Bartleby, the Scrivener

Themes and Colors
Passive Resistance Theme Icon
The Disconnected Workplace Theme Icon
Isolation and the Unreliability of Language Theme Icon
Charity and Its Limits Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bartleby, the Scrivener, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Bartleby’s frequently repeated motto, “I would prefer not to,” echoes throughout the narrative. Always polite, never aggressive, Bartleby says “I would prefer not to” to an ever-increasing range of things as the story progresses. In short, Bartleby’s story is one of passive resistance, in which he refuses to do anything that he would prefer not to do.

Initially, Bartleby’s resistance seems to exist within a fairly common capitalist struggle: an employer (The Lawyer,

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Bartleby, the Scrivener is set during a time when Wall Street was becoming ever more important as a financial hub of American society, a society that was itself being transformed by the increasing importance of capital and finance in an industrializing world. This transformation had many impacts, but one of them was the increasing prevalence of the sort of office workplace in which the story is set. In fact, if you want to push things…

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From its very first sentence, Melville signals to the reader that Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story in which language isn’t always meant to be taken at face value. The Lawyer, who narrates the entire story, describes himself in the first line as “a rather elderly man.” Presumably, The Lawyer knows his own age, but instead of passing that information along to the reader he chooses to describe himself as elderly—but he doesn’t just…

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Through most of Bartleby, the Scrivener, The Lawyer treats Bartleby with what most reasonable people would describe as great charity. When he catches Bartleby in the office on the weekend and deduces that Bartleby must be secretly living there, The Lawyer is initially annoyed, but then realizes how lonely it must feel to live in a usually-busy office building while it’s completely empty during the weekend. Rather than fire or reprimand Bartleby, The Lawyer…

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