Bartleby the Scrivener

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  • Topic: Scrivener, Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville
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  • Published : March 3, 2011
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Bartleby’s Isolation and the Wall
Introduction:
“Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street” is a short story by Herman Melville in which the narrator, a lawyer who runs a firm on Wall Street, tells the story of a rebellious scrivener who worked for him named Bartleby. One day, Bartleby simply states “I would prefer not to” when asked to do his normal copying duties as a scrivener (Melville). Soon Bartleby starts sleeping and eating at the office, refusing to leave. Eventually the narrator decides his only option is to move out and leave Bartleby there. Unfortunately the next tenant is not nearly as passive as the prior and has the lonely scrivener arrested. In jail he continues his preference against society and it eventually leads to his self-destruction. Bartleby reacts to the stress of society and his work by completely isolating himself, both physically and emotionally, until there is nothing left of his life, not even the will to live. Bartleby’s Physical Isolation:

In William B. Dillingham’s book, Melville’s Short Fiction, Dillingham shows the progression of Bartleby’s physical isolation. “Bartleby moves not outward to larger circles but to smaller and smaller circles. From the outer circles of physical freedom, jobs not so confining and monotonous as scrivener, to the lawyers employment… He will go on shortly to the smallest circle of all… Freedom and independence for Bartleby are found inwardly, within the self” (Dillingham, 42). Bartleby has begun his isolation even before he refused to do his work by confining himself to such a tedious job. He will continue this isolation until he is completely alone because physical freedom and independence defined by society, like the law firm, means nothing to him. Everything he needs physically he believes he can find inside himself, within his own mind. So even before he begins his work as a scrivener Bartleby shows signs of self-isolation in a physical. After he gets his job as a scrivener his detachment will undoubtedly become worse and worse. In an article titled "Bartleby the Scrivener": An American Cousin” Robert Ross of Southern Methodist University identifies some aspects of Bartleby’s physical isolation in the office. “Not only does he work behind a screen, thus separated physically from the other scriveners and the lawyer, but he lives in a Wall Street office, busy during the working hours, deserted at all other times. His isolation, Bartleby wills on himself, for when he receives an offer of companionship, he replies: "I would prefer to be left alone here…” [Bartleby] rejects all the offers of comfort and suggestions of common sense extended by the lawyer. As the lawyer's character emerges through the narration, it becomes evident that he is a kindly man who is honest in his repeated attempts to come to Bartleby's aid. Always, though, the object of his concern rejects him with the single statement: "I would prefer not to” (Ross). This shows another way Bartleby is physically isolated prior to his preference against work by being separated by screen from his fellow workers. Although this wasn’t self inflicted Bartleby makes is worse when he starts living in the office. He works during the day, isolated from his co-workers, and is alone at night when everyone goes home, limiting his physical contact with anyone down to almost nothing. The lawyer is the only one who tries to help him rise up from his aloneness but he rejects the lawyer. By rejecting the lawyer he cuts one of his last physical ties to society; these actions start to make him seem more like an object than a person. “Bartleby is established as a fixture in the office, as a piece of furniture, harmless, useless, silent… he was accepted as a squatter… this man who would not feel the importance of human ties, who had cut himself from all social contacts” (Oliver, 71). Here in “A Second Look at Bartleby,” by Egbert S. Oliver it is established that Bartleby is no longer seen as a person in the...
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