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Dehumanization in Bartelby The Scrivener

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The narrator and Bartleby – principle characters of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener – are opposite sides of the same coin. Their perspectives and connections to life seem to be similar. However, the narrator thrives in the post-revolutionary, post-industrial, capitalistic society. Bartleby, oppositely, wastes away in it. Bartleby’s humanity is stripped away from him which eventually kills him. Bartleby is the byproduct of this new America; the narrator is the would-be product.

The choices of the narrator limit his perspective. He’s unaware how figuratively and physically surrounded by walls he is. One of his windows has a view of “the white wall of the interiors of a spacious skylight shaft” (1088). This view being somewhat “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’…the other end of [his] chambers offer…a contrast….an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall”(1088). He even calls this configuration a “huge square cistern” (1087) – a receptacle for holding rain, stagnant, or sewage water. He is walled-in and drowning in his life and yet cannot see it. This blind acceptance of capitalism, the new notions of work get paid and die, this “easy life” is what Melville is criticizing. Melville’s narrator is nothing but an “unambitious lawyer,” (1087) perfectly suited to his life in the newly emerging corporate America. In this America people are moving away from the self-sustaining lifestyles of farming and taking mind numbing jobs such as being a Scrivener

The narrator is convinced “the easiest way of life is the best” (1087). Nothing “[turbulent]…energetic… [or] nervous… [has he] ever suffered to invade [his] peace” (1088). The narrator is a “safe man” (1087) incapable of understanding hardships or his fellow man. He believes in the Four Cardinal Humors, and only understands superficial appearances. He talks of Turkey as though Turkey is a furnace. After twelve o’clock Turkey is “blazed like grate full of Christmas coals… his face flamed with augmented blazonry as if cannel coal had been heaped on anthracite” (1088). While these are the effects of a few beers at lunch hour, the narrator can not make connect those beers to coping mechanisms for this job. Nippers’ out ward frustrations with his job are evident in that he “[can] never get his table to suit him”(1089). While the narrator is aware that Nippers wants “to be rid of the scrivener’s table altogether”(1089) it is not because of the lousy job, it is because Nippers suffers from the “evil powers [of] ambition” (1089).

Within the realm of capitalistic ideology a employer realistically can not be completely empathetic to his employee. Priority goals of making money are in conflict with a completely content staff. The narrator is simply unable to empathize with his staff making him perfectly suited to his position.

Bartleby and the narrator seem incomplete. Looking at the Four Cardinal Humors, as the narrator does, Bartleby is ruled primarily by Sanguine and Melancholic. Sanguines surrender themselves in a way to a varied flow of images and sensations. Melancholic peoples feel they are not master over their body; the physical body is in control. Melancholics experience this lack of control as pain or feelings of despondency . Bartleby, being that he is walled up, cannot be exposed an array of images and sensations that would sustain him. Bartleby’s body, being outside his control, fails; therefore he prefers not to do any more that would conform to the scrivener position and his fading.

The narrator is flexible, adaptable, and well suited to his environment. He is predominantly ruled by the Choleric humor – giving him force of will, enabling his authority in this microcosm – and the Phlegmatic humor, the more etheric of the humors. The Phlegmatic humor focuses the narrator’s attention to his inner world allowing him to remain oblivious to the walls and pains of his outer world.

By dividing humanity into its parts, its sum, and attributes the capitalist society has stripped each of these men of their humanity. Bartleby is particularly destroyed. He wafts about the office devoid of life. Bartleby is “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”(1091). He appears “dimly calm … [with nothing] ordinarily human about him”(1092), and ” like a very ghost … at the entrance of his hermitage” (1095). Bartleby lives in a death-like state because he cannot see images of life through the walls enforced on him.

In the world Melville is criticizing a man does his work, gets his pay, and dies at the end of a long fruitless life. The tendency is to remove humanity from people. Melville dehumanizes his characters by making them the sum of their titles and attributed. Bartleby, insofar as he is understood, is a scrivener: a human photocopier. His fading is the fading of strengths within men and the dismissal of natural gifts. It is a byproduct of this new America. Bartleby is only a Scrivener joining the narrator’s “corps of copyists”(1091) and is regimented even by language. The narrator brings him into the office and surrounds him by walls in a tiny cubical. While the narrator does “[place] his desk close up to a small side-window,” that window “[commands]…no view at all” (1091). Furthermore, the narrator makes every effort to remove Bartleby from his sight, conforming to ideals of “privacy and society” (1091). Bartleby industriously becomes a machine, “[writing] on silently, palely, mechanically” (1091). As Bartleby slowly degrades into his inanimate state preferring to do less and less, the narrator even starts to see him as office furnishings. Bartleby becomes “harmless and noiseless as any … old chair”(1104). By the end Bartleby dose nothing but shut down; his final sleep, “with kings and counselors” (1111).

Bartleby and the narrator seem to have been born into their lives: an unabitious lawyer, a scrivener: an employer, an employee. However, Bartleby is aware of the tedium’s on both sides of the wall. The narrator comes to notice how intolerable his own walls are. By the end of Bartleby’s life the narrator seems uncomfortable in the role he once fit into. He comes to understand what this life can do to a man. He becomes whole. Speaking of Bartleby’s past he says “on errands of life, these letters speed to death” (1111). The narrator takes the role of the hero, understanding “character of the masonry weighed upon [him] with its gloom” (1110). Walls are no longer glorious, and no longer surround him. His office has changed. His perspective has changed. Bartleby’s are gone.

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Dehumanization in Bartelby The Scrivener. (2018, April 21). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from
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