In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, the author uses several
themes to convey his ideas. The three most important themes are alienation,
man’s desire to have a free conscience, and man’s desire to avoid conflict.
Melville uses the actions of an eccentric scrivener named Bartleby, and the
responses of his cohorts, to show these underlying themes to the reader. The
first theme, alienation, is displayed best by Bartleby’s actions. He has a
divider put up so that the other scriveners cannot see him, while all of them
have desks out in the open so they are full view of each other, as well as the
narrator. This caused discourse with all of the others in the office. This is
proven when Turkey exclaims, ” I think I’ll just step behind his screen and
black his eyes for him.”(p.2411) The other scriveners also felt alienated by
the actions of the narrator. His lack of resolve when dealing with Bartleby
angered them because they knew that if they would have taken the same actions,
they would have been dismissed much more rapidly. The narrator admits to this
when he said, ” With any other man I should have flown outright into a
dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from
my presence.” (2409) The next theme is man’s desire to avoid conflict. The
narrator avoids conflict on several occasions. The first time Bartleby refused
to proofread a paper, the narrator simply had someone else do it instead of
confronting him and resolving the issue right then. By ignoring the problem, he
left the door open for more disobedience. As expected, Bartleby continued to
refuse to proofread and the narrator eventually gave up on asking him to do it.
The narrator went to great lengths to avoid a confrontation. When Bartleby
refused to leave the office after being fired, the narrator chose to move his
office to a different location instead of removing the eccentric man by force.
The narrator informs the reader of this idea when he says, ” No more then.
Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. I will change my offices.” (2422)
By doing so, the narrator displays just how far man is sometimes willing to go
to avoid conflict. The final theme is man’s desire to have a free conscience.
Melville reveals this theme through the actions of the narrator as well as the
new tenants of the office. The narrator attempts to appease his conscience by
giving Bartleby money above his wages when he fired him. The new tenants of the
office try to put the responsibility of dealing with Bartleby back on the
narrator, but they are denied and eventually have the man removed from the
premises by law officers. Herman Melville uses the actions and reactions of the
characters in “Bartleby the Scrivener” to disclose three important themes,
alienation, man’s desire to avoid conflict, and man’s desire to keep a free
conscience. In doing so, he gives us an inside look into the workings of the
human mind. The reader is left with the impression that all people, including
lawyers, have compassion for other humans, and at some point, that compassion
will show through Biblio- Heath Anthology of American Lit., Third Edition, Vol I
, Paul Lauter Ed.