Aspects of Tragedy in Barttleby by Herman Melville

(1870)Composition II
July 14th, 2003
Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” depicts the final days of a law writer or scrivener and the metamorphosis that takes place within his last employer. The story begins with the lawyer/narrator giving a description of himself, his office, and his three employees: Turkey, Nipper, and Ginger-Nut the errand boy. While I describe the story that I will introduce you with, I will describe anagnorisis, one aspect of tragedy.


The lawyer then begins to explain how Bartleby first came into his office. After receiving the office of Master in Chancery the lawyer decided to hire another employee, Bartleby. He begins work and initially appears to be a perfect employee in contrast to Turkey and Nipper who are in opposite cycles with one another and are only effective for one half of the day. Bartleby is efficient and diligent and consistently turns in neat work. However, when he is first asked to do something outside of his screen walls he states, “I would prefer not to.”
The more that is asked of Bartleby the more he prefers not to do. The lawyer becomes more confused with each refusal. At first he attempts to coerce Bartleby into submission by getting the other employees to gang-up on him. He then tries to understand Bartleby’s point of view. He begins to make excuses for Bartleby. One example of this is when the scrivener finally refuses to do any work including the copying duties he once performed. The lawyer tries to reason that Bartleby’s eyesight is failing because of his previous industrious behavior.

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After Bartleby had been employed by the lawyer for a short while, the lawyer-narrator made another shocking discovery. Stopping by his office one Sunday morning the lawyer discovered that Bartleby had taken up residence in his office. The next morning the lawyer confronts Bartleby in an attempt to gain some insight into the situation. However, once again Bartleby is uncooperative and refuses to answer any questions the lawyer poses. In response to the lawyer’s pleas he simply says, “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”
The following day Bartleby decides to give up copying altogether. At this point the lawyer dismisses him and leaves his earnings of twelve dollars plus twenty dollars in severance pay. But, the next morning Bartleby still remains in his office the following day. The lawyer finally decides that the only way to rid himself of Bartleby is to relocate. Here we find anagnorisis trought the whole story because remember that anagnorisis is in literature, especially Greek tragedy, the principal characters discovery or acknowledgment of some fact that leads to the resolution of the plot. And, we see how Barttleby unfold his character in this story together with the acknowledgement of some facts that leads to the resolution of this story.


Upon returning to his office the lawyer finds a message that the authorities have been called in response to Bartleby’s vagrancy and he has been arrested. The lawyer-narrator immediately goes to visit Bartleby in the Tombs. Bartleby refuses to acknowledge the visit beyond saying, “I know you, and I want nothing to say to you.” The lawyer leaves pausing only long enough to give the proclaimed “grub-man” some silver to make sure that Bartleby is well fed while in prison. When the lawyer returns soon after he finds Bartleby in the same courtyard that he first found him near the same wall that had previously captivated his attention. But, this time Bartleby is dead.


Melville concludes his story by telling that it is rumored that before becoming a scrivener Bartleby was employed in the Dead Letter Office in Washington. He compares Bartleby’s apparent hopelessness throughout the tale to the letters which “on errands of life, speed to death.” This is not meant to give a definite reason for Bartleby’s actions but is meant to lend itself to a possible interpretation of Bartleby’s motives for shutting down. Anagnorisis is also present trough the whole story and that is why I describe the resolution. We know that Barttleby discovers the resolution of the story because he is the main character.