Sketch the character of the author or narrator (author) of the story Bartleby the Scrivener.


What ideas about the author/narrator do you gather from your study of the story Bartleby the Scrivener?

Bartleby.Answer: In the story Bartleby the Scrivener the author Herman Melville has chosen the first person narrative as his technique, so he himself is a character in the story, even a very important character. We as readers see the whole thing— the incidents and characters—through the perspective that he provides. He is an elderly man, and an eminently safe one. He is a master in chancery, a profession connected with the law courts. He is convinced that the easiest path is always the best one. He says about himself, ‘I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages.” We find his self-assessment quite correct; its truth is proved by his dealing with his clerks—Turkey, Nippers, and Bartleby. Moreover, he performs some symbolic functions as a character in the story.

Turkey, the senior most copyists under him had some strange aspects and behavior. The author describes him with the help 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 florid hue, but after twelve 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, p.m. or thereabouts; after which I saw no more of the proprietor of the face, which, gaining its meridian with the sun, seemed to set with it, to rise, culminate and decline the following day, with the like regularity and undiminished glory.” Thus, Turkey was placid and productive in the morning but disordered and red-faced in the afternoon. After midday, he would be incautious in dipping his pen into his inkstand. All his blots upon the author’s documents were dropped after 12 o’clock. He had many other eccentricities. The author was willing to overlook his eccentricities, though he occasionally remonstrated with him. But he did it very gently.

Nippers are the second clerk of the author and he was equally tolerant toward the eccentricity of Nippers. Nippers was a victim of two evil powers—indigestion and ambition. 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. But in spite of his faults the author regarded him as a very useful man.


The author’s handling of Bartleby after he refused to comply with his request or to obey his command is also indicative of his tolerant nature, his wisdom, his sense of justice and expediency. He was at first exasperated and a bit off his balance when he got the refusal on the part of Bartleby to obey his order by saying, “I would prefer not to”. But he soon controlled himself and took time to think over the matter. A few days later the author again called Bartleby to examine a very important document along with Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut. Bartleby again refused with the same words, “I would prefer not to”. After this repeated refusal, the author tried to persuade him to leave his job. When that also failed, he gave Bartleby six days’ notice to leave his job, and even offered him some extra money to enable him to find a new job. During all this time, the author did not behave roughly or cruelly with him. Ultimately, the author moved his office to get rid of Bartleby. But even then Bartleby haunted his old place. Ultimately, he was sent to the prison Tombs, where the author visited him, and made arrangement for his comfort there. But Bartleby soon died.

However, the author serves as foil to Bartleby. Through understanding he would be more motivated to help Bartleby, and, in turn, Bartleby would be saved from his own misery, having learnt the importance of adapting to survive,-perhaps even finding pleasure in some things. They would naturally solve each other’s problems. Bartleby’s inexplicable irrationality and self-motivated actions would shed light on a new aspect of humanity that the narrator had previously avoided or been sheltered from: The narrator’s natural attraction to Bartleby’s peculiarities would foster an incurable curiosity about a man who resisted every aspect of modern life.

The narrator seems perfectly adapted to life in an authoritarian world; he avoids his romantic values to adjust with the mechanized 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”. His seemingly natural harmony with the world around him implies that he is not a romantic. But his ability to survive without imposing authoritarian values upon other people is certainly a romantic trait. He is an authority figure, but one of his perceived “weaknesses”, the inability to stand up to Bartleby’s passive resistance, is actually a respectable trait that points to a compassionate, romantic disposition. But the narrator’s romantic values are doomed in a world where people are only worth what they produce for it. No matter how compatible Bartleby and the narrator are, their romantic tendencies are of no use to their society. Thus, combining the two to create a “whole” man is futile and doomed to failure, a fact that Melville stresses through the narrator’s reaction to Bartleby’s homelessness. Even at his most compassionate moment, when he feels that bond of commonality, he is overwrought with a feeling of disgust by Bartleby’s lifestyle:

“My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.”

The narrator symbolizes responsibility and compassion. How responsible is the narrator for Bartleby’s salvation? The narrator approaches to dismiss Bartleby, but simultaneously offers him an assurance of sufficient money. He also offers Bartleby a place to stay in his own home. At last, we find him visiting Bartleby in the prison. However, 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 narrator is also the symbol of the charity of all of authority figures who lead the mechanized world. He first pities Bartleby, then he recognizes the fact that Bartleby is useful to him, then he notes that Bartleby would be ill-treated at another office, presumably making him less useful to some other employer and, by extension, society, and finally, he purchases “self-approval” and a “sweet morsel for his conscience” which will cost him little. Through charity, he is actually just buying himself a good conscience. As soon as Bartleby affects his business, he moves his offices and abandons Bartleby. He offers Bartleby a place in his own home so that he could purchase a great amount of good conscience. But Bartleby refuses the narrator’s charity, saying that he “would prefer not to”.

The author as narrator fulfills different parts in the story, and makes the story successful.