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Bartleby is a short story written by a renowned author by the name Herman Melville. Around 19th century in New York, a prominent lawyer gains his living through pursuing cases in the metropolitan. In his narration, Herman intends to bring out the dehumanizing modern Wall Street workplace. The book illustrates in a precise manner how the lawyer recruits a new employee and the mystery that occurs as Bartleby eventually resist performing the necessary tasks which he had been employed to perform. It is a short story that is not easy to follow and which also leaves the leader with a lot of significant question.
The narration starts when Bartleby arrives at the lawyer’s office as a silent man who the lawyer was not interested to know about his background. After hiring him as the third scrivener, business was growing fast as he worked efficiently and performed most of the work. He didn’t take any breaks and always started work very early and was the last to leave in the evening. The author tries to show the calm nature of Bartleby and his eagerness to work. He presents this in a precise manner and illustrates the setup and conditions of the workplace.
The work of a scrivener entailed a person reading an original document while the other copied it. It reached a point where Bartleby refused to work accordingly and responded, “I prefer not to.” He gave this response without accepting to provide any explanation. Moreover, he refused to do any other work given by the narrator that the other two Scriveners could do. They felt it was unfair when their boss defended Bartleby with reasons for his unwillingness. In this section, the resistance of Bartleby is illustrated through the phrase, “I prefer not to.”
One day, the lawyer went to his office on Sunday only to discover that Bartleby used to live in the office. He realized that nobody in the workplace knew anything about Bartleby. The next day, the lawyer asked Bartley about the events that took place the previous day, but his answer was “I prefer not to.” He went to the window and didn’t perform any work even as days passed. In my suggestion, Bartleby would have been open to the lawyer and inform him that he needed a place to stay.
Later in the story, Bartleby is issued with a notice to leave the office and acquire a new accommodation, but he refused to comply. Nearly a week later, the lawyer was still wondering about his next action to take against Bartleby. The author intends to show how the lawyer got into a dilemma.
“What shall I do? I now said to myself, buttoning up my coat to the last button. What shall I do? What ought I to do? What does conscience say I should do with this man? Or rather ghost. Rid myself of him, I must; go, he shall. But how? You will not thrust him, the poor, pale, passive mortal; – you will not thrust such a helpless creature out of your door? You will not dishonour yourself by such cruelty?”(pg. 23)
Through this event, the author also intends to show the humanity perception held by the lawyer and his cowardice when he is unable to make any choice. His religious affiliation is depicted when he associates himself with the commandment to love one another. The author shows he is torn between doing what is right and what is moral. He rethinks what he is supposed to do because he didn’t know the reason behind Bartleby’s passive resistance.
The lawyer vacated into a new office leaving the stubborn Bartleby alone. Even after a new tenant rented the room, Bartleby continued to live there despite desperate persuasion to move by the lawyer and the new tenant. The lawyer decides to run from his new office so as not to face the nagging from his previous landlord on how to solve Bartleby’s scenario. Bartleby does not appear to be willing to vacate the office considering that he lacks the sole purpose to stay there and he feels he should not be answerable to anyone.
Finally, Bartleby is evacuated forcefully by authorities and sent to prison. He is offered food in jail by the lawyer, but he chooses to starve to death. Eventually, the lawyer finds out that before working with Bartleby, he worked as a clerk in Dead letter Office. (Herman, 1859)
Socialism revolution of low-class employees is captured, and the capitalist economic model is overthrown. The lawyer was a man who is presented to exploit industrial revolution. He is determined to exploit the capitalist system at all costs with his dedication to ensure middle-class workers dance to his tune. The Narrator demonstrates how John Jacob Astor (the lawyer) despises his employees by their character whereas his character is worse than theirs. At first, Bartleby is seen to be the perfect worker who follows the narrator’s requirements without asking questions; this pleases the lawyer since he thrives where he is not persuasively challenged by objective truth. I would contradict with the capitalist overthrowing since I believe Bartleby was wrong to resisting working.
The low-end people are portrayed to be taken advantage of as the capitalist economy dominates the workplace. Later, this element is withdrawn when Bartleby decline working for the lawyer and the lawyer eventually flees from the office. The middle class are portrayed to overcome the capitalist mode of operation. The rest of the Scrivener are forced to work on work that was initially provided for Bartleby; by doing the job, the lawyer fails to offer them the necessary compensation for that work. Here, the author points out how the low-class people are mistreated at the workplace.
A case of symbolism is depicted by the author in the story where he arrives at the office while going to church only to find Bartleby locked inside the office. This symbolizes Bartleby’s life as a ruin in the modern society. It also expresses how his life was closed around himself and why he did not share anything about his life to anyone.
“Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is emptiness. This building, too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!”(pg.13)
The symbolism of death is depicted by the author when he says Bartleby used to work in the Dead letter office. He later says the “letters speed to death” This symbolizes the entire life of Bartleby who was faced with events that would later lead to his demise.
“he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers anymore; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” (Pg. 30)
Wall Street also symbolizes the capitalist values held by the lawyer.
Metaphors are widely used in the story to illustrate the different aspects of our life. For instance, at the time Bartleby joined the lawyer’s office for the first time, he was driven by hunger and greed to get a job. Eventually, his desire fades, and he doesn’t want to work anymore. The metaphor illustrates how we strive to achieve something in our life only to neglect it once we get what we want.
“At first, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sunlight and by candlelight. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.”(pg. 6)
Another case of metaphor is when the author uses walls to demonstrate to live in our cocoons and how our life affects the lives of others. The walls become a barrier for people to communicate. The business environment has also been depicted by how the office was organized.
“My chambers were up stairs, at No. — Wall Street. At one end, they looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom.” And “But, if so, the view from the other end of my chambers offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction, my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spyglass to bring out its lurking beauties, but, for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window-panes. Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern.”(pg. 2)
Additionally, the walls illustrate a metaphor showing a dead end to the lawyer’s job. Glass doors are used to indicate the desire of the narrator to continue working in his office. The lawyer is a metaphor for the capitalist society while Bartleby is a metaphor for the stubborn nature of some employees in the current work environment. Melville has excellently contrasted the views of the narrator and Bartleby through showing their different stands when faced with various situations. The author makes his meaning understood by the reader through the use of figurative language features such as symbolism, metaphors, allegory and imagery.
According to the book, the story starts with Bartleby being a hardworking person and later changes and refuses to work. His response “I prefer not to.” is not accompanied by any explanation. Conclusively, the story is about the human qualities and mistakes shared by both Bartleby and the lawyer. It does not mostly view the economic aspects. Bartleby is displayed as a symbol of passive resistance whereas the narrator appears to be afraid. The scrivener shows cowardice by refusing to give reasons for not working. He died because he couldn’t face his past and adapt to the new changes. According to me, the death of Bartleby was unexpected and should not occur. I would have wished to view a scene where the lawyer becomes bankrupt and runs back to Bartleby. By this time, I see a scene where Bartleby would have accepted his past and became an amicable lawyer to offer the narrator a job. It would establish an exciting twist to see whether the lawyer would efficiently work despite their previous encounter.
Herman Melville. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. Canada, Harpen Collins Publisher. 1859 Print. p.2-30.
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