Thoreau as a Model for "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (Melville)

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Thoreau as a Model for "Bartleby, the Scrivener" In Egbert S. Oliver's essay "A Second Look at "Bartleby" he proposes that Bartleby and Henry David Thoreau have much in common. Further, Oliver points out that Melville wrote "Bartleby" as a satire to comment on Thoreau's life.

Melville and Thoreau ran in the same circles. There is no doubt that while visiting his good friend Hawthorne, Melville would have heard about Thoreau's seclusion on Walden Pond. Oliver points to this as the first similarity between Bartleby and Thoreau: seclusion from society. On the same point, the manner in which they are secluded is very similar. Both are separated by "screens": Bartleby's is a partition screen in the office so the narrator can call to him but not see him if he doesn't want to. Thoreau was only just outside of Concord, separated from the town by a "screen" of trees.

Though the narrator in "Bartleby" secludes Bartleby by the function of the screen, Bartleby's and Thoreau's true seclusions are due to no one else but themselves; they simply "preferred not" to be part of society. This leads to a second similarity between the two: passive resistance. Neither was ever harmful to anyone (although it can be argued that with their diets they harmed themselves). Bartleby simply replied "I would prefer not to," and Thoreau could similarly have said the same when he refused to pay his poll tax.

Their preference for refusing others demands lands them both in jail, Thoreau for a night and Bartleby until the end of his life in the Tombs. While in jail, Thoreau remarks that "if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window" (Norton, 839). Similarly, Bartleby takes to looking out the window at the office, only...