Law in Contemporary Society

The Love Song of Bartleby the Scrivener

-- By DanielChung - 04 May 2012

Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" is a love story--a story literally about the meaning and expression of love. Law school has taught me little about love so far. Once in a while, I stumble across the ghosts of justice, fairness, equality, kindness, compassion, sympathy, empathy, and pro bono, but the ghost of love, I have yet to meet. Perhaps love is an inappropriate subject for law school--too fluffy and unprofessional. I would prefer not to think this way. Fighting for justice and fairness is necessary but not sufficient for meaningful change in our world. Melville's "Bartleby" reminds us that love for others and for humanity should inform our legal work. Melville presents us with at least three different conceptions of love and challenges us to embrace humanity fully and palpably, not just with lofty notions of social justice but with our hearts and hands.


Love's most natural opposite is hate, but Melville presents a more nuanced opposite: using other people. As an employer, the narrator of "Bartleby" obviously uses Bartleby and others as scriveners in the office. However, this economic use is not the target of Melville's criticism. Instead, Melville focuses on the narrator's using Bartleby to purchase catharsis and righteousness. As the narrator admits, "[Bartleby] is useful to me...Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience." Even when Bartleby repeatedly refuses to do the narrator's bidding, the narrator tolerates the insubordination and marvels at his own magnanimity. The narrator's use of Bartley is more problematic than open hatred or contempt because it lulls the narrator into a false sense of self-righteousness. The harm is less visible and thus more justifiable. In fact, the narrator believes that keeping Bartleby in his current capacity is proper because Bartleby would otherwise receive harsh mistreatment from other employers. Melville's juxtaposition of loving others and using others reminds us aspiring lawyers that our clients and fellow lawyers are not pawns on our social justice chessboard.

So far it's not his juxtaposition, it's yours. You haven't shown him talking about love at all.

We should not use people for our selfish gain or seemingly selfless causes. Instead, we should unite our interests with others and work toward common goals as fellow human beings whose fates are intertwined.

This tendency to conclude a paragraph on a platitude is also yours rather than Melville's.


Although Melville recognizes that actions can express love, he avoids the temptation to conflate doing good for others with loving others. In fact, Melville reveals that good actions cannot replace love but can often lead to complacency. For example, the narrator in "Bartleby" eventually transitions from tolerating and using Bartleby to pitying and helping Bartleby. The desire for catharsis mutates into a desire for charity. Inspired by a "fraternal melancholy" and convinced that Bartleby is "the victim of innate and incurable disorder," the narrator resolves to "give alms to [Bartleby's] body." Although the narrator claims that the divine injunction to love others motivates his charity and philanthropy, his actions belie his words.

In what way?

Charity and philanthropy are merely cheap substitutes for genuine love.

That's odd, considering the etymologies. How do you know?

For the narrator, Bartleby is ultimately a burden--something to quit rather than someone to love. Even the seemingly selfless action of inviting Bartleby to his own home is merely a stopgap to preserve his reputation. Having fulfilled his soi-disant duty, the narrator slides into complacency: "I now strove to be entirely care-free and quiescent; and my conscience justified me in the attempt." And with a few silver coins, the narrator transfers custody of Bartleby into the hands of the grub-man.

So which part of the love story is this? And do you mean a story of unrequited love, or do you mean that Bartleby also, or particularly, loves?

As aspiring lawyers, we should not grow complacent simply because we do good in the world or do extensive pro bono work. Loving our work is important, but as Melville reveals, loving people is even more important. We should avoid the temptation to substitute acts of kindness and justice for genuine and loving relationships. Doing good and loving others are not mutually exclusive, but they do not always come together.

Why bring these platitudes, which I very much doubt Melville "reveals," in here? Are you actually asserting that they are Melville's ideas about the story he is telling? How does the text bring you to that conclusion?


Togetherness--being together--is at the core of Melville's conception of love in "Bartleby." To be with is to love. Melville reveals that physical presence is an important aspect of togetherness. Like a ghost, Bartleby haunts the narrator's office and is always there "first in the morning, continually through the day, and the last at night." While everyone else around him works incessantly, Bartleby prefers not to work and simply exists and is present.

So is Bartleby loving, seeking to be loved, reproaching the narrator for not loving him? How do you come to your conclusion? Where in the text do you gain support?

Although the narrator believes that Bartleby suffers from "miserable friendlessness and loneliness," Melville reveals that the narrator's solitude is just as extensive, if not worse. Physical proximity to people is not enough: even though the narrator surrounds himself with eccentric workers, he never touches their lives directly and suffers from relational bankruptcy. Whereas the narrator is constantly occupied by work, Bartleby constantly occupies the narrator's life--constantly waiting for the narrator to stop and to be with Bartleby. As the narrator admits, "Since [Bartleby] will not quit me, I must quit him." Only after successfully quitting himself of Bartleby does the narrator yearn to be with Bartleby. And only after touching Bartleby's dead body does the narrator belatedly experience the intimations of love.

How do you find that in the text?

Love, as Melville presents it, is a relational and connected state of existence. We exist together in unity with those we love. Melville challenges us to be there for our clients--physically listening to them and touching their lives concretely. Our words as well as our presence--our very being--enable us to effect change in the world.

This is an interesting reading without actual contact with the text. Your quotations are solely for matters of exposition; you do not show how the language of the writer develops the particular emotional readings you want us to take away. As with your other draft, there's a tendency to offer some thumping platitude at the end of each paragraph, like a sententious moral.

Let us suppose Bartleby is a love story. How do we show that from the text? What sort of love is involved, who loves, is the love returned, etc? If we can have an explication of the proposition in relation to the text, we will then be in a position to appreciate, as literary criticism calls upon us to do, what the author has intended to do in his writing, and how he has accomplished it. We can also, if we are lucky and well-guided, learn something about the nature of love that we didn't know before.


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r9 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:09:51 - IanSullivan
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