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The Significance of Charity in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, The Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street”

By Natasha Kinne

The first-person narrator of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”—a Wall Street lawyer—identifies charity as a significant factor in his interpersonal relationships. Features of the narrator’s interiority are procured through his demonstration of charity towards his employees, Turkey and Bartleby. This unconscious rendering of the self through charity suggests broader implications of the act. Through these narrative strategies Melville comments on the self-gratifying element of charity that reveals the donor’s interiority; the indulgence of the donor’s interior desires demonstrates a disconnect between the giver and receiver of charitable acts. 

Aside from Bartleby, the narrator makes his most auspicious claim of charity in relation to one of his long-term employees, Turkey. In explaining Turkey’s nickname, the narrator reveals that Turkey is afflicted with a peculiarity which makes his face “blaze like a grate full of Christmas coals” at and ensuing “twelve o’clock, meridian” with the effect of his “business capacities [being] seriously disturbed for the remainder of the twenty-four hours” (Melville 5). Instead of demanding that Turkey find a remedy for his afternoon condition or firing him outright, the narrator expresses pity for his aging employee (5) and attempts to subvert his problematic characterization of Turkey by stating that he is “a most valuable person to me…before twelve o’clock” (6). The narrator thus justifies his resolve to “not lose” Turkey’s “morning services” (6) or, in other words, not actively demand that any change be made. By demonstrating sympathy for Turkey, founded on the premise of their mutual increasing age and the changes to productivity that it produces, the narrator suggests a charitable inclination; his decision to continue employing Turkey despite his insufficiencies is based on said inclination. However, the narrator’s resolve to inaction also insinuates another feature of his character: non-confrontationalism and meekness. In his indirect attempt to confront Turkey about his unprofitable tendencies, the narrator declares himself “a man of peace” (6); in his self-delivered introduction of himself, he claims that others consider him an “eminently safe man” (4). The narrator’s decision to continue employing Turkey, which he purports is one of sympathy and understanding, is also motivated by his non-confrontational, passive character. Though meekness and benevolence are not mutually exclusive, Melville demonstrates charity’s tendency to elucidate the internal needs and desires of the donor rather than those of the recipient of charity.

Examples of the narrator’s charity reside in material culture as well – these elements further suggest the narrator’s internal motivations. The narrator reveals that he finds Turkey’s attire inappropriate – Turkey’s coats, “execrable” (8). He excuses Turkey’s habiliments, however, by recognizing that Turkey likely could not afford any better than what he had (8). Thus, while the narrator at once portrays himself as sensible to the circumstances of others, he also discredits his own complaint and thereby the need for its redressal. Instead of confronting Turkey about the unprofessionalism of his attire, the narrator gives Turkey “a highly-respectable looking coat of [his] own” (8). The narrator’s act of charity – in this case, giving Turkey one of his coats – accommodates the narrator’s desire to avoid confrontation and reveals an ulterior motive to the narrator’s benevolence. The narrator also overtly indicates another motive for his donation. He expresses the hope that his charity will “abate [Turkey’s] rashness and obstreperousness of afternoons” (8). Through this admission, Melville implies an inherent transactional aspect to charity, in which the donor is entitled to the donee’s expression of gratitude or submission. In other words, the narrator is motivated to donate to Turkey in pursuit of his own interests. 

Turkey’s ill reception of the narrator’s charitable gesture underscores the disconnect between donor and donee that is fundamental to the narrator’s relationship with Bartleby. Though the narrator wishes his gift to Turkey would make him more pleasant in the afternoons, the narrator regrets that the coat makes Turkey “insolent”; he concludes that Turkey “was a man whom prosperity harmed” (8). Thus, the narrator’s charity does not passify Turkey’s needs or wants, but is an act solely indulgent of the narrator’s desires for Turkey to dress more appropriately and to be less volatile. 

The interpersonal disconnect which charity illuminates is developed further in the narrator’s relationship with Bartleby. After several months of employment, Bartleby begins to refuse all modes of service to the narrator. Due to Bartleby’s uselessness to him, the narrator endeavors to evict Bartleby from the premise. Instead of physically forcing his eviction, the narrator gives Bartleby twenty “odd” dollars (26) plus his regular wages. Though the narrator frames this effort as gracious (27), this act of generosity reinforces the transactional element of the narrator’s charity – the narrator expects that in exchange for the money, Bartleby will leave. Further, the narrator’s non-confrontational disposition is accommodated by this instance’s lack of “vulgar bullying”, which the narrator would vie for no more than Bartleby would. Melville presents this charitable act as at least mutually beneficial to the narrator and Bartleby. 

It is in an ensuing encounter that Bartleby conveys his ill-reception of the narrator’s charity. When the narrator resolves to quit his law office, as Bartleby will not, he attempts to give Bartleby money once more. Upon attempting to slip the money into Bartleby’s hand, the narrator recalls that it “dropped upon the floor” (34). Bartleby’s refusal of the narrator’s charity conveys the presumptiveness of the institution: donations are made based on what the donor believes is needed or desired by the donee. Charity is most often based on the narrator’s assessment of essential needs.

Melville further develops charity as a self-indulgent institution through the narrator’s charitable treatment of Bartleby. After hiring Bartleby, the narrator is promptly acquainted with his work preferences, which effectively absolve him from some of his tasks as a scrivener. As in the case of Turkey, the narrator resolves to continue Bartleby’s employment, as Bartleby is still “useful” (15) to some degree, despite his peculiar adjustments. This arrangement relieves the narrator from having to confront Bartleby, which accommodates his interests. This act of charity is affected by its consideration for the donor’s needs over the donee’s. The narrator identifies another motive for his decision to maintain Bartleby’s employment: to “cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval” and provide “a sweet morsel for [the narrator’s] conscience” (15). Again, the narrator considers the transactional element of charity; the narrator is so benevolent as to continue to employ a “poor”, regularly undeserving fellow (15) and, as a result, the narrator’s self-congratulation is constantly reinforced through Bartleby’s presence in the office. 

Another exchange between the narrator and Bartleby reveals not only the narrator’s endeavor to employ charity as a means of procuring his desires, but the characters’ mutual misunderstanding. The narrator quits his law premises after Bartleby’s loitering becomes disruptive to the narrator’s other relationships. Though the narrator relocates his practice, Bartleby remains in his own chambers to the great dismay of the new residents. As the narrator is confronted about arranging for Bartleby to leave the office, he asks Bartleby to “‘go home with [him] –not to [his] office but to [his] dwelling’” (36). The narrator’s commitment to removing Bartleby through nonviolent communication demonstrates the earnest benevolence  of the narrator. However, by offering Bartleby respite in his home, the narrator not only demonstrates generosity, but manipulation. He wants to appease the new tenants of his former law office and cease confrontation. Despite the narrator’s efforts, Bartleby once again denies the narrator’s charity by stating that he “would prefer not to make any change at all [to his residence]” (37). As in the narrator’s attempt to bribe Bartleby to leave the premises of his law office, the principal motivation for the narrator’s benevolence is his own interest which, in this instance, is to avoid confrontation. Bartleby’s needs and desires are ostensibly unmet; the narrator never asks Bartleby what he desires. Melville thus demonstrates that though it may be out of kindness, charity often involves ulterior motivations that are not principally in favor of the donee. 

The narrator in “Bartleby, the Scrivener” demonstrates the self-gratifying element of charity that reveals the donor’s interiority. His interactions with his employees Turkey and Bartleby develop the disconnect that charity can instill or otherwise illuminate between donor and donee. Through the repeated motif of charity in his short story, Melville implies that charity is self-gratifying and often arranged to benefit the donor. In doing so, Melville demonstrates how charity is often selfish in a consumerist, capitalist, urbanist setting.

Work Cited 

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” Billy Budd, Sailor, edited by Robert Milder, Oxford Classics, pp. 3–41.