The Divine Puzzle of the Human Enigma

An essay by Malcolm Kennedy, Grade 11

The story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville is an Everyman story in its premise of divine intervention in the life of a man set in his ways, but it is more human and more untidy in its conclusion than the primarily binary outcomes of the Morality Plays. Bartleby paints a beautiful but ultimately tragic story of a man’s encounter with an impassable barrier around the character Bartleby, and of the consequences of being trapped outside of it as well as in.

The lawyer in Bartleby is an Everyman character, since he is the reader’s only portal not only into the goings on of the story, but also into their significance. The reader sees the mysterious tale of Bartleby through the lawyer’s cataracts, and because of the depth and quality of the explanations that the lawyer gives, the lawyer’s and reader’s experiences are near identical. This leaves very little room for dissent from the lawyer’s story and views. The story of Bartleby is what he makes it out to be. The reader follows the lawyer’s thirst for knowledge throughout the story, and shares the disquietude that builds as the walls around Bartleby only further solidify our (and the lawyer’s) attempts to tear them down.

The lawyer is, prior to Bartleby’s arrival, a man who advocates reason, and believes firmly in its ubiquitous reliability and superiority. As he informs us at the beginning of the story, he is “an eminently safe man”. He is confident in his comprehension of the world’s and society’s workings. Being confronted with an enigma is a foreign concept to the lawyer. As he explains in the first part of the story, he has, over the course of his employment of his original two copyists, discovered their peculiarities and he takes pride in his accommodation thereof: “Their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances.” (par. 13) During his negotiation with Turkey over his working hours that he includes in his introduction to the character, he feels in control of the situation and steers it towards a smooth conclusion: “This appeal to my fellow-feeling was hardly to be resisted. At all events, I saw that go he would not. So I made up my mind to let him stay, resolving, nevertheless, to see to it, that during the afternoon he had to do with my less important papers.” (par. 10) The lawyer has a great sense of security in his comprehension of the people around him, and it is this need to understand which, more than a need to control, later violently collides with the enigmatic Bartleby.

The shared ground between narrator and reader in Bartleby extends beyond knowledge to emotional experience. The lawyer is faced with the challenge of reconciling his total lack of sympathy for Bartleby with the unconscious urges he has to treat Bartleby with compassion. The pity felt by the lawyer in the earlier part of the story is infectious (towards the reader) at moments like the lawyer’s discovery that Bartleby has been residing in the office. But the feelings of pity never make the transformation into empathy because the walls around Bartleby never come down, as the reader and the lawyer hope, but are only further fortified as Bartleby’s actions become more and more unyielding and inexplicable. The lawyer’s inability to alter Bartleby cognitively or behaviourally, alongside the reader’s parallel inability to comprehend them, eventually lead to a transformation of pity not into empathy but into repulsion and fear: “My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.” (par. 93) The reader easily follows suit, though Bartleby exhibits nothing but the gentlest of behaviour. This shift in sentiment is due to the isolation of Bartleby’s mind from the world, not to the simultaneous shift in Bartleby’s behaviour (stopping work for good), although this does provide the context in which the unsettling attribute arises: “For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.”(par. 89)

The enigma that leads to the narrator’s emotional transformation and eventually his intense desire to be rid of Bartleby is encapsulated in Bartleby’s preference. Bartleby’s driving preference is analogous to the divine intervention seen in morality plays. Bartleby’s preference is immovable, as the lawyer discovers after his first few attempts to work his way around it, and impenetrable. This impenetrability has a more profound effect upon the lawyer than the immovability. The subtle difference between preference and conduct is one that destroys the narrator’s sense of comprehension of the world. The lawyer, unable to comprehend the implications of Bartleby’s abstention, is so bewildered that he has nothing to say and decides “to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure” (par. 25) upon several occasions. Bartleby is so firm in his refusal to adhere to the laws of reason to which the lawyer is accustomed that his arrival is a kind of divine intervention into the life of the lawyer. This abrupt and ineluctable confrontation of the lawyer’s values and worldview by Bartleby causes immense change in the narrator.

The effects of Bartleby’s arrival at the office of the lawyer are twofold: the lawyer is greatly affected morally as well as emotionally. The process of trying to understand Bartleby instils in the author a more charitable outlook. Whereas before the narrator had been largely ignorant of the unhappiness around him in the world, he says: “Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.(par. 89)”. This moral dimension to the change in the lawyer’s character draws the role of Bartleby in the story closer to that of Good Deeds in The Summoning of Everyman.

However, this view of Bartleby as a divine entity carrying a purpose and designed specifically to incite conflict and change in the lawyer, as tempting as it may be, contradicts the very humanity with which the lawyer is confronted and which incites pity towards Bartleby.  The lawyer himself, when he is not feeling revulsion towards Bartleby, allows himself at one point to feel a kind of reverence: “Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom”. (par. 167)The tragedy in Bartleby’s story lies in his transformation from man to symbol that he undergoes in the reader’s eyes. As hard as we try to empathize with Bartleby, this goal is never realized. Thus the reader is so consumed by the enigma of Bartleby as seen by the lawyer that Bartleby’s death fails to signify anything more than the tragedy of an unopened letter cast onto the fire; the reader does not mourn for the loss of Bartleby’s life, but rather for that of the secrets that died with him. In this way the confrontation of the lawyer’s undying confidence in and thirst for knowledge is a failure. The divine puzzle of the human enigma leaves shivers running down our back, but no tears on our cheek.


Herman Melville. Bartleby, the Scrivener. 1853. Online edition, published July 1999 by

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s