The Paralysis Caused by Fear in Bartleby, the Scrivener, a Short Story by Herman Melville

Bartleby, the Scrivener is an allegorical short story in which the author, Herman Melville, writes from the perspective of an anonymous narrator. The Narrator introduces himself as a “safe man” who is the owner of a scrivener office on Wall Street in New York (Melville 1103). In need of another “copyist” for his practice, he publishes an “advertisement” for a job opening (1107-1108). The owner is soon approached by an unfamiliar, ominous prospective employee, Bartleby, whom he describes as “motionless” and “pitiably respectable” (1108).

Bartleby begins as a remarkably effective worker at the office, but he quickly becomes useless and inactive. As the Narrator tries to motivate him to work and pleads with him to perform his duty, Bartleby always flippantly responds with the phrase “I would prefer not to” (1108). Although the Narrator moves his practice to separate himself from Bartleby, he still cares about Bartleby and tries in vain to ensure his “lifeless” friend is taken care of until Bartleby’s death in prison (1108,1123).

Perhaps, like Bartleby, he feels a captive to the tame life he has spent copying legal documents. The Narrator cared for Bartleby because his ineffective employee represents the paralysis caused by his own fear, which kept him from expressing himself and pursuing an adventurous life of freedom and self-expression.

Herman Melville, himself, could hardly be described as a “safe man” (1103). Melville worked a series of number of jobs, but left the tame life of office work to travel the world as a “sailor” (Baym 1099). He likely did not enjoy the monotonous routine of the ordinary occupations available to him; instead he chose to pursue a far riskier career which was not relatively highly regarded in the early nineteenth century, writing.

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Rather than spending his days tending to another’s writings in a bank or in a school, Melville chose to write his own works. In Bartleby, the Scrivener, Bartleby and the Narrator are connected by their underlying desire to break away from the vice-grip their occupation had on their own creativity, and by their fear of expressing themselves. This connection is exemplified by the author’s use of walls in the story to illustrate isolation and the blocked communication between the characters.

Throughout the text, the author uses walls to illustrate the isolation which comes with living a life without creativity and the thrill of risk taking. The Narrator’s scrivener office is surrounded by “lifeless” walls which serve as an “everlasting shade” blocking the inspiration of the vivacious sun (Melville 1103-1104). With each moment Bartleby spends in this stale environment, his capabilities begin to fade away into total inactivity. As Bartleby’s eccentricity reduces volume of the office’s business, the dark, silent building becomes a prison for both men (1115). The inseparable connection between the Narrator and Bartleby is evidenced as the Narrator follows his fellow man into the walls of a prison to ensure he is treated well and fed sufficiently (1125-1126). Bartleby even dies propped against a prison wall (1127). Throughout the entire story, both men are always going from the exhaustion one allegorical prison to another. Hopefully, the Narrator can find the courage to take the risk to enjoy the freedom of exploring nature and his own creativity after seeing the fate of poor Bartleby.

The characters also experience a tremendous breakdown in communication. The Narrator tries to encourage Bartleby to attempt an endeavor which may invigorate his spirit; he even suggests two occupations which involve travel outside of the symbolic prison (1124). However, Bartleby does not have the confidence, energy, or desire to take such a risk, rather, he chooses to waste away in darkness and isolation. Is the Narrator’s situation much different? Much like a “dead letter” neither man could be understood or find genuine inspiration until they venture to find a place in which they belong (1127). Like incorrectly addressed envelopes, the contents of their hearts remain closed through the story. The men share a tragic bond; both are so separated from nature they cannot imagine where they belong, much less venture to arrive in that blessed place. Society views the Narrator as a successful man and Bartleby as a failure and a criminal, but both feel trapped in the same place. They each only express the pessimism of their situation, and both neglect to ask themselves where they each could go to find happiness. The two men share the tragic flaw of a failure to communicate and pursue their own desires.

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The Paralysis Caused by Fear in Bartleby, the Scrivener, a Short Story by Herman Melville. (2023, Jan 15). Retrieved from

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