Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a subtle commentary on the American industrial age of the mid 19th century, and the increasing significance and effect it had on different individuals. It is a story of corporate discontent. The relationships among an employer and his employees, specifically between the story’s narrator and Bartleby himself, are used as metaphors to represent the broader societal practices of the time. The scriveners are simply part of the machinery of modern industry and commerce; they are educated men who do tedious work, copying legal documents verbatim with no creative outlet of their own, and Bartleby cannot stand to be part of that monotonous world. Melville’s choice of placing his characters in a job such as this offers the first evidence of his commentary on the dull uniformity of industrialism.

“Bartleby” involves the narrator, who holds the position of Master of Chancery, and his three employees, known only by their nicknames. Ginger Nut is a young boy sent by his father to work at the office and he is, for the most part, an errand boy. Turkey is an old man who is a skillful and loyal employee in the morning, but after lunch (and a few beers) he is disruptive and the quality of his work declines greatly. Nippers suffers from indigestion in the morning due to his overindulgence, but in the afternoon he is pleasant and efficient, so that his personality counterbalances that of Turkey. The narrator says that Nippers is “the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. The ambition [is] evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly professional affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents.” This statement reveals a conformist attitude in the narrator, who wishes to maintain the pattern and normalcy of his office, and sees ambition as an “evil power” in a scrivener.

The characters all typify Melville’s view of the industrial age, as the scriveners, and even the Master of Chancery, carry out repetitive tasks for employment. They lead tedious lives, and their jobs require no creativity or self-expression whatsoever. The uniformity of their existence is also illustrated in the descriptions of the office where they work, which is a dull and dreary place. One window “commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which…was pushed up to within ten feet of my windowpanes,” while another window “originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light.” This imagery sets a dreary tone for the rest of the action that occurs inside the office.

In this ordered existence, everything runs smoothly for the Master of Chancery, who is in a position of power and who stands to make the most money, until Bartleby questions this monotony through his increasing refusals to do the work expected of him. Bartleby’s behavior is significant because is expresses non-conformity, while the other characters are representative of those who do conform. Bartleby therefore confuses and frustrates the narrator, because he cannot be easily described or analyzed, while the Master of Chancery feels that he perfectly understands his other employees.

It is important to note that the narrator of the story is also the individual with the most control over his environment. This perspective adds to Bartleby’s alienation from society. Melville shows that an employer can never truly understand his employees, because the differences in their social standing and economic status create a gap that cannot be bridged. Throughout the story, the Master of Chancery tries in vain to understand why Bartleby refuses his requests. He cannot fathom why one of his employees would consistently act against his wishes as Bartleby constantly does. He feels that as his employee, Bartleby should automatically respond willingly to any reasonable request put forth, and he tries to think of ways to incite Bartleby into action, so that he can force some passion out of the seemingly emotionless man. He says: “The passiveness of Bartleby irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition, to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own.” He tries but fails to connect with the new scrivener.

Bartleby is the newest hire, a quiet and removed young man who never speaks unless spoken to, and who is off-putting to the others because he seems to display no human attributes or emotions whatsoever. He becomes the focus of the narrator’s story, as much for his constant inaction as for any action taken. In fact, it is this inaction, and his increasing refusal to do any of the work assigned to him, which sets Bartleby apart from the others in the office.

Consequently, Bartleby represents non-conformity, and he challenges the expectations of his position. When asked to perform the tasks that are expected of a scrivener, he simply says, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby takes his future and his life into his own hands by declaring such a statement to his employer. His seeming insolence is, in fact, an expression of being fed up with a society that only cares about his output rather than his input. The Master of Chancery does not know how to deal with this new development in his office, and so chooses to ignore it at first in the hopes that it is only a temporary setback, and that Bartleby will eventually acquiesce to his requests.

Of course, Bartleby continues to “prefer not to” do the things asked of him. He slowly refuses to do more and more of the typical labor required of a scrivener, until he does nothing at all. Because the narrator cannot understand his new employee, he makes excuses for Bartleby’s eccentricities and tries to rationalize his behavior. When the scrivener replies “I prefer not to,” to every a request, the Master of Chancery asks himself, “Shall I acknowledge it?” Eventually, Bartleby’s disobedience results in a shift in the balance of power between the scrivener and his employer. The narrator has lost his authority over his employee, and he realizes that Bartleby is:

permanently exempt from examining the work done by him, that duty being transferred to Turkey and Nippers, out of compliment doubtless to their superior acuteness; moreover, Bartleby was never on any account to be dispatched on the most trivial errand of any sort; and that even if entreated to take upon him such a matter, it was generally understood that he would prefer not to – in other words, that he would refuse point-blank.

The theme of non-conformity to prevailing societal norms is also witnessed in the supporting characters. Nippers and Turkey unconsciously begin to use the word “prefer,” certainly influenced by Bartleby. Melville perhaps does this to express the concept that the feelings Bartleby experiences are common among everyone, but are not acted upon or openly demonstrated by most individuals.

It is ironic that while Bartleby appears to be a character devoid of human emotion – hence the hatred he engenders in his colleagues and the confusion that is aroused in others who meet him – he is the only one in the story who breaks free of the restraints of an industrialized society and tries to live life without paying attention to rules or expectations. If his refusal is a sign of his non-conformity, then it is also a sign of his humanity. In fact, the other scriveners, as well as the narrator, are lacking in this vital aspect. They remain trapped in the tedium and monotony of their futile lives, becoming nothing more than machines. They continue to carry out the same jobs every day, even expressing the same predictable behavior: Nippers is a miserable menace in the morning hours, until his indigestion has gone away; Turkey then transforms from his quiet self in the morning to a drunken liability in the afternoon. The characters in effect are two sides of a coin, and their respective behaviors have become part of the office’s inevitable routine.

By breaking down the barriers of the typical relationship of an employee and his employer, Bartleby also breaks down the walls keeping him within the confines of an industrialized world, full of boredom and drudgery. It is interesting to note that the services he performs in his job will later be done by machines. In this world, where a man does his work, earns his pay, and goes on and on in an endless cycle until he dies, Bartleby is a freak and an outcast for acting out against the norm. No one else can understand his desire to escape that world. In the end, he cannot find a place in a society so dependent upon conformity and routine; he therefore remains estranged from society. Melville has created a parable about the ills of industrialism and its negative effects on humanity, expressed by the alienation experienced by Bartleby until his quiet death.

This essay was written March 2004 for the NYU class “Literary Interpretation.”