1 Katelyn Brown English 103 – X John Marsh 9/19/2005

The Lawyer and His Scrivener: Different People or Adverse Aspects of Personality?

“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” While it is easy to see why most critics who read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” believe that Melville created two opposing characters to represent all of humanity, a more close and careful reading suggests that he created the two characters to represent opposing aspects of an individual human’s personality. This argument is rarely acknowledged as a possibility of Melville’s underlying meaning; however, without this possibility, readers might not realize that they, themselves, are both the lawyer and the scrivener battling in a world of social agendas and financial superiority. To prove that the lawyer and Bartleby represent opposing aspects of personality in regards to well-being, perspective, motivational memories, and attitude prevalence, this essay will observe main themes and points of conflict throughout the story and verify the argument that Melville does indeed describe a single person. After reading and reevaluating critical analysis’ of Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” I believe that most readers have been misguided into thinking that the narrator and Bartleby represent two contrasting types of people in society. Critics often believe that the narrator of this story could be characterized as the hard-working or good Christian portion of society, while Bartleby represents the unmotivated, even lazy portion. Contrary to this belief, the lawyer and the scrivener represent two opposing attitudes toward self-preservation within an individual. For example, the lawyer


describes himself as “an eminently safe man,” implying that his safety is important to him. Bartleby, however, realizes that the lawyer is agitated by his unwillingness to copy, yet has no concern over his safety at the office. At one point, the agitation becomes high enough to allow murder to cross the lawyer’s mind as a possible option of ridding Bartleby from his chambers. He comments, “It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by human domestic associations… which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation… (Lawn 45). This contrast represents one attitude within a person as being greatly concerned for his/her well-being, while the opposing attitude is extremely indifferent to well-being. Although readers might object that these two attitudes are mutually exclusive within one personality, I urge them to analyze themselves. Jumping out of a plane might raise numerous concerns about his/her safety, but the dangers of getting into a car are often disregarded with a blasé disposition. Both activities are relatively dangerous without the proper experience, yet most people don’t realize that riding in a car is statistically more dangerous than jumping out of an airplane. Because of these opposite attitudes in a single personality, Bartleby and the narrator can be described as different parts of the same person. Besides concern for well-being, as represented by the lawyer and the scrivener, another contrasting aspect of a human’s personality is perspective: authoritarian versus transcendental. In the words of C. George Boeree, a psychology professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, the lawyer can be described as authoritarian because he “accepts only one social reality, and understands it as universal. Someone who does not accept the same social reality is seen as either an infant or insane. When


the social reality is threatened…the tendency is for defense mechanisms to engage” (Boeree). For example, when Barleby starts affecting the lawyer’s career, the lawyer feels undermined by his trivial actions. The narrator says: At last I was made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature I kept at my office. This worried me very much. And as the idea came upon me of his possibly turning out a long-lived man, and keeping occupying my chambers, and denying my authority; and perplexing my visitors; and scandalizing my professional reputation; and casting a general gloom over the premises…I resolved to gather all my faculties together, and forever rid me of this intolerable incubus (Lawn 46) Bartleby would just sit at the office and refuse to help anyone. When professional friends of the lawyer would inquire as to his whereabouts, the scrivener would not give an answer. The narrator’s reaction is characteristic of an authoritarian person because he rejects the fact that Bartleby is different from him and eventually becomes defensive. Bartleby, however, represents a transcendentalist perspective in that he was “moving closer and closer to an unconscious state while retaining the ability to retain the experience” (Boeree). The scrivener comes to the lawyer’s office in search of work as a copyist. Eventually, however, Bartleby refuses to do any more copying, even when threatened with the termination of his job there. Through his own actions, the movement becomes quite apparent. At first he seems “long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on [the] documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light” (Lawn 28); however, moving towards the end, “Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing” (40). It seems as though Bartleby progressively dyes throughout the story.


Although critics might disagree that the lawyer and Bartleby represent different perspectives within the same person, I maintain that both characters are representative of an equal balance between these two perspectives in an individual person. Boeree writes in one of his articles concerning the different perspectives, “Each of us operates at… these levels, often simultaneously. In fact…we need to use [both] of these perspectives at various times,” meaning both perspectives are proven to be inherent in a single person. The lawyer best represents the authoritarian because he does not accept Bartleby for who he is, and eventually engages him defensively because of his threatened social and professional life. Bartleby, on the other hand, represents the transcendentalist because he progressively loses contact with reality. Both perspectives need to be present in order to establish a balanced life. In addition to varying perspectives, I believe that the lawyer and Bartleby also represent two types of critical events in a person’s life, experiences that make us proud and others that we wish we could simply erase. The lawyer represents those experiences that leave a positive impact upon a personality, such as getting married or winning the lottery. For the narrator, however, his proud moment comes from being hired as a Master of Chancery in New York. He says, “… my avocations had been largely increased. The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative… But this is by the way” (Lawn 22). The lawyer goes off-topic to give a brief history recap, implying that he used to be of some greater importance in society. Bartleby, on the other hand, represents the part of one’s life that negatively impacts a personality, such as the death of a loved one or the witnessing of a war. After being directly asked about


his history, and after repeatedly giving the same response, “I would prefer not to,” one must infer that something has happened to Bartleby that has greatly affected his life to the point of not wanting to discuss it. Only after his death do readers learn that he had worked in a Dead Letter Office from which he had been removed because of a change in administration. The lawyer comments, “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?” (54). Bartleby was not proud of who he had been, nor did he wish to tell anyone about his past experience. In this way, the lawyer and Bartleby represent the two types of critical events in a person’s history, positive and negative. Looking in a somewhat different light, I believe that the lawyer and Bartleby represent two opposing aspects of a personality of which one side establishes prevalence and the other remains unknown to the outside world. The lawyer represents the attitude that everyone can clearly see, and in which there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary. Bartleby, however, represents the hidden problem that no one seems to notice from the outside. The constant nuisance of Bartleby begins to affect the social and professional life of the narrator, as it would for most readers and critics if they experienced a similar problem. For the lawyer, the problem is ridding himself of the scrivener; however, no one outside of his mind really knows the intense dilemma going on in the narrator. He comments, “Mortified as I was at his behavior, and resolved as I had been to dismiss him when I entered my office, nevertheless I strangely felt something superstitious knocking at my heart, and forbidding me to carry out my purpose, and denouncing me for a villain if I dared to breathe one bitter word against this forlornest of mankind” (39). If a person


puts off dealing with his/her problems, they only tend to get worse. As in the case of the story, the lawyer putting off Bartleby’s departure only leads to a worse situation in which he can do nothing but move to another establishment. As an example, after making an excuse that Bartleby had given up copying because of his “impaired vision” and giving him a few days to regain his proper eyesight, the narrator comments, “He remained as ever, a fixture in my chamber: Nay- if that were possible- he became still more of a fixture than before. What was do be done? He would do nothing in the office; why should he stay there? In plain fact, he had now become a millstone to me, not only useless as a necklace, but afflictive as a bear” (41). Again, the critics might object to the two characters representing any kind of hidden-observable personality, but I maintain that because Bartleby creates a constant nagging feeling in the narrator, he represents the everyday problems that humans experience yet choose not to confide in others. Melville tries to describe one person through the use of two defining characters in his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Critics, as well as readers, are forced to broaden their focus and look at the bigger picture that Melville conveys. More significantly, readers must come to the realization that there are numerous conflicting aspects of personality within themselves that are unconsciously brought to the surface in different situations, some evident and others inconspicuous. Due to this newfound interpretation, I believe that more research should be done to discover these details in more depth. While it’s easy to see how critics could misinterpret “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” a closer reading might persuade readers to examine a more personal interpretation. After all, isn’t humanity only made up of what is contributed to society by individual humans?