Discuss the major themes of the story Bartleby the Scrivener


Several themes have been interwoven in the story Bartleby the Scrivener. Discuss.


How has the author of Bartleby the Scrivener suggested different themes in the story?


What do you think is the message of Melville in this story?

BartlebyAnswer: The answer to the question requires that we should have, in the first place, a clear idea about what we understand by theme. In literature, theme means the central or dominating idea, the message implicit in a work. The theme of a work is an abstract concept, seldom stated directly, but most often indirectly expressed through recurrent images, actions, characters, and symbols and must be inferred by the reader or spectator. Theme differs from subject. Subject, generally is the topic or thing described in a subject. Theme, on the other hand, is a comment, an observation or insight about the subject. For example, the subject of a poem may be a flower, but its theme may be a comment on the fleeting nature of existence. It is not ‘ necessary that a work must have a theme. Some work, like a detective story, may be written primarily for entertainment.

The themes implicit in the story Bartleby the Scrivener are various but they have been well-integrated in the story by the superb artistic skill of the author.

The first theme that draws our attention is the theme of isolation and failure to connect. Bartleby is one of the most isolated characters in all literatures. His situation in life and his working environment cut him off from nature and afterwards from other men. Previous to joining the author, Bartleby had to deal with dead letters in a dead-letter office in Washington. Now he works in a chamber of a lawyer that stares at a wall. Wall Street is a bleak and unnatural landscape. Bartleby works there by day and stays there at night. At night the stirring activity of bustling people is no more; it becomes a grimly desolate place as silent and dark as death itself. Bartleby is cut off from the world, being in this place, not only in terms of space, but also of time, since his previous history is unknown, and could not be extracted by the author.


Another theme is the bleak world of work and business. Bartleby the Scrivener works in an incredibly bleak-world, and the landscape of the Wall Street is completely unnatural. The work environment is devoid of any human warmth — chilly sterile, dark. Most people concerned with this world of work and business adapt themselves to it with varying degrees of success. The narrator himself and Bartleby, are victims of the mechanisms of progress; they both lost job due to some bureaucratic change. To Melville, the modern mechanized and authoritarian society so minutely divides a person’s responsibilities; it reduces the scope of his ability to interact with himself, nature, and his community. Melville’s characters in Bartleby the Scrivener, are portrayed as “half-man” who are victims of a society which stifles their natural ability to feel and act according to their romantic role as an individual in society. The narrator in this story seems perfectly adapted to life in an authoritarian world. He is committed only to safety and security. He has been “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” and is therefore an “eminently safe man”, Melville has described the world with a few brief touches, but it has become quite vivid. In the final prison scene Melville’s description of environment extends the business world to the general human condition. Bartleby loses all enthusiasm for this bleak world, disengages himself from it, and ultimately dies.

Mortality is another theme perceived in the story. It plays an important role in the story. Death pervades the story not as something that finishes a life, but something like a poison which permeates every aspect of the world we live in. Living is a tiring and arduous process. It is full of benumbing compromises and submission to meaningless tasks. The act of living is rather real death. Against the backdrop of death, human existence is futile, and our best intentions meet with failure. The Dead-letter office serves as the final image—a place where the last undelivered communications to the dead are burned without ever having been read.

Doubling is quite a distinct theme of the story. Through doubles the author suggests our connection to other human beings. Nippers and Turkey are like the two sides of the same coin, as Bartleby and the narrator are. Nippers is irritable and angry in the morning, but normal in the afternoon, but Turkey is quite opposite. They, in a way, complement each other. Bartleby becomes a complementary character to the narrator; he is a kind of double to the author. At the end, he becomes a kind of double for all humanity.

The theme of responsibility and compassion is faintly perceivable. How responsible is the narrator for Bartleby’s salvation? The narrator seems to have failed in his duty of helping Bartleby. But Melville does not dehumanize the narrator; the narrator, in fact, goes to greater lengths than most people would in his efforts to help Bartleby. The question arises whether the narrator could have done more. He is sensible, sympathetic, and compassionate, and resolves to help Bartleby take decisive action in his life, “his soul I could not reach … but if in any other way I could assist him, I would be happy to do so. Moreover, if, after reaching home, he found himself at any time in want of aid, a letter from him would be sure of a reply.” Considering the narrator’s unadventurous uncommitted lifestyle, this kind of compassion is surprising.

Bartleby the Scrivener contains a very critical look at “charity”, and the story may be a wry  commentary by Melville on the way materialism and consumerism were affecting it. The lawyer thinks of charitable actions in terms of cost and returns.

“Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence I can get along with him. If I turn him away he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.”


The author first pities Bartleby; then he recognizes Bartleby’s usefulness to him. He will not let Bartleby be treated rudely by other employer, for he wants to purchase a self-approval and a morsel for his conscience. Through charity, the lawyer is actually just buying himself a good conscience.

Contrasting the relationship between Turkey and Nippers, and Bartleby and the narrator, an underlying theme emerges. The authoritarian world in which these characters live demands that individuals be useful to it. Although Turkey and Nippers represent an efficient duo, each taking over when the other one goes mad, they are useful to society only because they have been reduced to miserable drones that hardly represent the full range of humanity.

So, various themes have been interwoven in the story, and Melville has exhibited his masterly skill in doing so. The central ideas have been indirectly expressed through recurrent images, actions, characters like Bartleby, Nippers, Turkey and so on.