Study Guide

The Narrator in Bartleby the Scrivener

By Herman Melville

The Narrator

The Narrator is just a guy. He's not a particularly likeable or fantastic guy, nor is he an unusually malevolent one. No, he's just…well, just a dude who's going about his life in the easiest way possible. Not unlike Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, this guy simply abides. He's moderately successful lawyer, and seems to have gained some professional standing just by being dependable, rather than brilliant or particularly ambitious. The Narrator's measure of success can be charted by his position – he's a Master of the Chancery Court, a State-appointed position that demonstrates that he must have a pretty good reputation, and probably has a friend or two in high places. However, he doesn't seem to work all that hard at his rather prestigious job, and his stress level (until Bartleby comes along, that is) is pretty darn low.

Personally speaking, we don't know much of anything about the Narrator. He seems to be alone but not too lonely; there's no mention of family or friends, and his job and daily routine seem to be all that matter to him. In terms of character, he's just an average Joe, who's generally kind, sympathetic, and contains some garden-variety flaws (a hint of arrogance, a big dollop of passive aggression). He's a bit of a name-dropper, which we observe early on when he brags about his relationship with famed business mogul John Jacob Astor, but other than that, he doesn't seem to have any particularly dramatic bad qualities. His biggest problem is his major, major issue with confrontation, which displays itself prominently in his treatment of – or rather, by – his various employees.

First of all, we learn that he puts up with two genuinely terrible clerks, Turkey and Nippers, apparently because he can't be bothered to fire and replace them. The Narrator seems to back down from all confrontation, and rationalizes it rather ridiculously; this shows us that the Narrator is unaware of his own weakness in this area. It is this inability to confront problems directly that gets him into this pickle with Bartleby; he can't even bring himself to force Bartleby out of the office, and instead picks up and moves his whole practice to another building in order to escape conflict. If that's not avoidance, we don't know what is.

While the Narrator certainly has some issues to work through regarding communication and standing up for himself, he does have a number of admirable qualities. Foremost among them is his capacity for sympathy; the Narrator remains rather oddly sympathetic to the enigmatic and frustrating Bartleby throughout the story. He also has a profound sense of personal responsibility, which drives him to keep checking in on Bartleby. Even though the ex-scrivener is no longer his employee, the Narrator can't help but feel responsible for the guy. This genuine sense of human compassion is what ultimately makes the Narrator a character we can identify with, despite his flaws. We have to wonder if the Narrator's sympathy for Bartleby has to do with his own fears about ending up alone forever – something that most of us can understand, especially as we get older.

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