7 min read Jul 11, 2024

The Enigma of Bartleby: A Deeper Look at Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener"

Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" is a short story that has captivated readers and critics for over a century. Beyond its engaging narrative, it delves into the complexities of human nature, the nature of work, and the existential struggles of modern life. At its heart lies Bartleby, a mysterious and enigmatic figure who becomes the narrator's, a lawyer, constant source of fascination and frustration.

The Case of the Passive Resistor

The story begins with the lawyer, a successful but relatively unassuming figure, hiring Bartleby as a scrivener. Initially, Bartleby appears a model employee, diligently copying documents. However, his behavior quickly takes a strange turn. He begins to refuse work with the simple, haunting phrase, "I would prefer not to." This passive resistance slowly drives the lawyer to distraction, as he attempts to understand and ultimately conquer this enigmatic employee.

Bartleby's passive resistance is central to the story's theme. He embodies a refusal to engage with the demands of the capitalist world. His refusal to conform to societal expectations, his quiet rejection of work, resonates with the growing anxieties of the era. The story, written in the mid-19th century, captures the burgeoning industrialization and the anxieties surrounding the nature of work and the alienation of the individual in a rapidly changing world.

Exploring the Layers of Meaning

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" is a story rich in symbolism and open to various interpretations. Here are some key elements to consider:

  • Bartleby as a symbol of alienation: Bartleby's withdrawal and passive resistance can be seen as a symbol of the alienation experienced by individuals in a society obsessed with productivity and success. He represents the growing sense of isolation and loneliness that was emerging in an increasingly urbanized and industrialized world.
  • The lawyer's struggle: The lawyer, representing a successful member of the capitalist society, is ultimately unable to understand and deal with Bartleby's passive resistance. He is unable to accept Bartleby's refusal to engage with the world in a way that aligns with his own values and expectations. This reflects the challenges of navigating a world where individual differences are often seen as threats or obstacles.
  • The power of silence: Bartleby's silence, his refusal to explain his actions or motivations, adds to his mystery and enigmatic nature. This silent resistance further isolates him, creating a sense of existential angst that resonates with the reader.

Critical and Literary Reception

Since its publication, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" has been praised for its powerful storytelling and its exploration of universal themes. Literary critics have offered various interpretations of the story, highlighting different aspects of its symbolism and its relationship to the socio-political context of its time. Some see Bartleby as a tragic figure who ultimately succumbs to the pressures of a system that cannot accommodate his needs. Others view him as a symbol of resistance, challenging the relentless demands of the capitalist machine.

Notable interpretations include:

  • Psychological interpretations: Psychoanalytic interpretations view Bartleby as a figure suffering from mental illness or emotional trauma. His passive resistance is seen as a coping mechanism for dealing with internal conflicts and anxieties.
  • Existential interpretations: Existentialist readings focus on the themes of alienation, meaninglessness, and the individual's struggle for autonomy in a world that seems increasingly absurd. Bartleby embodies the existential angst of a generation confronted with the meaninglessness of existence.
  • Social and political interpretations: These readings emphasize the story's commentary on the exploitative nature of capitalism and the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Bartleby's resistance is seen as a critique of a system that values productivity and efficiency above human well-being.


"Bartleby, the Scrivener" continues to resonate with modern readers, offering a powerful exploration of human nature, work, and the existential anxieties of modern life. It invites us to consider the challenges of navigating a world that often fails to recognize and accommodate individual needs and desires. Bartleby's enduring mystery, his quiet refusal to conform, and his poignant silence continue to remind us of the complexity and fragility of human existence in a world where conformity and productivity are often prioritized over individual needs and desires.