What Does Bartleby Symbolize? A Guide to Understanding the Symbolism in Melville’s Classic Tale

Bartleby is known as one of the most intriguing literary characters to date, yet his intended symbolization remains a mystery to many. Some say he represents a commentary on the nature of the modern workplace, while others believe he is a tragic figure reflecting the grim realities of society. Regardless of interpretation, Bartleby’s mysterious persona has intrigued readers since Herman Melville first introduced us to his peculiar character in the 19th century.

So, we must ask ourselves, what does Bartleby truly symbolize? Some scholars argue that he serves as an embodiment of the alienation and isolation felt by modern-day employees, who are often forced into rigid, monotonous routines with no regard for their emotional or personal well-being. Others argue that Bartleby is a representation of the human psyche, reflecting the deep-seated resistance to authority that resides within all of us. Regardless of what one believes, it is clear that Bartleby remains an unforgettable symbol of defiance, resistance, and rebellion.

In a world where conformity is valued above all else, Bartleby stands as a beacon of hope for those who refuse to be broken by the tides of society. His enigmatic character speaks to the defiant spirit that lies within us all, urging us to question authority and fight against the injustices of the world. So, let us explore the symbolism of this complex character and the ways in which he continues to inspire readers to this day.

Bartleby’s Introverted Nature

Bartleby, the main character in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” is known for his introverted nature. From the beginning of the story, it is clear that Bartleby is not a typical individual. He is quiet, reserved, and does not interact with his coworkers in the law office where he works as a scrivener.

His introverted nature is immediately evident when he responds to his employer’s requests with his now-famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s response comes across as uncooperative, even rude, to his employer who expects the scrivener to carry out his duties without question or hesitation.

Bartleby’s introverted nature stems from his underlying depression and disillusionment with the world around him. He is a man who has lost his passion for life and feels disconnected from society. As a result, he retreats into himself and shuns social interaction.

This introverted nature is highlighted in the story when Bartleby moves into his employer’s office and refuses to leave. His isolation from society is further manifested when he ends up in prison for his non-compliance with the legal system.

Bartleby’s introverted nature also serves as a symbol for Melville’s message about the dehumanizing effects of modern capitalism. Bartleby’s refusal to work and his general discontent are representative of the larger societal issues that can arise from a focus on profit over people.

The Significance of Bartleby’s Occupation as a Copyist

One of the most prominent aspects of Bartleby’s character is his profession as a copyist. As a copyist, Bartleby would have spent his days transcribing legal documents by hand. This seemingly mundane occupation takes on great significance as the story unfolds.

  • Symbolism of repetition: Bartleby’s job as a copyist involves repeating the same actions over and over again. This repetition serves as a metaphor for the monotony of modern life and the drudgery of the capitalist work environment. Bartleby’s stubborn refusal to continue copying has been interpreted as a form of resistance to this oppressive system.
  • Conformity vs. Individualism: Bartleby’s occupation also highlights the tension between conformity and individualism. As a copyist, Bartleby is expected to follow the rules and expectations of his employer without question. His refusal to do so represents a challenge to authority and the status quo.
  • Comparison to Melville’s own experience: Melville himself worked as a customs inspector, a job that involved tedious paperwork and repetition. It has been suggested that Bartleby’s profession reflects Melville’s own frustration with the monotony of bureaucratic work and his desire to break free from it.

Furthermore, Bartleby’s occupation is also significant in the way it contrasts with the other characters in the story. The Lawyer, Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut are all engaged in active, productive work. In contrast, Bartleby’s refusal to work stands in stark contrast to their busy activity. This highlights the contrast between the mainstream work culture and the isolated, recluse lives of those who resist it with stubborn inactivity.

In conclusion, Bartleby’s profession as a copyist plays a vital role in the story’s symbolism. It serves as a metaphor for the monotony of modern life, the tension between conformity and individualism, and Melville’s own experience with bureaucratic work. Bartleby’s refusal to engage in this work stands in contrast to the other characters in the story, emphasizing the contrast between those who conform and those who resist.

The Symbolism of Bartleby’s Physical Appearance

Bartleby, the scrivener, is not only remembered for his withdrawn and eccentric behavior, but also for his physical appearance. Herman Melville, the author of the story, uses Bartleby’s physical traits to symbolize his character and personality.

  • Black Attire: Bartleby wears black clothing throughout the story. This symbolizes his detachment from the world and his morbid nature. The color black is often associated with death and mourning, which further emphasizes Bartleby’s melancholic disposition.
  • Pallid Skin: Bartleby is frequently described as having a pallid (pale) complexion, which represents his lack of vitality and passion for life. This is also a reference to his monotonous and repetitive job as a scrivener, which has drained him of his energy and fervor.
  • Red Wall: Bartleby’s workplace has a red wall that separates him from the other workers. This red wall symbolizes the emotional barrier between Bartleby and his coworkers. Despite being physically present in the office, Bartleby is emotionally detached from his surroundings, which is reflected in the color of the wall.

Bartleby’s physical appearance is a recurring motif in the story and serves to enhance the reader’s understanding of his character. Through his attire, complexion, and surroundings, we are able to gain insight into his psychology and worldview.

Overall, the symbolism of Bartleby’s physical appearance is a crucial aspect of the story’s narrative, as it adds depth and complexity to the character and highlights the themes of isolation, detachment, and melancholy.

It is important to note that Melville’s use of symbolism is not limited to Bartleby’s physical appearance alone. Throughout the story, he employs various other symbols and motifs to convey deeper meanings and themes.

Symbol Meaning
The Dead-letter Office Represents the failure of communication and the dangers of bureaucracy
The Brick Wall Symbolizes the emotional and psychological barriers between people
The Turkey Represents the decline and degradation of the human condition

By analyzing the various symbols and motifs in Bartleby, the reader is able to gain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the story and its themes.

The relationship between Bartleby and walls

Herman Melville’s character Bartleby in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is often associated with walls. The relationship between Bartleby and walls is significant, as it symbolizes his isolation and detachment from society.

Bartleby’s preference for the dead-wall over the window is the most notable example of his relationship with walls. The dead-wall becomes a psychological window for Bartleby, as it allows him to retreat from society without completely cutting himself off from it. He spends most of his time staring at the wall, lost in thought, which is indicative of his detachment from the world around him.

  • Another example of Bartleby’s relationship with walls is his famous refusal to leave the Wall Street office. Even after he has lost his job and been evicted from the office, he continues to reside there, eventually dying in the space. This act of defiance indicates that Bartleby views the office, and its walls, as a sanctuary from the outside world, rather than a prison.
  • The physical barrier of the walls also represents the emotional and psychological barriers that Bartleby has constructed around himself. He chooses to remain behind the walls of the office, instead of venturing out and engaging with the world. This is indicative of his introverted nature and his reluctance to connect with others.
  • However, the walls of the office also represent Bartleby’s mental and emotional imprisonment. He is trapped by his own unwillingness to engage with the world, and his inability to move beyond the walls of the office suggests that he is unable to break free from this cycle of detachment and isolation.

Overall, the relationship between Bartleby and walls is a powerful symbol of his detachment and isolation from society. The walls of the office represent Bartleby’s emotional and psychological barriers, which imprison him and prevent him from moving beyond his own introverted nature. By using walls as a literary device, Melville conveys the theme of isolation and the struggle to connect with others, which is at the heart of the story of Bartleby.

(e.g. Ferriss, 2016, p. 75)

Bartleby’s stubbornness and resistance to authority

Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener” tells the story of a passive character named Bartleby who works as a scrivener for a Wall Street lawyer. Despite his meek and unassuming appearance, Bartleby defies his boss’s instructions and refuses to complete tasks. His idiosyncrasies, including his preference to repeat the phrase “I would prefer not to,” hint at the deeper symbolism that Melville intended to convey.

  • Bartleby as a symbol of passive resistance
  • Bartleby’s stubbornness as a form of protest against society’s expectations
  • The character’s refusal to conform to authority as a metaphorical rejection of capitalism

Bartleby’s passive resistance to his boss’s demands represents a refusal to be coerced into doing what he perceives as meaningless tasks. Bartleby’s preference to opt-out of his work tasks, even when given the opportunity to continue working, is a form of silent protest against the demands of his capitalist employer. Melville intended the character to symbolize the passive resistance of people who became disillusioned with the system.

Bartleby’s stubbornness is a sign of his individuality and non-conformity. His refusal to comply with his boss’s requests suggests a symbolic rejection of society’s expectations. He represents an existential hero, standing up against the forces of conformity. His rebellion is not intended to create a societal revolution, but rather, to bring attention to the ways in which conformism cause individuality and personal discovery to suffer.

Bartleby’s resistance to the authority of his employer also serves as a metaphorical rejection of capitalism and the corporate environment. The story was written during the mid-19th century, and the Industrial Revolution had upheld a system that granted the ruling class a disproportionate amount of power and control over the masses. Through the eyes of Melville, Bartleby serves as a symbol of the working class fighting against their oppressors and reclaiming their power to resist the oppressive tendencies of capitalist society.

Bartleby’s Stubbornness Bartleby’s Resistance to Authority
Sign of individuality and non-conformity Use of passive resistance as a form of protest
Suggests rejection of society’s expectations Symbolic rejection of capitalism and the corporate environment
Can be seen as an existential hero Represents the working-class fighting against oppressors

Overall, Bartleby is a complex character who embodies several symbolic meanings. His resistance to authority and stubbornness serves as a metaphor for passive resistance against the capitalist system that existed in his time. Additionally, his character stands as a critique on the ways in which modern society can be oppressive to individuality, and how it can impose demands and expectations on people that are often arbitrary and meaningless.

Bartleby’s Lack of Desire for Material Possessions

Bartleby, the protagonist in Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” represents a character who possesses a distinct lack of desire for material possessions. Throughout the story, Bartleby abstains from acquiring materialistic things, rendering himself as an enigmatic figure whose actions are difficult to comprehend. To better understand what Bartleby symbolizes in regards to his lack of desire for material possessions, let’s break it down into three subtopics:

Bartleby’s Refusal to Work for Money

  • From the very beginning, Bartleby shows a profound indifference towards money. When his employer offers him a high-paying job as a scrivener, Bartleby refuses to write any letters, thereby compromising his position.
  • When his employer, a lawyer, hires a new scrivener to replace him, Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to,” when asked to vacate the premises. This refusal to leave demonstrates his detachment from monetary gain and his unwillingness to work for profit.
  • Even when he is sent to prison, Bartleby remains uninterested in any monetary transaction that would secure his release. Instead, he dies of starvation, symbolizing his rejection of any worldly possessions, including money.

Bartleby’s Minimalistic Lifestyle

Bartleby does not just abstain from money; he also avoids any accumulation of material possessions. He lives an austere and minimalistic life, one without any extravagance or comfort. The three examples below reveal his lack of interest in acquiring anything materialistic:

  • At work, he sleeps on the floor with only a pillow and a few books as his “bed.” This shows his unwillingness to expend money on a proper bed or furnishings for his workplace.
  • His meal of choice solely consists of ginger nuts, which are a type of biscuit. These biscuits are inexpensive and can readily be found on the street, representing his lack of materialistic tastes.
  • Despite living in a bustling city, Bartleby does not engage in any social activities or pastimes. Instead, he spends most of his time standing motionless at the window, revealing his indifference towards elaborate or pricey interests.

Bartleby’s Resistance to Social Norms

Bartleby’s resistance towards social norms also serves as an indication of his disinterest in material possessions. By expressing his reluctance to perform labor for hire or follow orders from his boss, Bartleby challenges the status quo and social expectations. His defiance of social norms and materialistic ambitions is expressed through his monotonous mutterings of “I would prefer not to” and his steadfast refusal to follow prescribed paths.

A Symbol of Anti-Consumerism?

Bartleby’s lack of desire for material possessions, and his disdain for overconsumption, provides an unconventional insight into an alternative approach to life, one that emphasizes frugal and simple living without indulging in consumer culture. Some interpretations view Bartleby as a symbol of anti-consumerism, and his actions as an example of how to resist societal pressures and the demands of hyper-materialism.

Pros Cons
Encourages financial and materialistic independence Rejects lucrative career opportunities
Emphasizes living within means and avoiding excesses Suggests a bleak and isolating existence
Provides a counter-culture narrative for fighting mass consumerism Undermines the value of hard work and dedication

Bartleby, a character whose actions have often been viewed as puzzling, offers a critical analysis of consumerism and the pressures of materialism that engulf contemporary society. He suggests an alternative narrative that prioritizes contentment and simplicity, and while this narrative is not without its flaws or criticisms, it serves as a valuable reminder of the importance of questioning our relationship with material possessions.

The representation of Bartleby’s mental state

Bartleby is a character who stands out among the rest with his unique personality and behavior. His mental state is a fundamental aspect of his character, and it is what drives the story forward. In this section, we’ll explore how Herman Melville symbolizes Bartleby’s mental state through various literary devices.

  • Isolation: Bartleby’s isolation from society and his fellow colleagues at the office, represents his detachment from emotions and the world around him. He is physically present, but mentally absent. His disconnection from society also signifies his resistance to conform or engage in the norms of society.
  • Passivity: Bartleby’s passiveness and reluctance to perform his duties, suggest a lack of motivation and drive. He simply prefers not to engage in any activity requested of him. Furthermore, his repetitive response, “I would prefer not to,” indicates his inability to make decisions or assert himself.
  • Depression: Bartleby’s reclusive and somber personality is symptomatic of his depressive state. His character reflects a sense of hopelessness and despair, which seeps through his interactions with others. His inability to cope with his feelings may have been the reason for his withdrawal from society, as he perceived it as a futile attempt.

Bartleby’s mental state is also represented through the symbolism of the number seven. Throughout the story, Bartleby’s actions take place on the seventh floor, and the number seven appears frequently, such as in the form of the legal documents he copies. In numerology, seven represents completion and perfection, but also solitude and detachment. This symbolism embodies Bartleby’s character as he searches for completion and perfection in isolation, and his detachment from society stems from this search.

Bartleby’s Mental State Symbolism
Isolation Detachment from society
Passivity Lack of motivation and decisiveness
Depression Hopelessness and despair
Overall The number seven represents completion, perfection, solitude, and detachment.

Overall, it is clear that Bartleby’s mental state is a significant aspect of his character, and it is represented through various literary devices such as isolation and passivity. Symbolism also plays a vital role in representing his detachment and search for perfection through the repetition of the number seven. Melville uses these devices to paint a picture of a character who is lost and disconnected from the world around him.

The Connection between Bartleby and the Lawyer

The relationship between Bartleby and the lawyer is an intriguing one. On the surface level, Bartleby is simply the lawyer’s employee – albeit an unconventional one. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is a deeper connection between the two characters.

What Does Bartleby Symbolize?

  • Bartleby represents the human tendency towards apathy and resistance towards the demands of authority.
  • He reflects the pervasive loneliness and isolation felt by people in a modern, industrialized society.
  • Bartleby is also a symbol of the futility of the American Dream as he is unable to find a place in society despite his best efforts.

The Role of the Lawyer in Bartleby’s Life

The lawyer serves as a contrast to Bartleby, representing the active, ambitious side of humanity. However, the lawyer is not immune to the same sense of existential malaise that Bartleby experiences. He is plagued by guilt and despair as he struggles to comprehend the situation with Bartleby.

Despite this, the lawyer continues to attempt to help Bartleby. He shows a genuine concern for the wellbeing of his employee, even when it comes at great personal cost. In a way, Bartleby serves as a means of helping the lawyer come to terms with his own weaknesses and limitations.

The Importance of the Number 8 in the Story of Bartleby

The number 8 is a recurring motif throughout the story. It appears in a number of different contexts, including the address of the office building where the story takes place (Wall Street, number 8), the number of employees in the office (excluding Bartleby), and the amount of time that Bartleby spends in each of the locations where he resides.

Appearance of 8 in Bartleby the Scrivener Significance
The address of the office building (Wall Street, number 8) Symbolizes the conformity and rigidity of corporate culture
The number of employees in the office (excluding Bartleby) Represents the support system that Bartleby lacks
The amount of time that Bartleby spends in each of the locations where he resides Reflects the stagnation and repetition of Bartleby’s life

The repeated appearance of the number 8 highlights the sense of constraint and limitation that pervades Bartleby’s existence. It serves as a constant reminder of his inability to change his situation, no matter how hard he tries.

Bartleby’s isolation and loneliness

One of the most prominent themes in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville is the character’s isolation and loneliness. Bartleby is a highly peculiar and mysterious character who separates himself from the rest of the world. His isolation and loneliness serve as a symbol for the concept of alienation.

Bartleby’s isolation and loneliness can be seen in his workplace, where he distances himself from his colleagues and prefers to work alone. The narrator, a lawyer who employs Bartleby, describes him as a “pale, forlorn-looking” man who is always “singularly sedate” and “quiet,” rarely speaking to anyone in the office.

This detachment leads to Bartleby’s unwillingness to cooperate with others, which heightens the sense of his isolation. He rejects the narrator’s requests to work on certain tasks, replying continuously with the famous phrase: “I would prefer not to.” This phrase is Bartleby’s war-cry in the face of coercion and conformity, which functions as a symbol for his relentless resistance to the social norms that require him to engage in activities that he does not want to participate in.

  • Bartleby’s isolation is deeply rooted in his past and present experiences. As described by the narrator, Bartleby worked in a dead letter office where he was “friendless and alone.” His experiences have understandably left him mistrustful of society and its conventions.
  • Moreover, Bartleby is a classic example of a person who has been conditioned by a society that values productivity over individualism. His isolation allows him to rebel against this conditioning, both figuratively and literally, by refusing to work and rejecting what’s expected of him.
  • Bartleby’s isolation and loneliness are not necessarily negative. In a way, it’s an act of defiance against a system that seeks to turn individuals into cogs in a machine. Bartleby’s resistance is a symbol of individualism and the refusal to conform to social norms.

Finally, Bartleby’s isolation culminates in his death, which serves as a metaphor for society’s inability to recognize and appreciate individualism. His death marks the final triumph of social norms and the crushing of non-conformity.

Symbolism Meaning
Bartleby’s detachment from his colleagues The symbol of his isolation and aloofness
The phrase, “I would prefer not to” A symbol of Bartleby’s resistance against social norms and expectations
Bartleby’s death A symbol of society’s rejection of individualism

In conclusion, Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story of loneliness and isolation. Bartleby’s character, actions, and ultimately his death serve as a symbol for societal indifference to individualism and non-conformity. The story calls upon readers to recognize and appreciate the value of individualism rather than blindly conforming to society’s expectations.

The potential societal commentary through Bartleby’s character

Bartleby, the Scrivener, is a complex character whose actions and behaviors serve as a commentary on society during Melville’s time. Among the various themes that can be extracted from Bartleby are issues related to the workplace, capitalism, and even mental health. Here are some ways Bartleby’s character symbolizes potential societal commentary:

  • The dehumanization of labor: Bartleby is a scrivener, a monotonous job that requires him to copy legal documents by hand. His boss refers to him as a “machine” and treats him as such, failing to recognize his human needs and desires. This reflects the way in which workers were often treated as cogs in the industrial machine of the time.
  • The dangers of capitalism: Bartleby refuses to work. Despite his employer’s attempts to accommodate him, Bartleby outright rejects the capitalist system that requires him to labor for wages. This can be read as a commentary on the pitfalls of capitalism, which can often lead to worker exploitation and a disregard for humanity.
  • Mental illness and societal isolation: Bartleby’s obsession with the phrase “I would prefer not to” and his eventual confinement to prison suggest a form of mental illness. He displays behavior consistent with depression, and the way in which society handles him – by isolating him and locking him away – speaks to a societal problem in the way mental illness was treated during Melville’s time.

Bartleby’s character can be read in a number of different ways, and these readings are intertwined with the time period in which Melville was writing. Ultimately, Bartleby serves as a critique of the society of the time, and his actions and the reactions of those around him speak to a number of different societal issues.

What Does Bartleby Symbolize FAQ

1. What is the significance of Bartleby’s refusal to work?

Bartleby’s refusal to work symbolizes the disconnect between individuals and capitalism, while also representing the rejection of societal norms.

2. What does Bartleby’s copying represent?

Bartleby’s copying represents the monotony and repetition of everyday life, highlighting the boredom and meaninglessness of many jobs.

3. Why is Bartleby considered a symbol of passive resistance?

Bartleby is considered a symbol of passive resistance because of his nonviolent, yet persistent refusal to conform to societal expectations and work expectations.

4. What does the wall in Bartleby’s office represent?

The wall in Bartleby’s office represents the barriers that society creates, which can often cause people to feel trapped and demotivated.

5. How does Bartleby’s isolation symbolize the human condition?

Bartleby’s isolation symbolizes the feeling of detachment and loneliness that many individuals experience when trying to navigate societal pressures and expectations.

6. What does Bartleby’s death signify?

Bartleby’s death indicates the ultimate failure of capitalist society to properly acknowledge and care for individuals who struggle to reconcile their identities with societal norms.

7. What is the overall message of Bartleby’s story?

The overall message of Bartleby’s story is that societal pressures often suppress individuality and creativity, leading to a sense of detachment and meaninglessness in everyday life.

Closing Thoughts: Thanks for Reading!

Thank you for taking the time to read about what Bartleby symbolizes. We hope this guide has provided insight and perspective on the themes presented in this classic work of literature. Be sure to visit us again for more articles on literary analysis and interpretation.