Although Bartley in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener may be an odd character who prefers not to do seemingly simple tasks, the narrator of the story is not much different. Bartley outwardly projects his preferences to the narrator, whereas we, as readers, are made aware of the preferences of the narrator by reading and analyzing his thoughts. The narrator’s inability to see his own unambitious nature is a criticism of the failure of people in society to do something meaningful with their lives.
In the beginning of the story, the narrator explains that he is a man who tries to find the easiest way through life. He states, “I am a man who, from his youth upward, has been filled with a profound conviction that “the easiest way of life is the best” (20). It is easy to observe this conviction throughout the rest of the story. In his dealings with the two other employees, the narrator decides that their eccentricities are not enough reason to fire them because it is easier to just get used to their personalities. In addition, the first time Bartleby states that he “prefers not to” do something, the narrator decides that it is easier to not question his disobedience at that present time. He thought to himself, “This is very strange. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure” (25). Similarly, the narrator prefers to take the easiest route to accomplish any act. He even moves out of his own office building because he thought that it would be easier to leave the premises than find a way to remove Bartleby.
Bartleby’s lifestyle seems to follow the same conviction of the narrator. Bartleby lives his life without any ambition; he gets by the easiest way he can by passively resisting the demands of the narrator. Although the narrator criticizes Bartleby for his passive resistance throughout the story, the narrator is unable to see his own passive aggressive behavior. The narrator’s failure to address his own faults before pointing out the faults of others may be a social commentary on humanity. Perhaps Melville is asking his readers to look inside themselves in order to find out what they want and don’t want to do so that they may find something meaningful to do with their lives. Perhaps Melville does not want us to end up like dead letter mail: something unique and valuable with nowhere to go.