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Bartleby the Scrivener | Themes



Bartleby limits his language in the story. He hardly says anything other than his often-repeated phrase, "I would prefer not to." The phrase can be read in multiple ways. It's a positive declaration as opposed to "No," which can be seen as too assertive. The gentleness of the phrase solicits the narrator's pity and causes him to be more obliging toward Bartleby. At the same time, the phrase asserts Bartleby's own will over that of the person requesting something of him. From the perspective of Romanticism, this is an expression of his individuality.

A scrivener's job is to be a human copy machine. Therefore, scriveners duplicate language rather than create it. In the story they are copying dry and impersonal legal documents.

The job of scrivener follows Bartleby's work in the Dead Letter Office. According to the narrator, the letters contain love, pathos, and real human language. Bartleby's job is to destroy these letters, which means that it was his job to destroy language—"communication" itself. Thus, his job of destroying the letters is a likely contributor to his disinclination to speak or to continue to do his copying work.


When Bartleby stops working and becomes a squatter, the narrator is unsure of how to handle the unwanted guest. His emotions include pity, rage, sympathy, concern, and anger. Whatever his emotions, the narrator never takes concrete action. At one point the narrator tells Bartleby he has six days to move out. When Bartleby does not comply, the narrator does nothing. The only way he rids himself of Bartleby is when he, as the renter of the office space, moves away. For a person who has lived with "a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best," taking concrete action proves challenging.

Bartleby's defining characteristic is passivity. Bartleby is never active. He stops working, does not leave the office (until forced), and refuses to "quit" the narrator. Even Bartleby's death—starvation—comes because of inaction. Bartleby's "passive resistance" against the meaninglessness of his work and life is the basis of the story. The tactics of nonviolent resistance had been used for political means in America since the boycotts of the Colonial era and would be used by later world leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.


To whom or what is a person responsible? The narrator debates this question throughout the story. The narrator notes Turkey and Nippers have certain "eccentricities" that limit their productivity. Despite this, the narrator retains their services as they are useful to him and his business. The narrator takes responsibility for Ginger Nut (from the boy's father). He is supposed to be teaching Ginger Nut the law trade, yet he has become an errand boy and is not learning. Ultimately, the narrator cares about his business. The one obligation he takes most responsibility for is the satisfaction of his clients.

Therefore, Bartleby's refusal to do work is a great challenge to the narrator. Work needs to get done for the business, and Bartleby become[s] "a millstone to [the narrator]." In fact Bartleby accepts no responsibility for fulfilling the duties of his job. The narrator's natural instinct is to get rid of Bartleby once he is no longer productive. Throughout the story the narrator wrestles with this instinct and strives to determine what level of responsibility he has for Bartleby. The story can be read as an expression of the guilt he feels at his failure to save Bartleby from suicide by starvation.


Bartleby completely isolates himself from the world. He engages in no meaningful conversation throughout the story and does not speak unless addressed first. The only person to whom Bartleby responds is the narrator. His usual phrase—"I would prefer not to" (occasionally he drops the word would)—is repeated over 20 times in the story. Bartleby's lack of interest in communicating isolates him from the world at large.

Social classes are also isolated in the story. The narrator is a business owner and in the middle or upper-middle class. His employees are in the working class. While they come together at the workplace, they remain separated. This is emphasized by the physical partitions in the office. There is a wall separating the scriveners and the narrator, there is a wall separating Bartleby from everyone else, and, of course, they work on Wall Street. The narrator's knowledge about his employees only comes from their work performance. He does not even use their real names. There is a distinct lack of cordiality between the narrator and the employees (as well as among themselves).


There are many biblical allusions in the story. The narrator refers to himself and Bartleby as "sons of Adam," the first man created by God in the Bible's Book of Genesis. The reference implies that the two are brothers. When Bartleby first refuses to obey the narrator, the latter says he was "turned into a pillar of salt" for a few moments, like Lot's wife, who meets her fate after ignoring the warning of angels not to look back at the evil city she is fleeing. As the narrator is tempted by the "old Adam of resentment," he sheds the emotion by recalling Jesus's words, "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another." And when the narrator is asked near the end of the story if Bartleby is asleep, he replies, "With kings and counselors," a phrase from the Book of Job. The biblical character Job, like Bartleby, suffers from great torment before he is relieved of his suffering.

Is Bartleby a Christ-like figure, sacrificed to the cold Wall Street mentality? This is one reading of the story. The narrator at first tries to extend Christian charity toward his wayward employee, then rejects him and ultimately denies his responsibility toward him several times (as Peter denies Christ three times in the Gospels). Bartleby at the story's end is dead but described as "profoundly sleeping," as if awaiting resurrection. Another possible reading of the Christian imagery is that the narrator, for all his attempts to help Bartleby, simply failed to love him as a Christian should do.

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