Discuss the art of characterization of Melville in Bartleby the Scrivener


How does Melville depict his characters? Discuss with reference to Bartleby the Scrivener.


What ideas of Melville’s art of characterization do you gather from a study of Bartleby the Scrivener?

BartlebyAnswer: Characterization means the method by which an author creates the appearance and personality of imaginary persons and reveals their character. There are three basic methods of characterization: i) direct description of physical appearance and explanation of character traits and attributes he tells, ii) presentation of character in action without interpretive comment by the author he shows, iii) representation of the character’s inner-self. Essentially the author describes the thoughts and emotions triggered in the character by external events.

Melville’s art of characterization in Bartleby the Scrivener is mainly that of description or telling. He describes the physical appearances of the characters, and explains their traits. But some elements of showing are also involved in the drawing of the character of Bartleby. In case of Bartleby, both showing and telling are involved. The author describes (tells) some aspects of Bartleby’s character, and Bartleby himself gives out (shows) some of his characteristics through his actions. Bartleby has been drawn vividly with a perfect economy of words. The author, as a first person narrator, tells us about Bartleby the Scrivener. As he required one more Scrivener, in addition to the existing ones, he made an advertisement. In answer to his 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 how pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.”


Here, the total aspects of the man stand out prominent within a sentence or two. His inward nature as well as his physical appearance is crystallized. His picture is consistent with the theme of the story, which is Bartleby’s interest in affairs of life, till he died in absolute renunciation of life. The author also describes the strange traits of Bartleby’s character when Bartleby utters the words “I would prefer not to”. When Bartleby disobeys the author for the first time, saying— “I would prefer not to”, the author observes something unusual in Bartleby which he describes with great fidelity:

“Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled 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.”

The author has portrayed Bartleby as a tragic anti-hero. He is a tragic figure in a different way. He does not possess heroic qualities like the traditional tragic heroes. Shortly after joining the author’s service, and two days of satisfactory work as a scrivener, he began to behave strangely. To all calls for duty he responded, “I would prefer not to”. Ultimately he even gave up eating, the only means of sustaining life, and spent days before his death without eating or drinking. He became virtually a figure of death-in-life, having lost all interest in all things or values, whether good or bad. The author found him dead in the prison. His reply—

“Lives without dining” and “with kings and counsellors” to the grub man’s questions expresses a profound philosophy. Bartleby lived without dining means that he was totally averse to life. His sleeping with counsellors and kings points to this philosophy of life that life is absolutely meaningless because whatever we achieve in life is totally engulfed by death which reduces anything to nothingness. The author gives a hint about the background of his renunciation of life; he had worked in a dead letter office in Washington. possibly the word “dead” being repeated through these letters, affected him profoundly, and he behaved as a dead man even when he was alive. “Dead letters” sound like dead men, and a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness might be profoundly affected by his dealings with dead letters. These letters were sent on errands of life, but actually they did speed to death.

The author has given description of the three other characters—Nippers, Turkey and Ginger Nut. He characterizes Turkey with the use of an effective simile—

“Turkey was a short, pursy Englishman, of about my age. In the morning one might say, his face was of a fine florid hue, but after 12 o’clock, meridian-his dinner hour—it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals; and continued blazing but, as it were, with a gradual wane—till six o’clock or thereabouts.”


Turkey’s personality traits are thus revealed within a sentence. Nippers, the second scrivener, was a victim of two evils—ambition and indigestion. His ambition was expressed in his impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, and his indigestion appeared in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability which caused his teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes in copying.

“Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get” his table to suit him… In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted.”

Ginger Nut’s character is a sort of compromise between the characters of Turkey and Nippers. Whereas they both had paroxysms of irritability and nervousness—Turkey after 12 o’clock in the noon and Nippers before noon, Ginger had no such abnormal fits. He was playful as much as a boy of twelve might be. He made intelligent remarks about Bartleby.

So, Melville undoubtedly possesses great artistic power regarding the art of characterization. With great fidelity and accuracy he describes the strange things in Bartleby, restless nature of Nippers, contradiction of Turkey and playful disposition of Ginger Nut. His powerful figures of speech like smile and use of diction have revealed the traits of characters very effectively. His use of first person narrator or point of view has enabled him to give a lively and credible touch to his characters. He is indeed a great artist of characters.