Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Margaret Bruner, Nancy Davis, Hoyt Bowen

Degree Program

Department of English

Degree Type

Master of Arts


A study of any one of Herman Melville’s works is bound to be a fascinating and informative venture. Within the products of his prolific writing career are keen, precise, enlightening observations about nineteenth-century America. Religion, politics, business, literature, and philosophy are all within the realm of Melville’s careful consideration. Melville was a man who reacted to his world with intense curiosity and passion. Melville was also extremely introspective – searching, questioning, and examining himself with equal intensity.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” offers an interesting synthesis of Melville’s double vision. Within the confines of this tale are Melville’s reaction to his world and his reaction to himself. The purpose of this study is to examine the kaleidoscopic perspective of Melville, the complexity of his world and mind. Examining Bartleby as a simple man, a superman, and the artist in society acknowledges the complexity of Melville’s mind and art and furthers understanding of this particular story, Melville’s others works and Melville himself. Most scholarly considerations of “Bartleby” have centered on one perspective to the exclusion of all others; to do so is a violation of Melville’s purpose, plan and message.

Bartleby is, first of all, considered as a simple man, a fictitious character in a story in relation to other fictitious characters. At this level it is possible to understand how Melville used the basic elements of fiction in his story to show the broad literary motifs with which he was concerned. Within the second level of consideration Bartleby is seen as one of Melville’s supermen, a man who by virtue of his tragic vision, isolated existence, and nonmaterialistic mindset rises above the superficiality, pettiness, and mundane nature of the common man. At the third and final level Bartleby is considered as the artist in society. The autobiographical element in this consideration is extensive. Melville depicts the plight of himself and all creative individuals in modern capitalistic societies, contending that the artist is partially responsible for the intellectual salvation of the common man. The artist’s purpose or quest is to enlighten the understanding of simple men, to help them see the complexity and darkness of reality. Such enlightenment makes supermen out of simple men.

An examination of “Bartleby” at these three levels provides an extensive but not exhaustive analysis of Melville’s story. There are finer shades of meaning and more intricate nuances of thought within the story. The purpose of considering Bartleby as simple man, superman, and artist is to understand the processes of Melville’s mind, the essentials of his thought, and the recurrent patterns of imagery and allusions in his literature. It is to identify the most essential specific themes and ideas in the story and to minimize its complexity and obscurity without sacrificing the richness and depth of Melville’s thought. The study is an attempt to understand and meet Melville as far as possible on his own terms.


English Language and Literature | Literature in English, North America