What is your idea of an anti-hero? Do you think that Bartleby is an anti-hero? Give reasons for your answer.

BartlebyAnswer: According to NTC’s Dictionary of Literary Terms an anti-hero is “A central Character, or protagonist, who lacks traditional heroic qualities and virtues (such as idealism, courage, and steadfastness). He may be called a non-hero, or the antithesis of a hero of the old-fashioned kind who was capable of heroic deeds, was dashing, strong, brave and resourceful. He may be incompetent, unlucky, tactless, clumsy, cack-handed, stupid, buffoonish, or even pathetic while retaining the sympathy of the reader. He is typically in conflict with a world he cannot control or whose values he rejects. Some of the examples of an anti-hero are Cervantes’ Don Quixote, James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Bartleby, the protagonist of Herman Melville’s story Bartleby the Scrivener, is an anti-hero. This long short story of Melville’s is an example of the 19th century middle-class tragedies focusing on social problems and issues. It is a tragedy not in the usual sense of the term, but in the sense of the protagonist’s self-imposed, masochistic sufferings and ultimate death. The protagonist of the story, Bartleby, does not possess any heroic qualities, nor does he have a hamartia or tragic flaw. He has no idealism, courage or steadfastness like the traditional tragic heroes of the classical or Shakespearean tragedies. His very first appearance holds him up almost as a nonentity. The author describes his first appearance at his office in the following way.

“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, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.”

So, he is not a tragic hero in the traditional sense. He is a tragic hero in the sense that he imposes upon himself extraordinary sufferings for some mysterious reasons. They are apparently due to some mental abnornormality acquired through undergoing some experiences involved in the very social system. He 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 worked in a dead-letter office where he had to deal with dead-letters in Washington. His work place is the lawyer’s office where he works by day and also stays at night. It becomes a grimly desolate place as silent and dark as death itself. Bartley is cut off from the rest of the world not only in terms of space, but also in terms of time since his previous history is unknown, and could not be extracted by the author. Bartleby loses all enthusiasm for this bleak world, disengages himself from it, and ultimately dies. His life seemed to be one of absolute aversion to life’s activities. He became almost dead even while he was alive. He 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’s life has been a tragic one. Immediately after joining the author’s service, Bartleby did an extra-ordinary 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.”

Strangely there was no uneasiness, anger, impatience, or impertinence in his manner and not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, or impertinence in his manner; or had there been anything ordinarily human about him, the author would have violently dismissed him from the premises.

A few days later, when the author called him for verification of an important document copied by Bartleby himself, he again said,

“I would prefer not to”.

The author was astounded, but there was something in Bartleby which disarmed him, and drew his sympathy. Thereafter, the author closely observed him and found that he never left his assigned place in the room and to all questions, he remained either silent or said, “I would prefer not to.” A few days later, he was not responsive to any entreaty or reasoning. The author moved his office, but still he haunted the old place. The landlord of the old office put him into prison called The Tombs. There Bartleby did not take any food for several days. He died in The Tombs.

This story of Bartleby’s life is profoundly tragic. It arouses in us deep sympathy for him. We ask ourselves why the man took to extreme aversion to life. He lost almost all things of life, even eating which is the only means of sustaining life. The author found him lying, on his side strangely huddled up at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, his head touching the cold stones. The author realized that Bartleby was dead and gave the philosophy which is embodied in the tragic story.

“Eh. He’s asleep, ain’t he?” “With kings and counsellors.”

The author’s hinting, at the end of the story, about the cause of Bartleby’s mental condition, does not alleviate our compassion, it rather increases our sympathy for him, and since we come to know that he is a victim, almost innocent, of the social system he had to live in. He became a sort of death-in-life existence, extremely indifferent to all sorts of things of the world. The study of Bartleby’s life profoundly influences the reader’s mind with a sense of meaninglessness of existence. It does so though he is not a great man, but an anti-hero.