Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” tells the tale of the titular scrivener, a poor, strange young man whom a lawyer takes in to help take copies at his law firm. Despite things working out well at first, Bartleby soon takes to increasingly erratic and strange behavior, including refusing to proofread a document several times over. As he works less and less, and starts living at the office, the lawyer becomes worried about him, until Bartleby just gets imprisoned, only to starve to death some time later. The character of Bartleby is an interesting and enigmatic one; the mystery of his behavior is at the crux of the story. Whether or not it was just eccentricity or clinical depression, the reader and the lawyer alike wish to find out just why Bartleby gradually becomes less and less interested in doing things, to the point of not taking care of himself. In this essay, the character of Bartleby will be analyzed as both a depressive and a charity case.
If one were to look at this story for a commentary on charity and goodwill toward men, one would find a very critical appraisal of it in “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby is one of a patron and his ward – the lawyer sees how melancholy Bartleby is, and hires him in order to make himself feel productive and charitable; “To befriend Bartleby will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience” (Melville). In effect, the intention behind hiring Bartleby is fairly karmic, as he wishes to do a good deed for the sake of it.
However, this charity soon shows itself to carry little benefit to the lawyer; Bartleby does increasingly little work, and eventually just lives in the office without doing anything, all because the lawyer does not want him to starve. This kindness ends quickly as soon as it is clear that business will be affected by Bartleby’s presence, opting instead to move offices. The story’s view on charity is very pessimistic; according to Melville, trying to help someone down on their luck will often do nothing for both parties, as the person may not be overly receptive to that charity.
The reason Bartleby would “prefer not to” do a lot of things could be, in fact, due to his clinical depression. Bartleby is unmotivated, sullen, and inactive; these are all classic symptoms of depression, even to the point where he stops eating once he is in prison. He starves himself to death simply because he does not care enough about himself to take nourishment. Bartleby takes no fulfillment or initiative within the chance that the lawyer gives him, instead effectively taking the offer for granted and losing all motivation to do the work for which he was hired. Because of his depression, Bartleby is painted as a strange, odd figure that it would be best to avoid, particularly by his coworkers.
In conclusion, “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a tale both warning about the dangers of depression and the hazards that can incur when one extends their hand to help other people, often for the stereotypical need to do good deeds for selfish pride. The lawyer seeks to make himself look and feel like a benevolent soul, which starts Bartleby on this eventual ride to his own demise.