Presentation on “Bartleby the Scrivener”

April 6th, 2017

Background on Melville:

For most of his life, Melville struggled financially. He didn’t have much support from his family, who were also under financial stress. And prior to writing “Bartleby the Scrivener” Melville had personally experienced economic hardships. He searched for work without success in Illinois and then later in New York City in 1830, before becoming a commercial sailor and a whaler. He lived in NYC from 1844-1850.

New York City in 1850s:

The city was going through political change. There were labor movements springing across neighborhoods. Often these labor groups had contentious and violent contact with the police authority. This led to a mood of mass political turmoil. Two writers in particular, Bennett who wrote for Herald, and Greeley who wrote for the Tribune, wrote extensively on labor issues. Both championed for the rights of the working class, but both had differing perspective on the problem. Bennett’s argument was “there was hardly a rich man in this community, who had not risen from poverty through persevering industry.” He argued that wage labor system was consistent with Christian values. Greeley on the other hand chastised the way “Christians harmonized this social injustice” with their faith. He encouraged that workers should resist and fight this unjust system. These protestant values legitimated class privilege and inequality.

The conflict in the story, between the lawyer, who represent Protestant entrepreneur who fused his values with the economic system, and Bartelby who refuse to do work because of the impersonal, unequal and exploitive conditions is “like the opposing positions of Bennett and Greeley” (386)

Setting in the Story:

■Wall Street, in Melville’s depiction, is, after work hours, as “deserted as Petra … an emptiness,” a space “entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic association” (385)

Kuebrich describes it as “attention to the Wall Street setting and the sharp class divisions in the workplace clarify the symbolic function of the story’s omnipresent physical barriers: the prison walls, the brick structures that surround the law office, and the fold glass doors and portable screen that divide it internally. phrasing Emerson’s trope, the walls are natural facts which suggest social and psychological facts: the densely developed urban setting that separates the story’s characters from nature; the growing impersonality of not only of the workplace but of the larger society” (386). Furthermore, there are distinct separation of classes. The clients are the rich, the lawyer represents the upper-middle class and the employees are the lower class. Furthermore the prospect of social mobility for the copyist is really slim. This is shown by the fact that Turkey is still doing that job at his old age, and “Nippers is a frustrated would be lawyer.” Bartleby is the representation of the worker who refuses to work in these growing impersonal and unequal conditions.

The Lawyers Outlook upon Work:

■The lawyer constantly attributes the problems of Turkey and Nipper to their nature. Their lives are lamentable because of their vice.

■Turkey’s irritability is result of him drinking too much wine or “red ink.” The lawyer never “asks himself why he drinks” in the first place

■Nipper’s problems are a result of vice and genetics

■ “nature herself seemed to have been his vintner, and at his birth charged him so thoroughly with an irritable, brandy-like disposition, that all subsequent potations were needless” (392)

Workers are Servants of the Boss:

■He identifies his authority with natural order

■“Bartleby’s refusals strike him not as acts of resistance to an unjust and humiliating subordination but as “violently unreasonable” (p. 22), whereas his own behavior is “perfectly reason- able” (p. 25). He places Bartleby inside his office behind a high screen so that the scrivener may be hidden from view and yet “within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done” (p. 19). On the third day of Bartleby’s employment, the lawyer relates how he “abruptly called to Bartleby” in “natural expectancy of instant compliance” (p. 20, emphasis added). It is in response to this brusque summons that Bartleby issues his first “I would prefer not to” “ (393).

Main Point:

■“An awareness of the many correlations between “Bartleby” and current social conditions and debates does not in itself explain the mysteries of the story, but it does make a strong prima facie case for viewing it as an historicized text more concerned with then-contemporary economic realities than is usually acknowledged” (388).

Secondary Source: Melville’s Doctrine of Assumptions: The Hidden Ideology of Capitalist Production in”Bartleby” by David Kuebrich

2 Responses to “Presentation on “Bartleby the Scrivener””

  1. arla creme fraiche on February 5, 2020 2:46 pm

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    Presentation on “Bartleby the Scrivener” at Mind Over Matter

  2. resources on September 18, 2021 1:15 am


    Presentation on “Bartleby the Scrivener” at Mind Over Matter

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