What type of story is Bartleby the Scrivener? Is it tragic, or comic, romantic or realistic?


How far is Bartleby the Scrivener successful as a short story?


Do you think that Bartleby the Scrivener is a tragic or a realistic story?

BartlebyAnswer: Bartleby the Scrivener is a tragic short story told in the mode of realism. We have to discuss this question in the light of short story, tragedy and realism.

A short story is a fictional narrative in prose, ranging in length from about 500 words, to about 15000 words. A short story of about 500 words is called a short story, and that of about 15000 words is called a long short ‘story’. It has characters, incidents, and settings, though on a shorter scale. It is usually limited to a few characters, a single setting, and a single incident. It has its chief quantity a consciously crafted unity— unity of effect, tone, mood and impression. It reveals characters though usually by means of a single central and representative incident. A short story can be of the four forms— 1) tragic 2) comic 3) romantic, 4) satiric. It may be written in the mode of either realism, fantasy or naturalism.

Realism means the accurate portrayal of life or reality or verisimilitude. Verisimilitude means appearance of truth, actuality or reality.

The plot of the story Bartleby the Scrivener is tragic. It is written in the mode of realism. Bartleby is a tragic anti-hero, not in the sense of Aristotle, but in the modern sense of an ordinary man, a hero in grief, misery or disaster. It is a realistic story in which Bartleby is an ordinary ‘man who faces problems of real life.

Bartleby the Scrivener is a tragic short story. It has characters, incidents and settings on a shorter scale. Bartleby, Nippers, Ginger Nut, Turkey and the author are its characters. There is single incident of an ordinary man named Bartleby, who joined the author’s office as a scrivener. After a few days, he started refusing to do any work saying “I would prefer not to”. He ultimately died in the Tombs. All characters have been developed by means of this central and representative incident.

Bartleby is a tragic anti-hero. He does not possess heroic qualities or virtues such as idealism, courage or steadfastness like the traditional tragic heroes. He is a tragic hero in the sense that he imposes upon himself extraordinary sufferings for some mysterious reasons. His sufferings are not due to any fault in his character, or some hamartia; they are due to some mental abnormality acquired through undergoing some experiences involved in the very social system. He is a tragic hero in the sense of his self-imposed, masochistic sufferings and ultimate death.


As the story is written in realistic mode, the realistic aspects emerge from the situations into which the protagonist has fallen accidentally, in his ordinary way of life. Bartleby joined the author’s office as a clerk and did extraordinary amount of writing during the first two days. But from the third day, he began to behave abnormally. The morning he was called by the author to do a small job of examining a small paper, Bartleby surprisingly replied, “I would prefer not to”. It was strange that there was no uneasiness, impertinence or anger in his manner. 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 his conduct, and found out that he never left his assigned place in the room, lived on ginger nuts and never took any dinner. To all questions put to him he either remained silent or said, “I would prefer not to.” A few days later he gave up writing itself, which was his job. He was not malleable to any entreaty or reasoning. The author was rather compelled to move his office. But still Bartleby haunted the old place. The landlord of the old place and the new tenant called the police who put him into prison called The Tombs. Bartleby did not take any food for several days. The author went to visit him and gave the grubman some money to give good dinner to Bartleby. After a few days, the author re-visited the prison. The author found him lying on his side, his knees drawn up and head touching the cold stones. The author went close up to him, stooped over him and saw that his dim eyes were open, otherwise he seemed profoundly asleep. The author touched him, and a tingling shiver ran up his arm and down his spine to his feet. The author replied to the grubman’s words,

“Lives without dining”. Then he dosed his eyes, and murmured,

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

Bartleby was dead. The story of Bartleby’s life is definitely tragic. He lost all things of life; he even refused eating which is the only means of sustaining life. We come to know that he is a victim, almost innocent, of the social system he had to live in. He becomes a sort of death-in-life existence, extremely indifferent to all sorts of things of the world. 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. Perhaps, he became almost dead, even while he was alive, for he was deeply affected by the constant exposure of the dead letters he handled and his death speeded up.

The author gives us a hint about the cause of his strange behavior — his work in the dead letter office, but our intense feeling of sympathy for him is not alleviated. His tragedy is presented through real life situations which an ordinary man like ourselves might face in all probability.

So, Bartleby the Scrivener is clearly a tragic short story, told in the mode of realism. It has all the features of a short story. It depicts the tragic life of an ordinary man named, Bartleby, through the problems and issues of a real life situation. He lives in a society which has made him a completely isolated person and led him to undergo the state of death-in-life, and ultimately to accept death.