Sketch the character of Bartleby the Scrivener


How has the author characterized Bartleby the Scrivener?


Do you think that Bartleby is a tragic character? Give reasons for your answer.


What does Bartleby symbolize?

bartleby (2)Answer: Bartleby is the protagonist of the story Bartleby the Scrivener. The whole story evolves around his character. He is a pale and forlorn scrivener. He is incredibly passive, quiet, never becoming angry. But he is also unyielding. Life itself is pointless to him, and he cannot pretend enthusiasm for it. His trademark sentence, “I would prefer not to”, marks his continuing disengagement from the world. Each time Bartleby utters it, he is refusing not only a task, but one of A the rituals of a normal life. He ends by “preferring not to” eat, which “9 kills him. The writer has, with utmost art and care, drawn this character.

The author, being a lawyer, needed a copyist in addition to the two he already had had. In response to his advertisement, one day a motionless young man stood upon his threshold. The author describes Bartleby thus:

“I can see that figure how pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.”

 The author was glad to engage a sober man among his corps of copyists, Turkey and Nippers. They need such influence as they have it some eccentricities. Turkey is placid and productive in the morning but Nippers is disordered. Turkey goes angry and red-faced in the afternoon but Nippers becomes productive. Now, since Bartleby was seen to be a man of very sober temper, he might have some good influence on the other two. So the author had reason to be glad after his appointment.


In the beginning of his job Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. He was cheerfully industrious, he wrote on silently, palely and mechanically. On the third day, the author called Bartleby to complete a small affair he had in hand—to examine a small paper with him. But surprising he replied— “I would prefer not to”. The author was astounded, but something in Bartleby disarmed him and touched and disconcerted him. He reasoned with him, but to no effect. The author closely observed Bartleby’s conduct since then, and found out that he never left the assigned place in the room, and lived on ginger-nuts, never taking any dinner. As days passed on, the author was considerably reconciled to Bartleby. One morning, he refused the author’s entrance into his room. Later on, the author asked him about his birth place, and some other questions, out Bartleby repeated the same answer. Bartleby gave up writing totally. The author gave him six days’ notice during which time he should find another place, and offered him extra money for that. But still there was no effect. Ultimately, the author himself moved his chamber, but Bartleby still haunted the old place. The landlord of his old chambers, and new tenants, called the police and handed him over to them. He was put into prison. He gave up eating and died there.

The author found Bartleby an unusual character who lost all interest in life. 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. He became almost dead while 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 dealing with dead letters. These letters were sent on errands of life, but actually they did speed to death.

Bartleby is strikingly isolated and alone from the very inception. He is a person who seems already dead: he is described alternately as one would describe a corpse or as one would describe a ghost. Pale from indoor work, motionless, without any expression or evidence of human passion in him at all, he is a man already beaten. He finds no connection with his environment, lives in a vividly unnatural state of near-death. His famous statement of non-compliance— “I would prefer not to” is an act of exhaustion rather than active defiance. His success at getting away with his unto-operatives comes from his very passivity, which seems to cast a spell over the narrator. Each time he reiterates the statement, he is renouncing one more piece of the world and its duties. The final renunciation will be of living itself, characteristically arrived at indirectly by the preference not to eat. The narrator roars his name until he appears—

“Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.”

Later, Bartleby haunted the old place. Like a ghost, he lived in the office, when no one else is there, when Wall Street is a desert, a landscape both completely unnatural and forlornly empty.

Bartleby lacks everything the narrator possesses, and is therefore doomed to isolation. The narrator is flexible and adaptable, is well-suited to his environment, and in touch with the intricacies of his society and his duty. Unlike the narrator, Bartleby acts from his heart. He is indifferent, silent, and mechanical in his work. He lives in a state of death-in-life. He cannot adjust with the modern mechanized and authoritarian world. He is of no use to the mechanized world for his unproductive nature. So, he is cast away by the world and doomed to death.


Symbolism is also associated with his character. He symbolizes the isolation of modern men, and the influence of the bleak world of work and business. His life and his working environment cut him off from nature, and afterwards from other men. The office that Bartleby works in is incredibly bleak, and the landscape of the Wall Street is completely unnatural. The work environment is devoid of any human worth—chilly, dark, and sterile. His dealing with dead letters so influenced him that he lost all enthusiasm for this bleak world, disengaged himself from it, and ultimately died. Bartleby is a symbol of doubling.

Bartleby more or less put a great influence on the author and his copyists. One day Nippers came and gritted “prefer not, eh?” and asked the author what Bartleby had preferred not to. The author replied that he would prefer that Nippers would withdraw for the present. He then realized that it was not necessary for him to use “prefer” in his answer to Nippers. And he trembled to think that his contact with Bartleby had already and seriously affected him in a mental way. Bartleby’s obstinacy not to quit the author compelled the author to shift his chamber.

Bartleby’s activity brought out some realizations in the author’s mind. The author realized the philosophy of the meaninglessness of life. The previous story of Bartleby’s life made him understand that repeated exposure to a particular thing affects the persons who are exposed to it.

So, Bartleby is such a character for whom many things can be said. His character has been interpreted by many critics in many ways. He is one of the most criticized characters in literature. He entered the author’s office mysteriously and died mysteriously. But he left many realizations and enlightenment for the author. Through his character, the writer shows how the mechanized modern world makes a person detached and utterly lonely and how it leads to terrible fall of some victims likely Bartleby.