Lukewarm Living

American Literature

Julia Joyce

Not only did Herman Melville write the exciting story of Moby Dick, he also wrote “Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall-street.”  Now I have never read Moby Dick, but I imagine this story of Bartleby follows the same monotonous theme.  This is a spoiler, but Bartleby is a scribe and he literally dies from doing nothing.  He refuses to eat and dies in prison.  Herman Melville was really aiming for an exciting, adventurous, dramatic story with a main character that dies from nothing…

Aside from the lack of intrigue, there may be some moral to glean from the story.  The narrator has three people working in his law office.  Turkey, who is a copyist with a temper that turns on after lunchtime.  Nippers, the other copyist was mainly irritable in the morning.  The two balanced each other out.  Maybe there is an additional lesson about the need to work within community, as a part of the body of Christ buried within this story.  Every person has faults and strengths, and by working together the task is able to be accomplished.  The third person working in the office is an errand boy named Ginger Nut.

The main story Melville tells is the one about the even keeled, level headed, new copyist that is hired.  Bartleby is efficient at copying, and hardly ever leaves so he gets a lot done.  His peculiar trait is that he prefers not to do anything other than copy.  When asked to help verify the validity of his copies by checking them against the original he says he prefers not to.  When asked to make a quick trip to the post office he prefers not to.  He does not do anything besides copy.  Eventually, he refuses to even do that.  It gets to the point where he will not leave despite the fact that he is doing no work, and the narrator vacates the office.  The new renter eventually calls the cops which is how Bartleby ends up in prison.  He prefers not to eat, so he dies.

There is a passage in Scripture that talks about being lukewarm.  In Revelation it is written, “I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other! So because you are lukewarm— neither hot nor cold— I am about to vomit you out of My mouth!” (3:15-16).  Not doing anything, not pursuing a relationship with God continually, and not living as if you are in relationship with God seems to be just as bad as not being in relationship with God at all.  God will cast out the one that just coasts and does not choose one way or the other.

Bartleby refused to do anything.  The narrator offered to let him come to his home, but he refused to leave the office.  He was given multiple chances to work, or to just do anything.  He made everyone else’s work harder because they had to pick up the things he preferred not to do.

Eventually, his not doing anything had fatal consequences for Bartleby.  A person’s spiritual life functions in the same way.  A person can limp on for a while with minimal connection with or pursuit of God.  Going to church every once in a while, a prayer here or there, a tiny bit of effort can keep a person aware of God’s presence and keep their spiritual life alive.  That is not life to the full though.  Those prayers will eventually become fewer and farther apart.  Going to church once a month will turn into once every few months which will turn into once a year, and soon church attendance will be a thing of the past.  Life will get busy and one day the person will look back and see that he or she is no longer anywhere close to God.  Drifting away is a gradual process.  One that is usually not caught until it is too late.

Bartleby’s story is not one of excitement, but it is a reminder of the every day.  The little choices we make matter.  Preferring not to do one thing led to another which eventually led to not eating.  Being faithful in the monotony of everyday life is what keeps a person from becoming lukewarm.


  • I think it’s really interesting that Bartleby was even capable of doing so much nothing. I do nothing for ten minutes and I’m already bored and start doing push-ups or planning my next month on my calendar. If I had to sit by myself in an office as long as Bartleby did I would certainly lose my mind.

  • Very insightful post, Julia! I admire how you tied the consequences of Bartleby’s idleness to the consequences an idle Christian can face in their life.

  • I never thought about Bartleby in this way. Thank you for the insight. I also loved your part about the body of the Church. It reminds me of the passage about how everyone is a different part of the body and how everyone has their own gifts given to them from the Lord.

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