An Essay on Characterization based on Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

To be able understand Melville’s method of characterization one must first understand what characterization is. Characterization is the way a writer brings a character to life by depicting the characters appearance, displaying the thoughts of the characters, and showing the interactions between the characters. One must also take notice of what is said and done by the characters along with what is not done or said. It is also necessary to take note of the setting in which the story is being told, the time which the story is written. The setting can have a significant part in the way an author portrays the characters. It is these things brought together that help bring a story to fruition.

The characters in Herman Melville’s book, Bartleby, the Scrivener are distinctive. It is through the author’s precise choice of words that we learn about each character. In the first part of the book, the narrator states, “Ere introducing the scrivener, as he first appeared to me, it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employees, my business, my chambers, and general surrounding; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.” It is out of this passage, that the reader learns that the narrator recognizes the importance of characterization. We also learn that the characters and their surroundings will play a role in the telling of the story. By listing the things he will be illustrating, the narrator gives the reader an indication that attention will need to be paid to fully grasp the characters and appreciate the detail the author is providing.

The narrator plays a major role in the story not just as the medium through which the story is told but also as a character. It is through indirect characterization that the narrator tells the story. Indirect characterization is the process of telling a story by leaving out clear-cut details. The narrator does not give specific details like; Bartleby’s hair is brown instead the story is told through the narrator’s rapport with Bartleby and the other characters. For example, when the narrator describes Turkey as, “A short, pursy Englishman” the author is making use of indirect characterization. The narrator does not give specifics but gives ambiguous details. It is due to the use of indirect characterization that the reader is dependent on the narrator to learn about the array of intriguing characters presented.

The author’s diverse portrayals of the characters bring out the variants in them. Bartleby is an, “incurably forlorn” and “sedate” round character with few traits depicted. The two secondary foil character were Turkey who was “inflamed, flurried” and displayed a “flighty recklessness” and his compatriot Nippers who was a “temperate young man” with a “brandy-like disposition” often had differing moods. The use of the foil characters is the best way the narrator can illustrate Bartleby to the reader. By showing the circumstances behind the exchanges between the characters, the narrator succeeds in telling about Bartleby without requiring him to reveal personal details about him. The use of distinctive characters allows for a diverse picture to be developed while allowing individual characters to stand out. The characters as a whole bring the plot together and aid the narrator’s objective to tell about the life of Bartleby.

The characters and narrators reactions are used as a gage in which to interpret the eccentricity of Bartleby. Bartleby’s defiance to his superior’s requests to proofread his own copy work is told through the responses of his fellow scriveners and demonstrates the use of the characters in telling the story. Bartleby’s refusal to answer any of the questions about his past solicited by the narrator demonstrates his bizarre personality further. The narrator’s reaction to Bartleby’s refusal to vacate the office is for the narrator to move the office verse forcing Bartley to leave. It is in continuous obscure situations that the reader is made aware of the narrator’s point of view of Bartleby. We get into the mind of the narrator where we hear the thoughts in his head relating to the events. The narrator uses simple thoughts in first person as a means of linking the reader to the characters. By using this method, the reader is able to get into the mind of the narrator and does not have to question the narrator’s motives. Everything a reader would need to relate to the narrators responses to Bartleby are directly displayed in his judgments and choices.

To inform the reader about Bartleby, the author uses both vague and vivid measures to engage the reader in the story. The beginning of the book advises that, “Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original source” through the course of the book, we learn that the narrator is the source. Bartleby personally does not give details about his life he merely states he would prefer not to. Learning the narrator came to know Bartleby by placing an advertisement for employment only cements the fact that the narrator does not know much about Bartleby’s past. Bartleby’s continues refusal to indulge the narrator with any tidbit about his life further dictates the narrator’s lack of information about Bartleby.

With so much of the inner thoughts of the narrator known, you might begin to wonder whom this story is about. Is it about Bartleby’s life or the role Bartleby played in the narrator’s life? In my opinion, Bartleby and the narrator had no mutual connection. The only notion of a connection was on the side of the narrator. Throughout the story few lines come directly from Bartleby and furthermore none make mention of personal facts of him. One may not get to know another in passing personal facts are needed to adequately develop friendships. One could conclude that this is actually a story about the narrator’s life. And instead reflects how Bartleby and the ancillary characters have enriched him and changed him as a person.


Booth, Alison, J. Paul Hunter, Kelly J. Mays. "The Norton Introduction to Literature." Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 2006. 153-178.