Skip over navigation

Melville Stories

Herman Melville

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Bartleby

For decades, literary critics have argued over how to interpret the character of Bartleby from "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853). At first glance, he seems to have little or no character to speak of: he arrives at the offices of the Lawyer, is hired to do some copying, then begins to respond to any request made of him with "I would prefer not to." This reply becomes a mantra, and the politely cold, yet firm way Bartleby says it prevents the Lawyer from taking any real action against him. Time and again, the Lawyer is stymied by Bartleby's simple phrase: "I would prefer not to." The term prefer begins to infect the Lawyer's speech, even his mind.

But who is Bartleby? What does he represent? Baffled by the character's behavior, many critics have bypassed interpreting Bartleby as a universal symbol in favor of looking at him in the context of Melville's life. Some critics think Bartleby represents Melville himself: at this time of his life, Melville's most recent works (including White Jacket (1850) and Moby Dick (1851)) had failed miserably, despite the fact that they would achieve acclaim later on. At that time, his readers wanted more adventure, like the adventure in his earlier works such as Typee. Some critics think that, therefore, the Lawyer represents Melville's readers, asking Melville to write the same old fiction he had been writing all along, and Bartleby is Melville himself, replying that he would "prefer not to" and eventually withdrawing into himself and his misery.

This is just one interpretation, and it is a very simplified version of it. A more universally symbolic interpretation is possible. We have one clue about Bartleby's past, given by the narrator at the end of the story: Bartleby is said to have once worked in the Dead Letter office, and to have lost his job after an administrative shake-up. The narrator (the Lawyer) wonders if such a miserable job—burning letters that have been sent to people that have died in the meantime or who have vanished—were what caused Bartleby's ennui and his descent into seeming insanity.

More Help

Previous Next
Correction to the sixth section of Encantadas

by The_Great_And_Powerful_Ass, January 15, 2013

After her husband dies, the narrator speaks of two terrible things, which he should not mention, that happened to Hunilla. What are those things? They are buried in the semantics of Melville's writing, but: 1.) Hunilla actually becomes pregnant and has to try and have the baby herself because her husband and brother died on the catamaran. 2.) After she gives birth, the baby dies, and she is raped by men on a ship that boards the island. They leave after they rape her, leaving her alone again.
Not too long afterwards is when the other s... Read more

1 Comments

12 out of 14 people found this helpful

Jewish Armada

by RyanMonkeyNipple, October 17, 2014

Hey Jewish

Follow Us