The first theme, alienation, is displayed best by Bartleby’s actions. He has a divider put up so that the other scriveners cannot see him, while all of them have desks out in the open so they are full view of each other, as well as the narrator. This caused discourse with all of the others in the office. This is proven when Turkey exclaims, ” I think I’ll just step behind his screen and black his eyes for him.”p.2411 The other scriveners also felt alienated by the actions of the narrator. His lack of resolve when dealing with Bartleby angered them because they knew that if they would have taken the same actions, they would have been dismissed much more rapidly. The narrator admits to this when he said, ” With any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence.” 2409
The next theme is man’s desire to avoid conflict. The narrator avoids conflict on several occasions. The first time Bartleby refused to proofread a paper, the narrator simply had someone else do it instead of confronting him and resolving the issue right then. By ignoring the problem, he left the door open for more disobedience. As expected, Bartleby continued to refuse to proofread and the narrator eventually gave up on asking him to do it.
The narrator went to great lengths to avoid a confrontation. When Bartleby refused to leave the office after being fired, the narrator chose to move his office to a different location instead of removing the eccentric man by force. The narrator informs the reader of this idea when he says, ” No more then. Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. I will change my offices.” 2422 By doing so, the narrator displays just how far man is sometimes willing to go to avoid conflict.
The final theme is man’s desire to have a free conscience. Melville reveals this theme through the actions of the narrator as well as the new tenants of the office. The narrator attempts to appease his conscience by giving Bartleby money above his wages when he fired him. The new tenants of the office try to put the responsibility of dealing with Bartleby back on the narrator, but they are denied and eventually have the man removed from the premises by law officers.
Herman Melville uses the actions and reactions of the characters in “Bartleby the Scrivener” to disclose three important themes, alienation, man’s desire to avoid conflict, and man’s desire to keep a free conscience.
In doing so, he gives us an inside look into the workings of the human mind. The reader is left with the impression that all people, including lawyers, have compassion for other humans, and at some point, that compassion will show through.