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The Quarrel of Social Responsibility Vs Social Isolation in Bartleby, The Scrivener

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Written by Herman Melville, Bartleby, The Scrivener, is a short story that tells the tale of a fortunate lawyer on Wall Street who hires a scrivener named Bartleby to serve for his law firm. In the beginning, he is an excellent copyist but as the story goes, his work potential decreases. On the other hand, the narrator’s attitude regarding Bartleby is changing constantly, which leads to him being introverted as well as extroverted. This essay will discuss an important conflict that is present throughout the story: social responsibility vs social isolation. Moreover, his actions will nourish the outcome of his reputation.

Firstly, in the second passage, the narrator clearly demonstrates the notion of social responsibility through his altruistic character trait. “A prudential feeling began to steal over me. My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity”. He shows proof of selflessness throughout his feelings towards Bartleby. The loneliness felt by the law-copyist is undergone by the narrator. He is empathic and tries to understand the others’ deepest and sincerest feelings which represent how he demonstrates social responsibility through his thoughts and actions. Furthermore, when the narrator decides not to go to church anymore, he is showing proof of selflessness as his absence from Church is prompt by his concern and his goodwill to settle things down with Bartleby. On the other hand, not going to church also makes him lose the notion of social responsibility as he is not acting in a matter to benefit society.

Secondly, the notion of social isolation is clearly shown through the narrator’s actions and his way of reasoning. “But just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to his imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.” The narrator remained particularly compassionate towards Bartleby throughout the story. Diversly, it is clear to see that, his desolation and his sympathy quickly changed into negative feelings regarding Bartleby. His selflessness turned into selfishness. Hence, being self-centered, he also isolates himself from society by only thinking of himself he does not care about the welfare of others. Moreover, his decision of not attending church goes back to the notion of selfishness, as taking this decision shows that the narrator is only thinking of himself. Withal, his way of reasoning shows that he shared so much altruism towards Bartleby and that consequently, his perspective towards him quickly changes.

Thirdly, the change in the attitude of the narrator regarding the scrivener; Bartleby, can lead the copyist and the reader to misinterpret the good reputation of the narrator. The lawyer shows signs of social responsibility towards the complex character of the law-copyist by feeling pity and empathy towards him. The narrator gives more money to Bartleby than what he actually owes him. In a sense, this is a sign of selflessness as he decides to help him financially considering the fact that he can not help him emotionally. He tried to do everything for someone who was in need. Hence, throughout the story, the lawyer demonstrates duality in his personality, as he quickly changes his perception and attitude regarding Bartleby. This change of attitude puts emphasis on one of the major conflicts in the story between social responsibility vs social isolation. Nonetheless, as the story keeps going, Bartleby’s simple words “I prefer not to.” made the narrator mad. Therefore, the lawyer decided to move his business somewhere else because he did not want to be in charge of Bartleby as he was not motivated to work. However, the lawyer felt proud of himself for leaving him without getting angry. Although, it is clear to see that the narrator’s duality makes up for his selfishness as he goes from a very self-confident person, to an unsettled, preoccupied, melancholic and self-doubting human at the end of the story.

Moreover, many symbols are represented in Melville’s short story such as the dead letters. Dead letters represent hopelessness. This being shown by the letters not being delivered to the receiver, which creates a boundary between the sender and the person who should have received it. Those boundaries create isolation which can also be referred to as invisible walls, another important symbol in the story. Nevertheless, the passages from page 13 and from pages 14-15 evidently show both sides of the narrator’s personality and how they can be misinterpreted. 

To conclude, Herman Melville’s Bartleby: The Scrivener revolves around the conflicts of social responsibility vs social isolation and helps justify the narrator’s duality as his feelings towards Bartleby shift throughout the story.

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The Quarrel Of Social Responsibility Vs Social Isolation In Bartleby, The Scrivener. (2022, January 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from
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