Diagnosing and Mental Illness of ‘Bartleby The Scrivener’

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer


Herman Melville’s 1856 short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”, presents the mentally troubled title character and it is hard to imagine the multitude of meanings it contains and the interpretations it inspires. This paper will focus on the psychological interpretation as presented through the eyes of an ignorant narrator mental illness –Bartleby being an example of a mental illness.

Looking at the story, Bartleby may have developed his mental illness time as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, a grim place where letters go to die. He exhibits several mental disorders such as depression, anorexia, agoraphobia, etc. from a psychological perspective. This can be seen through his preferred phrase “I would prefer not ” (Melville, 2014). He cleverly brings out the ignorance aspect of the society to recognize. In Mitchell and Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis, the phrase could be labeled a subconscious cry for help. This shows the society intolerance for people with disability, particularly for people suffering with depression and mental impairments. During the course of the story Bartleby’s condition worsens – he loses interest in doing his job, he does not want to leave the office and does not eat. These are signs associated with people suffering from mental illnesses.

DepressionDepression is a disorder that is widely spread in today’s society. Some of the symptoms associated with it are persistent sad, anxious, or empty’ mood, loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities appetite and/or weight changes (Baxter et al., 2014). From the story Bartleby exhibits symptom of a deprived nature clearly described by the phrase “dead-wall reveries. ” He losses interest in things he enjoyed doing like copying and spends most of the time staring at the wall outside his window. His eating habits changed and has no nutrition value, “He lives, then, on ginger-nuts, thought I; never eats a dinner, properly speaking; he must be a vegetarian then; but no; he never eats even vegetables, he eats nothing but ginger-nuts” (Melville, 2014). The change in eating habits and what the narrator calls “all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man”, can be viewed as Bartleby depressive nature.

Agoraphobia and Anorexia Bartleby’s “propinquity to walls” can be a symptom of agoraphobic behavior. “Agoraphobic fears typically involve characteristic clusters of situations that include being outside the home alone; being in a crowd or standing in a line; being on a bridge, and traveling in a bus, train, or automobile” (Bressert, 2017). This kind of behavior is evident in Bartleby – he prefers not to run any errands out of the office and in the latter parts of the story prefers not to move at all from his “hermitage” (Melville, 2014). Agoraphobics avoid being out in public and prefer confined spaces whenever possible to shield themselves from these situations. Apart from physical walls, identifies the psychological walls which Bartleby has erected to defend himself: “As long as he can stay in one place, he is content and quite literally ‘contained’. The walls which surround him give him a sense of place, if not identity, and there is a certain security in this. Bartley manages to shield and barricade himself physically and psychologically.

Anorexics exhibit symptoms such as extremely restricted eating, extreme thinness (emaciation), brittle hair and nails, dry and yellowish skin. lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired. Melville uses these phrases such as “lean visage”, “cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance”, to describe anorexics symptoms. This invoke image of an emaciated person. He refuses to take in any nourishment and lives entirely on ginger nuts (Melville, 2014).


Schizophrenia is a serious disorder, it is not clear how it develops, but scientists agree that genes, environment, and different brain chemistry and structure are factors in its development (Frith, 2015). Some symptoms like his motionlessness, his “dead-wall reveries” etc. are also given as possible proof of Bartleby as a schizophrenic. Bartleby is “compulsively prone to repetitive acts or phrases” for example the phrase “I would prefer not to” (Melville, 2014). This is symptomatic of a schizoid person.

Beja’s analysis are based on R. D. Laing’s theories pertaining schizophrenia, which states that mental illness was an escape mechanism that allowed individuals to free themselves from intolerable circumstances. One connection that Beja’s make to Liang’s theory is petrification “forms of anxiety encountered by the ontologically insecure person”. “Petrification entails a retreat into stasis or even catatonia which is one of those modes of self-preservation by which we are accomplices in our self-destruction. One may so dread being ‘petrified’, ‘turning, or being turned, from a live person into a dead thing, into stone’ that the terror brings about what is feared. ” For instance, Bartleby uses the words “I like to be stationary when asked what he would like to do. He becomes “a perpetual sentry in the corner” which means he became inactive and laziness crippled in.

As the story progress his condition deteriorated and he preferred to be something else than a human being, to be as motionless as an object examples of being treated as object can be deduced from the phrases “he had become a millstone to me” “like the last column of a ruined temple”, “you are as harmless as any of these old chairs”. As Beja concludes: “Surely at least one of the sources for Bartleby’s having become a ‘thing’ is that he has been looked upon and treated as one. ”

Bartleby, an invisible victim had to create a “false-self” to protect himself and disguise himself as formative version of the self “that one has in the outer world, which relates with that world and is observed by others. ” This worked very well in Bartleby’s case as a perfect copyist until a request to perform a certain task the veil comes out. The longer he is confined in this self-denial the more he distances himself from the reality. The fate of the true self is that it remains “transcendent, un-embodied, and thus never to be grasped, pinpointed, trapped, possessed”

People suffering from mental disorders often develop an almost excessive politeness as a defense mechanism. “I would prefer not to” in Bartleby case can be interpreted as such. Though, at times it can be perceived as disrespect, arrogance and unwillingness to obey instructions. For example the narrator perceived Bartleby this way, “It was rather weak in me I confess, but his manner on this occasion nettled me. Not only did there seem to lurk in it a certain calm disdain, but his perverseness seemed ungrateful, considering the undeniable good usage and indulgence he had received from me” (Melville, 2014).


This paper presents the psychological interpretation of the story in though there are other possible interpretations. Hopefully, papers such as these and characters such as Bartleby will critique the society’s intolerance and ignorance, and help with the breaking of the stigma around mental illness and create awareness of these fatal conditions.


  1. Baxter, A. J., Scott, K. M., Ferrari, A. J., Norman, R. E., Vos, T., & Whiteford, H. A. (2014). Challenging the myth of an “epidemic” of common mental disorders: Trends in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression between 1990 And 2010. Depression and Anxiety, 31(6), 506-516. doi:10.1002/da.22230
  2. Bressert, S. (2019 ). What does agoraphobia feel like? Agoraphobia symptoms. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/disorders/anxiety/agoraphobia-symptoms/
  3. Frith, C. D. (2015). The cognitive neuropsychology of schizophrenia. London, England: Psychology Press.
  4. Melville, H. (2014). Bartleby, the scrivener: A story of Wall Street. Sovereign via PublishDrive.


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