February 16, 2001
Bartleby, in Herman Melvilles short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a character who lives his life in utter isolation. However, it is obvious from the story that he does affect one persons life. The narrator of the tale, an aged lawyer, is a caring figure, though not unlike most employers, keeps his distance and rationalizes each situation. He transformation into a sympathetic and affected character results solely from his rather limited relationship with his employee, Bartleby.
When Melville describes Bartleby, he presents the man as a very innocuous, unassuming figure. “In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold…. I can see that figure now pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incredibly forlorn” (117). From the beginning, the narrator treats him no different from the rest of his staff; he is courteous, kind and treats the man with no disrespect. It is, however, obvious, the narrator is a primarily an employer. He hires Bartleby, and expects nothing more of him but to work hard. Bartleby does not disappoint either. He “seemed to gorge himself on the narrators documents” (118).
However, there is something amiss in this situation. The man is silent. He just works, isolating himself from the office and the outside world. He almost immediately begins to respond to any request with the phrase, “I would prefer not to” (118). At first, the narrator is obviously surprised at this response, yet also intrigued. However, he soon comes to dread those words, as they are the only ones said by Bartleby. For some reason, though, the narrator cannot let Bartleby leave. Even after Bartleby refuses to work anymore, he allows him to stay in the office, doing nothing. In doing this, the narrator has successfully moved from distant employer to concerned human. “In plain fact, he had now become a millstone to me, not only useless as a necklace, but afflictive to bear. Yet, I felt sorry for him” (127). Although Bartleby has no reason for being in the office, his employer allows him to stay, even allowing him to live there. This is most definitely not normal office behavior. It proves the narrator does have a kind heart, and increasingly is affected by Bartlebys passive existence as time passes.
The narrator, an apparently logical, rational man, as lawyers tend to be, goes to great lengths to avoid conflict with the silent man. He even changes offices to rid himself of Bartleby. In spite of this, and perhaps even a result of it, he becomes even more entwined with the man. “Rid myself of him, I must.; go, he shall. But how? You will not thrust him, the poor pale, passive mortal… No, I will not, I cannot do that. Rather would I let him live and die here….” (132). Bartleby, in his solitude, has a direct impact on the narrators life. For most employers dealing with and employee like Bartleby, surely force and resentment would be involved. Yet, this kind hearted old man does not treat Bartleby with any negativity. This alone should prove that the narrator is not the cold, calculated individual he is so often made out to be.
As the narrator tries to remove himself from the situation with Bartleby, he finds that it cannot be so. After leaving his office to rid himself of the disconcerting presence, the landlord of his office suite is thoroughly surprised to find Bartleby has not left the premises. The first person the landlord calls upon to remedy the situation is, of course, the narrator. Grudgingly, the narrator ventures back into Bartlebys strange world of self-isolation and desolation. After the landlord has Bartleby thrown into jail for vagrancy, the narrator is the only one to go to see him, to try to help him. However, the vast lonliness of Bartlebys life has already reached its final conclusion. In a death fitting for a figure of isolation, Bartleby has been successful in killing himself. Though not by obvious means, rather by a gradual resistance to food, Bartleby dies. “Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing