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Bartleby By Milville

Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. “Ah Bartleby, Ah Humanity.”
(Page 140, Herman Melville) This is the key to Bartleby, written by Herman
Melville, for it indicates that Bartleby stands as a symbol for humanity. This
in turn functions as a commentary on society and the working world, for Bartleby
is a seemingly homeless, mentally disturbed scrivener who gives up on the
prospect of living life. However, by doing so Bartleby is attempting to exercise
his freewill, for he would “prefer not to” work. His relationship to the
narrator is thus significant, for as he attempts to exercise his freewill he is
breaking from the will of the narrator and the normal progression of life.


However, this attempt to exercise his freewill and break loose from the confines
of typical societal functions, isolates Bartleby from society, which in turn
places him in a state of depression and soon there after, death. Ultimately, by
having Bartleby “prefer not to,” Melville is commenting on the role of
humanity in the work force. If man attempts to break free of his role and
exercise his own freewill then he is severing himself from humanity which in
turn will lead to depression and perhaps death, for he will have nothing but a
wall always obstructing him. From the beginning Bartleby is isolated within the
confines of his work place. “I procured a high green folding screen, which
might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my
voice.”( pg 111) In this quotation the narrator put Arnold, Page 2 up a screen
to separate his office from Bartlebys, which isolates him from the other
members of the staff which thus isolates him from humanity. However, this is not
the end of the isolation for he is not only detached from those around him, but
society as well. “I placed his desk close up to a small side window, a window
that had originally afforded a view of certain grimy backyards, but which
commanded at present, no view at all. Within three feet of the pains was a
wall.” (pg 110-111) This quotation demonstrates Bartlebys total isolation
from society, for even his window, usually a form of escape, traps Bartelby
behind another wall, which thus reinforces absolute isolation. Ultimately, every
aspect of Bartlebys life further expounds upon the motif of solitude.

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Bartalbys attempt to exercise his freewill eventually leads him into an even
more alienated state as he estranges himself from his coworkers and his boss,
the narrator. This resulted from a refusal to follow the orders of the narrator,
for he refused to work or even communicate with him. His only response soon
became “I would prefer not to,” which shows his lack of involvement and in
turn his decision not to interact in society, for he gave up what little life he
still had. Ultimately, what he was doing, was preferring not to live, but
instead just exist. Melville, is thus commenting on the work force by
demonstrating through Bartlebys continual descend into the abysmal, society
confines you behind walls and that if you give in and choose to stop living you
will waste away as Bartleby did. Consequently, Bartleby after having alienated
himself so fully was then left to his own devices. “Since he will not quit me,
I must quit him. I will change my offices; I will move elsewhere.” (pg
132-133) He was deserted completely, for he was no longer living. Arnold, Page 3
He continued to breathe, he continued to exist, but he was no longer of any use
to society. As he severs himself from humanity, Bartleby is unaware of the
consequences. However, these consequences as displayed by Melville, comment upon
the impact that the work force can have upon mankind. Through Bartleby, he
demonstrates that once you give up on life, everyone around will give up on you
in turn, as the narrator did with Bartleby, for you have become an obstruction,
much like the walls surrounding Bartleby. In the end, his self-will was what led
him to death. For his decision to withdraw from society and further seclude
himself led to the disintegration of his soul. He lost all desire to work, or
even function, “I now recalled all the quiet mysteries, which I had, noted in
the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer.”( pg. 106) He soon
became a victim of society, loosing all initiative. Thus, “for long periods he
would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead
brick wall,” (pg 126) and this became his life. He was trapped behind a brick
wall and he soon became so disillusioned by it that he lost sight of life and
gave up. Ultimately, his will to “prefer not to” concluded in his death.


Bartleby was imprisoned because of his desire to demonstrate his free will and
never leave his office, even after it was no longer his place of employment.

“And to you, this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful
attaches to you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might
think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.”( pg 137) It is
ironic that once he is actually confined within prison walls, that he is finally
exposed to the outside world, the sky and grass. Arnold, Page 4 It is even more
ironic that once Bartleby is no longer restrained by societys conformities
that it is then that he dies. “Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his
knees drawn up, his head touching the stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby.”( pg
139) Ultimately, once disillusioned by society and the work force, he died at
his own free will because he “preferred no to” live. Bartlebys character
comments upon the functions of society and the work force. This story
demonstrates that life if not lived is useless, as in the case of Bartleby, who
wastes his away “preferring not to.” Although, from the beginning he was
isolated behind the green folding screen with nothing but a wall to stare out,
he did not have to give up his humanity. However, he chose to, he chose to
further isolate himself by his own self-will and accordingly it led to his
death. “It is dangerous to isolate oneself; dangerous for and individual and
for a nation.” (Jawaharial Nehru) For in the end, isolation can drive a person
insane, make him mute, or even kill him.

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