Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Morality and Ethics

By Herman Melville

Morality and Ethics

I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. (1)

This rather surprising assertion leads us to immediately question the morality of the Narrator – after all, "easy" doesn't always mean "good," unfortunately.

Nippers […] was a whiskered, sallow, and upon the whole rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers – ambition and indigestion. (9)

We begin to form some idea of the Narrator's personal ethics here; his judgment of Nippers's discontented ambition makes it clear that he thinks people should simply go through life uneventfully, as he does.

It is not seldom the case that, when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind. (29)

Here, the Narrator offers a description, in a nutshell, of how ethics often work – simply by a process of general consensus. In seeking the advice of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, he hopes to determine what is "just" and "right."

Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary […] if I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby, to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. (35)

Oh, interesting…the "moral" impulse we recognize here in the Narrator turns out to have a slightly sordid edge of self-serving satisfaction. We have to wonder how much of "morality" is actually motivated by this kind of desire.

up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul be rid of it. (56)

The Narrator, perhaps in some bid to excuse his own inability to help Bartleby, tries here to convince us that perhaps morality and moral responsibility only stretch so far – and when it's obvious that there's nothing to be done, we might as well give up trying to help. Hmm…

Aside from higher considerations, charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle – a great safeguard to its possessor. (93)

Again we see the Narrator's interestingly pragmatic approach to morality rear its head; he seizes upon charity as a mode of self-preservation, rather than genuine goodwill.

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. (99)

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a right or wrong answer to these questions. The Narrator, whose confusion is evident in his Yoda-like syntax, isn't alone in his uncertainty over what to do with Bartleby – honestly, what would you do?

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity! (131)

This final cry of desperation expresses the almost inexpressibly complicated emotions that run through the end of the story – guilt, pity, sadness…and a certain anxiety for the rest of humanity.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...