Oppressed or Just Plain Lazy? Melville Explains

Have you ever had a colleague who lacked work ethic? Or perhaps you have done this yourself, and by “this” I mean foregone all duties simply because you did not feel like it. In Herman Melville’s, Bartleby, The Scrivener, Melville writes about a wall street lawyer who hires a new clerk without knowing the clerk would soon refuse to make copies or complete any other tasks asked of him.

Figure 2 by Figure 2 by Gaston Cavalleri

In the contemporary workplace, an attitude/response such as Bartleby’s would not be tolerated, and would most likely result in termination. Critics have considered that Bartleby’s character represents oppression. When considering the topic of oppression, one could conclude that Melville uses Bartleby’s apathy to display how scriveners and other working-class members of society are taken advantage of. The economy of the country at the time relied on the security of the working-class, though they were voiceless in concerns of the wealthy. Bartleby, in this case, would have been oppressed by mundane tasks that he is disobliged to complete. In short, this could be understood as the plight of the working-class.

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Figure 1 Writer’s Digest

On a surface level, Bartleby is a man forgotten by time. With his profession on the brink of obsolesce, he loses all sense of purpose; he eventually dies destitute because of this. Readers can better understand the story by finding it in pop-culture. In 2001, film director Jonathan Parker adapted the story for the screen in the Indie-dramedy, Bartleby, starring Crispin Glover. The movie is a comic portrayal of the 1853 classic. Readers may also notice characters like Bartleby in other contemporary television shows such as Garfield, or in the sense of apathy due to oppression, Rosario from Will and Grace.  


So how do you, as an educator, instruct students using a story such as Bartleby’s? Students can translate a passage from the story into their own modern-day language. This will help students develop their narrative skills as well as the use of rhetorical devices to compose their interpretation. Students will have to determine if they feel Bartleby was lazy or oppressed, and then center their characters off of that analysis.

Keep in mind that the story delves deeper than the lesson permits secondary students to grasp. Therefore, outside of class-time reading should be encouraged, as well as a re-read of the story’s entirety after discussing its details.


End Review.

You might also enjoy:
The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
In Pop Culture:
Bartleby [film]

Works Cited:
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym, 8th ed., W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., Inc., 2014, pp. 1484-1509.

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