Is set when Wall Street was becoming a financial hub of the United States. This transformation impacted many at the time, there was no minimum wage, few child labor laws, few unions, and few protections against discrimination. The American workplace changed dramatically, becoming a dangerous and unsafe environment. With the Industrial Revolution changing the workplace rapidly and living conditions quickly deteriorating, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” offers a look into the life of many working-class citizens during the 19th century.
Herman Melville was born in New York on August 1, 1819.
His family was a rich mercantile household that gradually failed due to the losses in many businesses over the United States. Melville has 7 other siblings. His father, Allan Melville was an importer of French dry goods who died after going bankrupt when Melville was 12 years old. After the death of his father the family moved to the village of Lansingburgh, on the Hudson River. Melville was offered a crew position on a merchant ship as cabin boy in a New York vessel bound for Liverpool.
Spending large amounts of time on the sea really brought out his unique style in literature. On September 28, 1891 Melville passed away in New York. During his life, Melville was not known for his work, but soon after his death, many of his books were reprinted.
Today Herman Melville is regarded as one of Americas greatest writers; with many classics such as Moby Dick, Typee or “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. In “Bartleby”, Melville gives a look into the degrading aspects of the modern industrial workplace.
Before Melville wrote “Bartleby”, the United States had experienced a major transformation economically. New ideas and inventions were coming out that seemed impossible before. The construction of super roads and railways, and the introduction of steamships to transport goods signaled the era of transportation. New machineries that made work easier were running on steam and hydropower. The methods of production were altered to match the specific needs of their purpose. Samuel Morse and the invention of the telegraph, seemingly revolutionized long distance communication without the need of human assistance. But with all these great strides, there were many fall backs.
All individuals search for a purpose, an identity to make sense of the world. Our dreams and goals tend to be influenced by our surroundings; whether that be our family, culture, or religion. In the United States, it was called the American Dream; the idea that anybody, no matter your ethnicity or race, can live the life of their dreams. This idea was rapidly changing with these many progressions. For the first time, workers faced an environment where there were limited opportunities and longer work hours. With the industrialization system, employees felt like they were denied the chance of proving themselves, not allowing them to progress up the chain to a more sustaining and fulfilling opportunity to start their own personal business. Melville understood these hardships as him and his family had experienced them.
In “Bartleby” the working environment is not a huge shop or a large factory, but a law office in Manhattan. The building where the lawyer’s office is located is described as “entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic association” (1487). This description shows the impersonality of the working environment of Bartleby and the solitude he lives in. One of the story’s recurring symbols is the suffocating presence of walls within the law office. The narrator notes early on that the few windows in the office produce little to no light, as they run up against the walls of adjacent buildings, though that doesn’t stop Bartleby from staring out them for hours at a time. The lawyer is the narrator and has four employees at his law firm named Turkey, Nippers, Ginger Nut, and Bartleby who are all scriveners or copyists. A scrivener is “A person who could read and write or who wrote letters to court and legal documents. Scriveners were people who made their living by writing or copying written material.”
During the Industrial Revolution, many families who were poor or lower middle class found themselves struggling to earn a salary enough for their daily living expenses. They were forced to move to the growing industrial cities in order to have a better life. Even though there was work available, the wages were extremely low. Many families were forced to seek supplemental work and were faced with such hardships that they had to have their children get jobs to get enough money. The children of the Industrial Revolution held the opportunity of a a better future in their hands while also facing the terrors of poverty and reality.
The center of attention of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is Bartleby. The narrator talks about Bartleby’s work ethic by saying, “At first Bartleby did an extraordinary amount of writing . . . I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote out silently, palely, mechanically”. Throughout the story, Bartleby develops the habit of not doing what he is asked to do by the lawyer. Bartleby started off as a great writer and continued to do so until the lawyer asks him to observe his writings. Bartleby responds, ‘I would prefer not to’. This statement explains Bartleby’s character perfectly. Bartleby is usually isolated, depressed and independent which is a result of Bartleby working in the Dead Letter Office before the law firm. It shows how his old job killed him on the inside reading those letters and destroying them. Because of this, it makes him not want to work or act responsible in the office.