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The Theme Of Human Mental Instability In The Story Bartleby The Scrivener

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Bartleby the Scrivener, written by Herman Melville explores the harsh reality of mentally unstable people in environments that are not conducive to their well-being. Bartleby shows what happens when someone with mental health issues has gone through a negative experience and then is forced into another because one cannot live without working. The story is set in a law office during the 1850s right after the end of the industrial revolution which created many jobs, but many of those jobs were very labor-intensive and repetitive. We are introduced to the characters in the office from the perspective of our narrator. Bartleby is mentally unstable due to his past and present work experiences and is not adequately cared for in time, he shows what happens when someone is in need of help but gets it too late.

After Bartleby’s job position is replaced in the “dead letter office,” a place where letters go that have nowhere else to go. Bartleby is then hired by our narrator and becomes a scrivener, someone who copies law and court-related papers. The narrator and his team work out of a small office on wall street, throughout the beginning story we get to know the other members of the office. Starting with Nippers who is described as constantly complaining in the morning about the height of his desk among other things, yet chipper and bright in the afternoon. Turkey is the oldest member of the office, and also the complete opposite of Nippers in that he works best in the morning and has a short temper in the afternoon. Ginger Nut, constantly running on errands generally fetching ginger nut cake, hence the name. He’s a young boy studying to become a lawyer, his father volunteering him so as to become more acquainted with the law profession. Last is Bartleby the most recent hire, we aren’t told much about his previous life, all we are told is that he used to work in the Dead Letter Office, sifting through letters that would never reach their destination. Bartleby tends to spend his time at the office blankly staring at a blank wall belonging to a neighboring building through a window. All of these members that work with Bartleby never once tried to support Bartleby outside of work-related matters.

The reason Bartleby is so absent from his work and life is because of his mental state after being replaced in his previous job. The narrator mentions Bartleby’s past employment at the “Dead Letters Office,” this fact gives us a lot of incite about what causes Bartleby to act the way he does. The Dead Letters Office is where letters go that no longer have a location or person where it was addressed and also had no return address, more often than not the person who was to receive the letter has died. Having to sift through these letters a day in and day out, that are incinerated shortly after he reads them, can have a profound effect on someone especially if they are already mentally unstable. Bartleby would look through letters all day that were then burned if they in fact had no were to go, showing the pointless repetitive nature of his job. “The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me.” This quote is from the final portion of the story. Had the narrator realized the effect working at the office had on Bartleby, the narrator might have treated him differently when he showed repeated signs of negligence. The narrator would not have left the Bartleby on his own no matter the effects that Bartleby had on him.

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The green screen the narrator puts between his desk and Bartleby’s is symbolic of the boss not wanting to be attributed to the employee’s work yet still being in reach and being able to hear them. The narrator put Bartleby in a position where there is a window that used to be a view into the backyard but because of recent and constant construction, all he can see is a brick wall. Construction shows the ever constent changing of the environment around Bartleby that he cannot keep up with. Bartleby is constantly surrounded by walls and he also never really seems to want to leave the comfort of isolation. By the end of the story, he is literally in the most walled-off place you can be, a prison. The following is a quote from when the narrator first visits Bartleby in the prison. ‘The yard was entirely quiet. It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew underfoot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the lefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.’ There are many ways to unpack this quote from near the end of the story. Although there are walls on every side there is still grass and flowers showing nothing is entirely walled off from the outside world. The narrator is constantly putting Bartleby behind these walls, either intentionally or unintentionally because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with him until he finally understands Bartleby when he sees him in the jail. He separates himself from Bartleby when he most needed someone close.

Bartleby is described as being a hard worker in the beginning, but toward the end is when his work ethic begins to change for the worst. “At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.” As our heart begins to die the beat turns into a constant, mechanical rhythm much like the way Bartleby works at the beginning. After constantly working at his last job in the Dead Letters Office he is burnt out mentally and physically so he works constantly, not stopping, until one day his heart slows down to a point that Bartleby has trouble even trying to do simple tasks. This state should have been obvious to the other works and narrator but nobody cared enough to help.

When asked to do something he would always reply with an “I would prefer not to.” The first time the narrator hears this he is flabbergasted and doesn’t know the proper response. One day the narrator comes to the office and finds that Bartleby has been living there. Due to his repeated unwavering response and Bartleby’s living situation in the office our narrator decides not to fire him, but to move offices abandoning Bartleby alone. Giving him six days and some money to leave, Bartleby decides not to leave, but to stay in the office eventually resulting in him being taken to the “tombs,” or a prison. The narrator visits Bartleby bringing food and requesting special treatment for Bartleby. After returning to the prison a second time he finds that Bartleby has starved to death despite the food that was gifted to him. It is here, at the end of the story that Bartleby is finally adequately taken care of by the narrator, given food and comfort. Then he leaves Bartleby alone for a week just when he started to trust and have faith in the narrator this causes him to end his own life.

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The Theme Of Human Mental Instability In The Story Bartleby The Scrivener. (2021, August 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-human-mental-instability-in-the-story-bartleby-the-scrivener/
“The Theme Of Human Mental Instability In The Story Bartleby The Scrivener.” Edubirdie, 16 Aug. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-human-mental-instability-in-the-story-bartleby-the-scrivener/
The Theme Of Human Mental Instability In The Story Bartleby The Scrivener. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-human-mental-instability-in-the-story-bartleby-the-scrivener/> [Accessed 5 Dec. 2022].
The Theme Of Human Mental Instability In The Story Bartleby The Scrivener [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 16 [cited 2022 Dec 5]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-theme-of-human-mental-instability-in-the-story-bartleby-the-scrivener/
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