Capitalism in “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Many men have tried their luck at capitalism, but just a few succeed in making it to the top. This form of economics can be harsh to the very people who keep it fueled and cycles through the next generation of workers. This harshness is seen throughout the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” when the character Bartleby goes into a job and ends up crushing his will to work any longer. He goes through of phase where the only thing that matters to him is the profit in his work and nothing else will take time away from it.

This leads to Bartleby becoming psychologically maned until his untimely demise and an empty shell until then. He not only represents how capitalism can break men but the very politicians that keep the wealthy on top while exploiting the working class.

Symbolism of Bartleby’s Character

The first reveal of Bartleby’s symbolism comes through when he first denies his employer. “Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to (Melville 549).

” Bartleby denies his employer out loud due to his focus on working on copying over errands for the boss. He does not deny his boss because Bartleby is disrespectful or a bad employer but, he gets paid based on how much he copies. “…he copied for me at the usual rate of four cents a folio (one hundred words) (Melville 553).” This shows that any kind of work besides copying does not produce income for the employees, so Bartleby takes advantage of this and refuses to spend any time on the little task his employer requests of him.

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“Bartleby is seen to take refusal to the extreme, declining passively and absolutely in such a calm and serene way that is becomes disarming (Beverungen and Dunne 174).” This way of speech caused confusion of Bartleby’s boss which allowed Bartleby to continue his work because his boss was unable to force him to do anything. Since Bartleby is focused on only earning money, he is a perfect symbol of the people who want to get rich quick due to capitalism.

Workers as machines

Bartleby is a representation of the lower hardworking section in capitalism. He came in looking for a low paying strenuous job such as copying paper over and over all day. This constant labor in conditions of a dim light leads to his vision becoming impaired and the stop of his copying at the law firm. “I looked steadfastly at him, and perceived that his eyes looked dull and glazed. Instantly it occurred to me, that his unexampled diligence in copying by his dim window for the first few weeks of his stay with me might have temporarily impaired his vision (Melville 559).” Capitalism causes people to go to the extremes because if they do not, their jobs can be lost to someone crazy enough to do it. Bartleby worked himself to the point of near blindness which is a great example of how far people will go to earn money and keep their job in this economy. It turns workers into machines and change their behaviors just like in the short story “Panopticism”. “Panopticon was also a laboratory; it can be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behavior, to train or correct individuals (578).” Training people to become machines shows what capitalism can do to the common working and how it changes the behavior of people.

Losing one’s identity

This will go to extremes and is the reason so many people in the work force are starting to lose their identity and becoming new people. The identity of people is stolen due to capitalism because no one is defined by who they are, but instead the job they hold in a company. The title of the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” distinguishes how people are defined by jobs. Capitalism robs people of their time and steals their identity. This turns them into a worker that can never leave because the possibility of growing income or social level. Bartleby is only seen as a Scrivener throughout the short story and the entire plot revolves around him in the work place. “Will you tell me, Bartleby, where you were born? I would Prefer not to. Will you tell me anything about yourself I would prefer not to (Melville 557).” This shows Bartleby wants to share no personal information in his work place but instead is only seen as the person he is in the work place.

Since Bartleby does not share any information, his actions are seen as his personality so the people see him as a laborer. Capitalism hides the personal side of the people within it and sticks the job title a person has to their name wherever they go. The imagery of walls throughout the story always seemed to play a role in wherever Bartleby ended up. The walls served as boundaries for him and he never left the inside of those walls unless forced to. The first set of walls that seemed to trap him were the walls of the office building he spent so much time in. “One prime thing was this, he was always there; first in the morning, continually through the day and the last at night (Melville 553).” People believe they are trapped in capitalism and that there is nowhere to go up the ladder only to stay stagnate never gaining a step. This is how Bartleby feels inside the walls of the office, there is no way out and he will be stuck in those walls until the day that he dies. Not only was he always there during the day, but Bartleby was so trapped within this job that he began sleeping in the office; almost never stepping foot out. “Yet, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself (Melville 555).”

Imprisonment of work

The imprisonment of work became so much for Bartleby he did not know where else to go which is why he began to reside in his office. He never knew anything else because capitalism is meant to focus people on working as hard and as much as they can to and trap them in one job. This is seen again when Bartleby is finally removed from the office and put into a prison with the same walls. No matter where Bartleby resided, he constantly felt confined. The tall buildings that are seen throughout the story are a metaphor for the heights that Bartleby will never reach in his lifetime. These limits set forth by the wealthiest in a capitalist economy is unreachable for someone so low on the social scale. Through political corruption and inner alliances, the very top of the economy will always stay in power. Bartleby is seen looking out his window at the large brick buildings that surround him. This pivotal moment depicts how low he feels where he stands in life and the dead end he is moving towards. “The next day, I noticed that Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall reverie. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing, (Melville 558).”

The image of the American Dream

Bartleby finally realizes how he is never able to progress despite the never-ending hard work he pours into his job. This leads to him giving up on everything and spending his days despising the tall buildings and what they represent. It almost seems like the dungen that was brought up in “Panopticism”. “Principals of a dungeon: Or rather of its three functions- To enclose, to deprive of light and to hide (574).” This explain how people feel trapped under capitalism because they can’t see the light of moving up throughout the corporate ladder. Enclosed in a low level of the chain, you can see why capitalism is failing the common people it is meant to employ. Bartleby is a symbol for everyone that wanted to make it big in capitalism; but their dreams were shattered upon the wealthy’s unfair advantage. People who decided to give up like Bartleby forever feel like they had nowhere to go and that their hard work will lead to a dead end. The image of the American Dream where hard work will get you to the very top of the social ladder is often unreachable which is depicted in the story “Bartleby the Scrivener”.

People work just for the money in our society which draws away from other things that matter; including Bartleby’s vision in the story. People start to lose sight about what matters in life because the only way that those apart of capitalism know how to move forward without thinking about the emotional well-being. In the end Bartleby Is a great representation for capitalism for his trial and tribulations throughout the short story as he takes on the beast known as capitalism. Capitalism led to his demise due to how he died at the end; this is seen in our society today because many people work themselves to death due to their hard work and dedication towards their jobs.

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Capitalism in “Bartleby the Scrivener”. (2022, Feb 07). Retrieved from

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