In his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville presents the reader with a main character, Bartleby, who is simultaneously bizarre and relatable. The character of Bartleby was perhaps designed by Melville to in some ways represent Melville himself and his reception by the literary critics and reading public of his own day. No matter how personal the character may have been to Melville, Bartleby is also a character with a nearly universal appeal. Even while remaining somewhat perplexing throughout the story, Bartleby is a character to whom, in his rejection of the stifling social expectations of the modern world, many modern readers must feel a certain attraction. Though the reader never enters directly into the mind of Bartleby himself, and so Bartleby in one sense remains disconnected from the reader, the reader is nonetheless led by the growing sympathy of the narrator, an employer of Bartleby who becomes nearly obsessed with the man, to develop a close identification with Bartleby as a symbol.
One of the most remarkable features of the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is that Bartleby is, in a sense, a minor character in his own story. Although the story is named after and ostensibly revolves around Bartleby, Bartleby says and does remarkably little in the story. This scarcity of deed and word, of course, is what makes Bartleby important. He stands out precisely because of his destitution of action and language. What makes him noteworthy is that he refuses to interact with others in the usual way, to follow the customs and conventions dictated by mainstream society with its social demands and cultural norms and mores. The phrase Bartleby repeats with the greatest frequency is the simple statement, “I would prefer not to,” his answer to nearly every request or question posed to him (Melville 304). Bartleby, though, makes very little fuss about his preferences. Typically, he informs his interlocutor of what he prefers and exits the scene, refusing to argue the matter even when directly confronted. It is, in fact, the narrator of the story who makes the most ado about the word “prefer,” detailing how others around Bartleby, including the narrator himself, had acquired the unconscious habit of frequently using the word.
This is the way that Bartleby is experienced throughout the story. The narrator leads the reader through his own experiences of Bartleby, bringing the reader to feel the same successive puzzlement, sympathy, irritation, revulsion, and, finally, a kind of identification with Bartleby which the narrator experiences and details. In this way, Bartleby remains a figure of mystery to the reader, a symbol rather than a person. Had Melville chosen to tell his story from the perspective of Bartleby, whether in the first person as Bartleby himself or in the third person as a disembodied voice with omniscient access to the feelings, motives, and thoughts of even Bartleby, Bartleby would have become a person and lost the ability to function as a symbol for the reader. As it is, the reader interacts with Bartleby as another person would interact with Bartleby, allowing Bartleby to maintain his autonomy and independence. Ironically, it is easier to identify with and experience empathy for a distant and mysterious figure than for one whose most intimate and personal feelings and thoughts are made evident.
With this in mind, I think Melville would have done better to end his story with the death of Bartleby rather than continuing, as he does, to conclude with a postscript in which the narrator reports some rumor he had heard which apparently explains Bartleby’s motivations. By adding this postscript, Melville made the character of Bartleby, hitherto a pathetic figure in the sense of that word which indicates a figure that arouses pity or empathy into a pathetic figure in the negative sense of the word. In other words, he is not someone with some special insight into the human condition who has triumphed over the pettiness of the everyday but he seems instead to be a pitiful depressive nihilist who is unable to cope with the facts of life. It is noteworthy here, however, that this seeming insight into the psychology of Bartleby is only, as the narrator explicitly states, “one little item of rumor” and a “vague report” by an unnamed third party (Melville 321). Even at the close of the story and in the moment of greatest revelation about the character of Bartleby, the reader is not given insight into Bartleby the man but instead is led through another’s perspective on Bartleby to further regard Bartleby the symbol.
The saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” is a very old one with which Herman Melville was probably familiar. He certainly applied the wisdom of this aphorism in composing his story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Rather than allowing the reader to get close to Bartleby through a first person narration or some other direct means of contact with the person of Bartleby, the reader is kept close enough to Bartleby to develop some notions about him but distant enough to never gain a comprehensive familiarity with him. In experiencing the words and deeds of Bartleby through the observations of the narrator, and in allowing that narrator to play a great role in digesting and interpreting those words and deeds, Bartleby is a character who becomes a symbol with which the reader identifies rather than person with whom the reader interacts.
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 296-321. Print.