Describe Melville’s narrative technique in Bartleby the Scrivener


What do you understand by point of view of a story-teller? Discuss the point of view of Melville as a story-teller.


What point of view of narration has Melville undertaken? Discuss with reference to Bartleby the Scrivener.


From your study of the story Bartleby the Scrivener, what ideas have you formed about the narrative art of Melville? How far is Melville successful as a narrator?

Bartleby.Answer: A modern story-teller is artistically more self-conscious than the old ones; for he thinks that there are many ways of telling a story. He decides upon a method, and perhaps sets up rules for himself. He may tell the story by himself or by means of letters, or diaries. He may let other characters tell it or confine himself to recording the thought of one of his characters. The question of point of view has assumed much importance. This is called narrative technique or narrative perspective or narrative point of view. There are two general points of view— 1) the first person and 2) the third person. The third person point of view can be divided into the omniscient point of view, and the objective point of view. In the first person narrative technique, the “I” may be the central character, a minor character or a character who is not directly involved in the action, but functions only as an observer and recorder. All first person narration requires the author to create a persona. In the omniscient point of view, the narrator assumes a godlike persona, moving about freely in time and space, and revealing the thoughts and motives of all the characters, and commenting on them.

Melville uses the first-person narrative perspective in his story Bartleby the Scrivener. He is a minor character in the story and talks about Bartleby, the protagonist, from his direct experience about him. He is the first person observer who is not directly involved in the action but functions only as an observer and recorder. The author has created a “second-self’ of himself, through which he tells the story. This technique has the advantage of vividness, directness of the experiences, and their description strongly appeals to the reader’s interest. The picture of Bartleby has become a very lively one, a convincing one.


The author, as a first person narrator, tells us the story of Bartleby the scrivener. The author narrates Bartleby’s appearance in the beginning of the story thus:

“In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now— pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, and incurably forlorn. It was Bartleby.”

Immediately after joining he did an extraordinary quantity of writing. From the third day he began to behave abnormally. Called by the author to do a small job—examining a small paper—Bartleby surprisingly replied,

“I would prefer not to.”

But strangely enough, there was not anything ordinarily human about him—

“Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.”

Bartleby did a repetition of the same words “I would prefer not to”, when the author called him for verification of an important document copied by Bartleby himself. The author was astounded, but there was something in Bartleby which disarmed him, and drew his sympathy. Thereafter, the author observed his conduct very closely. He found that Bartleby never left his assigned place in the room, living on ginger nuts, and never took any dinner. To all questions he either remained silent or said “I would prefer not to”. Still later, he gave up his very job itself—that is writing. He was not responsive to any entreaty or reasoning. The author got annoyed by the repeated use of the same words by Bartleby. He observed that Turkey and Nippers used the word “prefer” in their remark about Bartleby, unnecessarily. The author found himself using the word “prefer” in his answers to Nippers. And he trembled to think that his contact with the scrivener had already seriously affected him in a psychological way. He observes, “Somehow of late, I had got into the way of involuntarily using this word “prefer” upon all sorts of not exactly suitable occasions.”

The author was rather compelled to move his office, but still Bartleby haunted the old place. The landlord of the old place, and his new tenants called the police who put him into a prison called The Tombs. Bartleby did not take any food for several days. He died in the prison.

By using the first person point of view the author has achieved, in narrating the story, credibility in the strange character of Bartleby the scrivener. He is believed to possess a firsthand knowledge, about the protagonist and as such he has been able to establish an intimate relationship with the reader. He has been able to infuse his feelings, experience and realization about Bartleby in the reader’s mind. He seems to address the reader directly and from the heart, sharing his personal observations and insights with the interested reader.

Through the death of Bartleby, he propounds a philosophy. By the words— “Lives without dining”, he indicates that Bartleby was totally averse to life. His sleeping with the kings and counsellors points to the philosophy of life that life is absolutely meaningless because whatever we achieve in life is totally engulfed by death which reduces everything to nothingness. But the author has some disadvantages in his use of the first-person point of view. The reader can see, hear, and know only what the author sees, hears, and knows, nothing more.

Yet, Melville has used the first person narrative perspective with great success. He has brought home to us his intimate experience of the events happening in the life of Bartleby. He also keeps us informed about some other characters of the story. So, he is successful in handling his own technique.