Bartleby, the Scrivener


Herman Melville

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Bartleby, the Scrivener: Style 1 key example

Explanation and Analysis:

Melville’s writing style in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is highly descriptive and philosophical. Take, for example, the following passage that comes after the Lawyer realizes Bartleby has been living at his office:

For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.

The imagery in this passage is highly evocative—the Lawyer feels a “stinging melancholy” and contrasts the image of “bright silks and sparkling faces […] in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway” with “the pallid copyist” standing before him. Rather than using simple language to say that he felt sad when comparing the lonely Bartleby to the happy people he saw walking around downtown Manhattan earlier in the day, the Lawyer waxes poetic, even using a metaphor in the process (Broadway—a street—becomes a body of water upon which people sail). These stylistic choices help Melville’s readers to understand visually and viscerally the intensity of Bartleby’s isolation as well as the power of the Lawyer’s empathy for his employee.

The final line in the passage also shows the philosophical style in which Melville writes in this story. Suddenly the Lawyer is not only thinking about Bartleby but reflecting on life itself, specifically how “happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof.” In other words, the Lawyer is noting that it’s easy to see evidence of joy because people tend to express it openly, while it’s harder to find evidence of unhappiness because people tend to hide it.