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The Bartleby Character in Bartleby The Scrivener Story by Herman Melville

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Through Bartleby the Scrivener Story, Melville has successfully portrayed an eccentric but also extremely pitiful Bartleby character. A character goes against everything normal just because he ‘prefers’.

The chorus ‘I would prefer not to’ was repeated by Bartleby because this was in his subconscious. It had crept into Bartleby’s head at the time he sat at the closed desk, where the dim light shone through the gloomy wall. At the beginning of the story, Bartleby appeared as a skinny and pale man but very professional and reliable at work. He diligently copied a large number of documents and didn’t want to stop. Bartleby even snatched the copy ‘and proceed to the business without the least delay’ when there were no instructions from a lawyer. But until the lawyer asked Bartleby to check a small paper- the job he described as “It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable. Bartleby responded politely in a gentle tone, but also extremely certain ‘I would prefer not to.’ A polite refusal surprised the lawyer and everyone. But in some way, that polite rejection affected everyone in the office without their knowing. When Turkey told the lawyer ‘I think that if he would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day’ and the lawyer also excitedly replied: ‘So you have got the word too’. Then one day, when Bartleby’s eyesight deteriorated and he gradually lost motivation. Bartleby decided not to do anything but stare at the wall outside the window. Perhaps the loss of Bartleby’s motivation comes from a lack of communication, concern among employees in the office. The details about Bartleby’s workplace are somewhat telling it “I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. And thus, in a manner, privacy and society were conjoined”. The image of the dividing wall is probably a metaphor for the difficulties, the obstacle Bartleby must overcome to have a normal life.

Besides, Bartleby’s refusal also means fighting for his ideal and class. Bartleby had worked at the Dead Letter Office in the past, and being laid off due to government changes had affected Bartleby. Causing him to become depressed and lack motivation. Bartleby becomes a closed person ‘he never spoke but to answer’, ‘he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or if he had any relatives in the world’ or ‘never went out for a walk, unless indeed that was the case at present”. In addition, Bartleby only eats ginger nuts to live through the day. That was the only help that Bartleby wanted from his colleague. Bartleby is not simply a passive resistance, he simply refuses what he doesn’t want. Bartleby refuses to leave the office as well as the lawyer’s house to receive confinement in the tombs. Because he doesn’t want to change anything ‘No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all’. Perhaps when Bartleby worked at Dead Letter Office, though it was a boring job, he probably didn’t want to change. But he still had to leave due to the government changing. Until now, every change has scared Bartleby. When in the tombs, where Bartleby ‘is standing all alone in the quietest of yards, he faces towards a high wall, while all around, from the narrow slits of the windows jail’. It’s like the image of Bartleby at the office and looking out the window. Bartleby seems to be always imprisoned in depression. And he was actually freed when he died, with his eyes still blurred.

In conclusion, as seen from the essay, Bartleby is an intricately complex person. He lives in a society that is always tight. And the saying ‘I would prefer not to’ reflects on the person of Bartleby – a man who always struggles for what he wants.

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The Bartleby Character In Bartleby The Scrivener Story By Herman Melville. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from
“The Bartleby Character In Bartleby The Scrivener Story By Herman Melville.” GradesFixer, 18 Mar. 2021,
The Bartleby Character In Bartleby The Scrivener Story By Herman Melville. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 May 2022].
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