Where Written: Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
  • When Published: November and December of 1853, in Putnam’s Magazine
  • Literary Period: American Romanticism
  • Genre: Short Story, work-place drama/comedy/tragedy.
  • Setting: 1850’s, New York, in a Wall Street law office.
  • Climax: After refusing to vacate the office, Bartleby is imprisoned, where he then “prefers not to” eat.
  • Antagonist: Bartleby
  • Point of View: The story is told from the first-person voice of an unnamed narrator we know little about aside from the fact that he is an elderly lawyer, (and therefore he can be referred to as The Lawyer.)

Extra Credit for Bartleby, the Scrivener

Reference to a murder. In 1842, John C. Colt (referenced in the narrative of Bartleby) was convicted of the murder of printer Samuel Adams, to whom Colt owed money from the publication of a bookkeeping textbook. Although The Lawyer never mentions the specifics of this case in Bartleby’s narrative, this murder serves to underline Melville’s theme about language (and the written word itself) sometimes serving to disconnect people rather than connect them.

Unexpected inspiration. The main character of the film Accepted (played by Justin Long) is named Bartleby Gaines, a reference to Melville’s Bartleby.