It is interesting to note the timeline of this story in accordance with Melville’s most known work, Moby Dick. Moby Dick, which was published late in 1851 and was an obviously ambitious and adventurous undertaking, did not do so well in the box-office. Deeply upset by its initial reviews, Melville began working on a novel which (as described in his little Norton bio) was a “satirical account of the U.S. literary scene in which the timid and the genteel succeed and the boldly adventurous fail (1091).” Bartleby the Scrivener first appeared in 1853, and in it one can see Melville is still critical of literary circles. Bartleby, for whatever reason, refuses to write what is expected of him, and because of this is outcasted from society. As a scrivener, Bartleby’s job is to hand-copy law reports, a task which he can (and does) do diligently, yet he refuses to verify his own copies with his co-workers. In explaining this first peculiar incident, the narrator states this to be a boring and tiresome task, admitting that he “cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document (1098).” The mention of Byron here is interesting, it can be assumed that the narrator would use him as an example for a few different reasons, one being his ‘mettlesome’ and outlandish reputation; however, the insert of a poet here hints this is no job for a creative mind. A successful scrivener, could be seen as the ‘timid and genteel’ authors Melville wished to critique in Pierre, while those who possessed real ambition, thought and creativity (so much even to refuse to ‘water down’ their own work) would be cast out and labeled insane.
If one is to assume that this story is a satire on literary communities, the role of the narrator becomes increasingly interesting. At first, I thought his behavior and opinion towards Bartleby was reflective of the way Melville wished others would view his own work. The narrator initially possess a strange admirance for Bartleby, seeing how he (in response to the narrator’s requests) “comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did (1099).” Here, the narrator acknowledges Bartleby’s intelligence, but assumes that some greater philosophical inquiry is the cause of his seemingly insane behavior. Could Melville be wishing for others to see these ‘paramount considerations’ in his own work, rather than simply labeling it as HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. As the story progresses, the narrator’s slight adimrance fades and he holds feelings of pity and responsibility for Bartleby. His pity stems from Bartleby being seemingly “absolutely alone in the universe (1107),” and later (in reference to his dead letter job) stating that he was man “by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid and hopelessness (117).” If a job a Dead Letter office would inevitably heighten his misfortunes, and a job as a scrivener didn’t seem to be his winning ticket, is there any place for someone like Bartleby (whether he be constantly pondering ‘paramount considerations’ or simply clinically depressed) to flourish? Is this some sort of statement on the industrial capitalism of the time, literary circles and critics, or anything?