Throughout “Bartleby the Scrivener” Melville introduces the reader to many male characters with interesting personalities and qualities. However, despite the masculinity portrayed throughout the narrative and the exclusion of women, there is a feminine presence that destroys the notion of a pure masculine world through the character Bartleby. Melville adds feminine attributes to Bartleby to provide a radical point of view of the male-dominated workforce that emerged in the 19th century and how women impact the typical “masculine” world.
The narrator describes himself as an “elderly man” (Melville 1469) who is also “one of those unambitious lawyers…an eminently safe man” (Melville 1470), and in a way this character is an extension of Melville himself. He owns a business that operates in Wall-Street and maintains the status-quo of a typical office environment of a capitalist society. The lawyer avoids conflict with his employees, who have less than favorable qualities, but believes them to be assets to his business. The narrator states that “[t]heir 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” (Melville 1474). Turkey was proficient at his job until twelve o’clock, where his face “blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals” (Melville 1470) and his work would suffer until the end of the day. He is obnoxious, has a temper, and dresses poorly. The lawyer described him as having “clothes [that] were apt to look oily and smell[ed] of eating-houses” (Melville 1473). Nippers is a young man that is “the victim of two evil powers- ambition and indigestion” (Melville 1472), the latter which caused him to be irritable and fidgety throughout the day until the afternoon, where his efficiency increased. He is “always dressed in a gentlemanly sort of way” (Melville 1473). Ginger Nut is a young boy who is sent to the office to become a student of law but is mostly used as an errand boy to bring ginger nut cakes to Turkey and Nippers. These secondary characters are an asset to the lawyer’s business, which is why he keeps them employed. However, there is little knowledge of these characters beyond a working relationship.
Bartleby is employed soon after his interview and works more diligently and proficiently than the other employees. It’s noticeable that the lawyer gives Bartleby special treatment compared to the other employees. Bartleby is described as having a soft-spoken voice that sounds like “a flute-like tone” (Melville 1476), as well as pale skin. These are traditionally feminine qualities used by writers during this time, and it could be the reason why the lawyer was infatuated with him in the beginning. The office was “divided…into two parts, one of which was occupied by [his] scriveners, the other by [himself]” (Melville 1474), which portrays the hierarchy within the workplace and how disjointed the office is. The lawyer “assign[ed] Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on [his] side of them” (Melville 1474) but installs a temporary wall “which might entirely isolate” (Melville 1475) Bartleby until he is needed. On the third day, and on every occasion after that, when the lawyer wants him to examine a document or do something for him Bartleby replies “in a singularly mild, firm voice… “I would prefer not to”” (Melville 1475). He is unable to comprehend why Bartleby constantly resisted completing any tasks assigned to him, yet avoids disciplining him, using the excuse “more business hurried me” (Melville 1477). He becomes confused about his superiority, “begins to stagger in his own plainest faith” (Melville 1477), and defers to the secondary characters Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut on their opinions on how Bartleby should act.
The only time a woman is recognized directly in the story, is when the lawyer mentions his housekeeper. He says, “…there were several keys to my [office] door. One was kept by a woman residing in the attic, which person weekly scrubbed and daily swept and dusted my apartments” (Melville 1480). There are no other details to describe her, yet he gave her the first key to the office. This symbolizes a type of authority she now holds in a masculine world. Eventually it is discovered that Bartleby holds the fourth key and holds the same authority as the housekeeper. Bartleby is also living in the office.
The lawyer expresses conflicting feelings towards Bartleby. First, he supports him and his feministic traits, but after pressure from society he “was made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature I kept at my office. This worried me very much” (Melville 1489).