Challenged to delve into the perplexities of morality, Melville avoided the more obvious superficialities and plunged determinedly into greater mysteries. For the sake of economy and speed, his output dwindled from the full-length novel to the short story, a stylistic constriction with which he never developed ease. One of the most obtuse of these short works, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” subtitled “A Story of Wall-Street,” was published for $85 in Putnam’s magazine in November and December 1853; its focus is on the dehumanization of a copyist, the nineteenth-century equivalent of a photocopy machine. Suggesting the author’s own obstinacy, the main character replies to all comers, “I would prefer not to,” thereby declaring his independence from outside intervention.
Characterized as a symbolic fable of self-isolation and passive resistance to routine, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” reveals the decremental extinction of a human spirit. Throughout Bartleby’s emotional illness, it is sheer will that supplants the necessary parts of his personality that atrophy during his tenure at the Wall Street office. The humanistic theme, which ties one of life’s winners inextricably to the pathetic demise of a loser, relegates the two central characters to a single fraternity, their shared belonging in the family of humankind. The subtle insights which give the unnamed narrator no peace also grip the reader in a perplexing examination of the nature and purpose of charity.