106 Textual Introduction to “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

“Melville, master of prose that he was, manages here to tell a tragic tale that also has great moments of comedy” – Shmoop

In writing Bartleby, Melville got much of his inspiration from an 1853 novel, The Lawyer’s story, which was published anonymously by popular writer James A. Maitland. The opening chapter of the book was used in an advertisement, and when Melville saw the ad, he created the character of Bartleby almost immediately. The story also reads as if inspiration came from “The Transcendentalist”, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” (someone who scribes, for those less eloquent with their vocabulary), focuses on a writer who curiously enough doesn’t want to write. Bartleby gets tired of transferring document after document by hand, and in the first twenty paragraphs, he says his most famous line: “I would prefer not to.”

The Narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, is not happy with Bartleby’s lack of effort. Bartleby takes advantage of the workspace when he moves his belongings there and starts to live out of his office, and the Narrator reacts by offering him a place to stay, but Bartleby refuses. Because the other building tenants are uncomfortable with Bartleby, the Narrator moves his business out of the building, and when the Narrator returns later to check on him, he finds that Bartleby was removed from the premises and imprisoned in The Tombs. In prison, Bartleby dies from starvation because he “would prefer not to” eat.

Critics have wondered if Bartleby was meant to represent Melville himself as he made his way through writing Moby Dick, which is undoubtedly a long journey to begin and an easy sort of a writer’s frustration – writing. Writers are forced to answer baffling philosophical questions, and perhaps Melville was tired of the pressure that he put on himself to perform.


Stempel, Daniel, and Bruce M. Stillians. “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 27, no. 3, 1972, pp. 268-82. MLA International Bibliography, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=MLA&sw=w&u=glc_main&v=2.1&id= GALE%7CN2811812883&it=r&asid= a1bc36cad720f061c784f110f9b64b28. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.

Giles, Todd. “Using Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ to Teach Deconstruction in the Introduction to Fiction Classroom.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction, vol. 7, no. 2, 2007, pp. 128-35. MLA International Bibliography, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=MLA&sw=w&u=glc_main&v=2.1&id= GALE%7CN2812336425&it=r&asid= 5dc2d081c0fe1194aeb2d4bad0e056aa. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.

Hillman, Cynthia. “Celati, Flaiano, and Bartleby, the Scrivener: Refusal as Self-Preservation.” “Scrittori inconvenienti”: Essays on and by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Gianni Celati, edited by Armando Maggi and Rebecca West, Longo, 2009, pp. 187-198. Portico: Biblioteca di Lettere e Arti 150. MLA International Bibliography, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=MLA&sw=w&u=glc_main&v=2.1&id= GALE%7CN2812507550&it=r&asid=fc8453dba0893458c0b8700623dd6c28. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.

Schwab, Allen. “Teaching Melville’s ‘Bartleby’: Acknowledging Ambiguity and the Mirror of Betrayal.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction, vol. 9, no. 2, 2009, pp. 149-159. MLA International Bibliography, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=MLA&sw=w&u=glc_main&v=2.1&id= GALE%7CN2812457501&it=r&asid= 033148f5e3909b043dc1513c9ec23717. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.
Schwab’s essay, “Teaching Melville’s ‘Bartleby’”, focuses on the treatment of ambiguity through teaching and pedagogical approaches. The information can be recognized as credible through its presence in Eureka Studies, a popular educational journal, and its examination of Bartleby.


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