Writers have always been interested in writing about the process of writing. Whether it’s Paul Auster’s destruction of a character in City of Glass, Bulgakov’s depiction of an author in Master and Margarita, or Nicholson Baker’s entire catalog. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is no different. I see the narrator as a writer who attempts to make sense of his surroundings through narration.
He opens the story by boasting about the stories he could tell about other co-workers,
at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep.” But, the story about Bartleby needs to be told because he “was a scrivener the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” Already, the narrator is marketing his story to the assumed reader.
There are times when the narrator makes it apparent that there are certain elements to the story that need to be mentioned. At one explicit point he writes, “it is fit I make some mention of myself, my employés, my business, my chambers, and general surroundings; because some such description is indispensable to an adequate understanding of the chief character about to be presented.” While this line may be dismissed as a typical set-up to a story, I think it sets up more than just the plot. All of these lines point to a self-reflexive quality to the text, but they also set up the narrator—who is a primary character in the novel—as someone who tells stories.
The narrator treats his staff like characters in a story. He gives them demeaning nicknames, points to their odd mechanical nature, and ascribes rigid characteristics to them. He notes the use of the word ‘prefer’ with his workers, making another aspect of the story wholly apparent. Adding to this, the work that they do is writing itself.
Ultimately, this is just one way to read a multi-faceted story that offers a new reading every time.