Bartleby the Scrivener | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Bartleby the Scrivener | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Bartleby, the Scrivener begins with the title character's boss introducing himself. The narrator is an older gentleman and a successful Wall Street lawyer. He notes that over the course of his career, he has worked "with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men ... law-copyists or scriveners." While the narrator compliments these gentleman whose job is to copy and proofread legal documents, there is one whom he wants to focus on—Bartleby, "the strangest I ever saw or heard of." The narrator has scant knowledge of Bartleby's life.

The narrator reveals more about himself, his employees, and his business. He lives his life based on his theory that "the easiest way of life is the best." The narrator adds he is a lawyer, not especially ambitious, who is considered safe, and rarely loses his temper. He is a lawyer "who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause." Instead he works at making copies of legal documents, describing his work "in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat" among "rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." He prides himself for having worked for the extremely rich John Jacob Astor. Business has been good recently.

He has a second-floor office on Wall Street. One view is of a blackened brick wall, while the other is of a "white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft," though it does not provide any sign of "what landscape painters call 'life.'" The narrator employs three people—two copyists and an errand boy. They all have nicknames "deemed expressive of their respective persons or characters."

The most senior employee, Turkey, is around the same age as the narrator, near 60, and has worked with him for many years. The narrator is happy with Turkey's work in the morning. However, after he takes his lunch break, he returns to the office with a red face due to consuming alcohol. While he remains energetic, Turkey is less productive, makes mistakes, and is easily provoked to anger. The narrator suggests he work a half day, but Turkey insists on working a full day. "I consider myself your right-hand man," he says.

Nippers is around 25, and the narrator says, "I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers—ambition and indigestion." He can be testy and irritable when suffering from indigestion, which typically occurs in the morning. This is the time of day when Nippers makes mistakes and constantly rearranges his work space, trying to get it to his liking. He also receives visitors at the office whom he calls his clients. Ultimately, the narrator says Nippers is useful and dressed nicely, which "reflected credit upon my chambers." Nippers's relative calm and industriousness in the afternoons balances out Turkey's relative usefulness in the mornings, so the narrator is content to employ them both.

Ginger Nut is 12 years old, and his father, who is a car man, wants his son to be a student of the law. The narrator notes Ginger Nut acts as a cleaner, sweeper, and errand boy who is paid $1 a week. One of his main tasks is to go out and buy food (often ginger nut cakes) and drink for Turkey and Nippers.

The narrator returns to the story of Bartleby, whom he hires because of an increase in business: he has recently been given the office of Master in Chancery. Bartleby appears at his office, described as a "motionless young man" who is "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn!" He is hired after a brief interview and given a work space on the narrator's side of the office, next to a window that faces a brick wall that provides "no view at all." The narrator thinks Bartleby will fit in well because he is "so singularly sedate," which might offset the "the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers." Bartleby is thus isolated but within earshot of the narrator.

At first Bartleby does an excellent job, though his silence concerns the narrator. On the third day of his employment, Bartleby is called into the narrator's office to proofread his coworker's copy. Upon being called a second time, Bartleby replies "in a singularly mild, firm voice, 'I would prefer not to.'" The response stuns the narrator. After gathering himself, the request is made again, and Bartleby replies with the same words. The narrator is unsure what to do next. As he is in a rush, he leaves the situation and gets another employee to help him.

A few days later the entire staff is gathered to do the same task. When Bartleby is asked to join he again replies, "I would prefer not to." Again the narrator is shocked. He asks for an explanation, but Bartleby simply repeats himself. The narrator tries to explain the necessity of doing one's work, but to no avail. He asks the others what they think, and they are all irritated and support the narrator. Nothing happens, and eventually they continue on with the work without Bartleby because of the fast-paced demands of their office work.

The narrator notices Bartleby does not leave the office and seems to exist on the ginger nut cakes that Ginger Nut buys for him. The narrator begins to feel pity for Bartleby. While he thinks, "Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," he reasons that if he fires him, Bartleby will end up with a "less indulgent employer" and suffer because of it. He decides that "to humor him ... will cost me nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience." In short, Bartleby is useful in providing the narrator with an inexpensive balm for his conscience. He decides to try to befriend Bartleby, but he gets frustrated and angry with the lack of response.

When Bartleby again refuses to do some work, the narrator questions his employees as to their opinion. The narrator then asks for Bartleby to run an errand and receives the same reply. A little later another request is made of Bartleby, and he says the same phrase yet again. The narrator decides to "walk home for the day, suffering much from perplexity and distress of mind." Time passes and Bartleby does the copying but nothing else.

Arriving too early for church one Sunday morning, the narrator decides to visit his office. As he tries to enter, he "found it resisted by something inserted from the inside." Bartleby is there, having locked the door from the inside. He says that he is not ready to have someone enter and tells the narrator to come back later. The narrator is astonished, but he leaves and says, "It was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were." When he soon returns to the office, he confirms that Bartleby has been living there for some time. He feels pity for Bartleby and sadness about his situation: "The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom."

The narrator recognizes that Bartleby never speaks unless spoken to, never reads, and stares out "upon the dead brick wall." He comes to believe "the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder." His soul is suffering, and the narrator cannot reach Bartleby's soul. The narrator resolves to learn Bartleby's history. If he will not answer, the narrator decides he will tell him his services are no longer needed, in addition to offering to help in whatever way is needed.

When Bartleby does not engage in the conversation, the narrator becomes annoyed again. However, he does not want to act out. He asks Bartleby to agree to do the work he has refused and to be more agreeable. Bartleby does not comply. The narrator realizes while talking to Nippers that he has been using the word prefer as well. Turkey has also been using the word. The next day Bartleby decides he will no longer write. When asked why, he says, "Do you not see the reason for yourself." The narrator concludes it's because of his eyesight. A few days later Bartleby says he has given up copying forever.

The narrator comes to see Bartleby as a weight, a "millstone" upon him. "Yet I was sorry for him," he says. Bartleby "seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe." Nevertheless, the narrator says that "necessities connected with my business tyrannized over all other considerations," and he demands that Bartleby leave within the next six days.

Six days later, Bartleby has not left the premises. The narrator is at a loss about what to do. He decides to pay Bartleby his wages, plus $20 extra, leaves the money on a table, and demands that Bartleby leave his key and be gone by morning. He imagines that by "assuming" Bartleby will be gone in the morning that Bartleby actually will have in reality left, but this is not the case. The narrator is astonished. He refuses to physically remove Bartleby or to make a scene, but he demands, "What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? ... Or is this property yours?" Bartleby continues to refuse to work or leave.

The narrator is at first in "such a state of nervous resentment" that he recollects a case in which a man named Colt, being "dreadfully incensed" by his victim, a man named Adams, committed murder. Then, however, the narrator remembers the words of Jesus in the New Testament: "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another." Christian kindness, he reasons, demands that he continue to tolerate Bartleby.

Several days pass, and to shore up his decision to leave Bartleby alone the narrator looks into texts about free will. He wonders if his situation has not "been all predestinated from eternity" and beyond "a mere mortal like me to fathom." But after his professional friends start making comments about Bartleby, the narrator asks himself, "What does conscience say I should do with this man, or rather ghost. Rid myself of him, I must." He decides that his only choice is to move his offices. He informs Bartleby and also notes he will no longer need his services. Bartleby is silent. Upon leaving the narrator says good-bye and "God some way bless you" to Bartleby. Again he tries to give Bartleby money, but Bartleby does not take it. He leaves with mixed emotions.

Once situated in the new offices, the narrator is told by the new tenant of his old office that he is responsible for Bartleby. He refuses to be held accountable for removing Bartleby and says, "I know nothing about him." When tenants from the old building come to the narrator and tell him about the issues caused by Bartleby's presence, he agrees to try to speak with him.

When the narrator returns to his old offices to see Bartleby, he suggests a few different jobs that he might apply for, but Bartleby rejects each one. Each time, he insists he is not particular. First, the narrator gets angry and then offers Bartleby a chance to live in his home until they can find a better solution. Bartleby refuses. The narrator leaves quickly. He takes a vacation for a few days to get away from the guilt and stress as well as the concern that he will be hunted down by the landlord and tenants.

Upon returning to the office, the narrator learns Bartleby has been taken to the Tombs, a prison, for vagrancy. The narrator visits Bartleby. After being greeted by the narrator, Bartleby responds, "I know you, and I want nothing to say to you."

The grub-man, or prison cook, approaches the narrator looking for a bribe. If he wants his friend to eat well, the narrator will need to pay him off. The narrator does so, telling the grub-man to give Bartleby the best food and to be polite with him. When the grub-man approaches Bartleby, he replies, "I prefer not to dine to-day."

After a few days the narrator comes back to the Tombs. He is told Bartleby, or the silent man, is "sleeping in the yard there. 'Tis not twenty minutes since I saw him lie down." The narrator goes to Bartleby and sees he has died. To the grub-man's inquiry if Bartleby is asleep, the narrator replies, "With kings and counselors," quoting the biblical Book of Job.

Sometime later, the narrator learns a piece of information about Bartleby. He "had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington," a job he lost because of a "change in the administration." Bartleby had opened letters that were deemed undeliverable by the postal service, removed any valuable contents, and then had the letters burned. The narrator concludes the story, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"

Analysis

Bartleby, the Scrivener can be read and interpreted in many different ways, an impact that the author surely intended by taking as characters an ambiguous "[being] of whom nothing is ascertainable" and a narrator who tries but fails to understand his subject. Below are insights on four of the major areas of discussion about the short story.

Bartleby's Stance

From the story's title, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, readers might assume that Bartleby is the protagonist of the story. His refusal to work can be seen as a heroic form of rebellion against the impersonal capitalism of Wall Street and the deadening work of copying—a passive or nonviolent expression of resistance like those later made famous by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Evoking the theme of religion, he can also be seen as a Christ-like figure, sacrificed for his refusal to do meaningless work—although this view of the character has limitations because he does no good aside from disturbing the status quo. From the perspective of Romanticism, he exerts individual power through his refusals, like a hero, and seems to follow intuitions about the hopeless nature of his work that he gained during his tenure in the Dead Letter Office.

Yet in his extreme passivity and isolation, Bartleby is ultimately an antihero and serves as a foil to, or double of, the narrator. The only qualities Bartleby displays are a lack of interest in work and a capacity for keeping still. He barely talks other than his often-repeated phrase, "I prefer not to." The reader learns nothing about his history before the last paragraph, where it is revealed that he had a job as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office—one that the narrator surmises may well have rendered him so depressed at human existence and suffering that he eventually gives up on life. Yet the narrator never considers the possibility that the nature of work in his own office could be contributing to his employee's despair. Bartleby has no meaningful human relationships. It's almost as if he does not exist at all, a concept emphasized by the narrator's description of him as pale and ghostlike. At one point, the narrator pictures him in a "winding sheet" used to wrap dead bodies.

Bartleby's only interactions are with the narrator, and they nearly drive the narrator mad. This is no wonder, as Bartleby's responses are often absurd. For example, when the narrator tries to help Bartleby find a more suitable job, he declines each time. He uses the same words, "I am not particular." Yet he is extremely particular to the point where the narrator is unable to ever get him to agree to anything. Bartleby seems unwilling to make a decision or take action and simply repeats the same actions—or inaction—throughout the story.

It is the narrator's response to Bartleby that shapes the plot. Bartleby's presence causes the narrator to rethink his priorities and assumptions. His telling of Bartleby's story is an attempt to lessen the guilt he feels over his former employee's death.

The Narrator

The narrator's life revolves around work. Though he describes himself as unambitious, he is proud of his work and that his clients "consider [him] an eminently safe man." His business flourishes as he does "a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." These rich men include John Jacob Astor, the most well-off man in the United States. When referring to his association with Astor, the narrator is positively giddy. He even enjoys saying Astor's name, although he doesn't name himself. His only identity comes from his profession.

At the same time, the narrator wants to make his life as easy and comfortable as possible; his motto is "the easiest way of life is the best." He is blind to the fact that, in refusing to take certain actions, he is very similar to Bartleby. He is, therefore, both prone to tolerate Bartleby's eccentricities longer than most employers would do and supremely vexed by his behavior.

Bartleby's noncompliance, and his refusal to provide a reason not to comply, is a daunting puzzle for the narrator. However, his concern with propriety causes him to make excuses for Bartleby and to pardon his behavior for most of the story. He has made excuses for his employees before; both Turkey and Nippers have their quirks, yet he sees them as useful. One of the reasons the narrator hires Bartleby is because he believes the new hire "might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers." So when Bartleby begins refusing to do work, the narrator assumes he has simply hired another quirky employee. Taking action that might be awkward and uncomfortable does not seem necessary based on the narrator's past experience as an employer.

By the time the narrator comes to realize that Bartleby's issues are serious and not mere quirks, he does not know how to deal with the situation. He simply makes excuses and carries on as if everything is normal. It is only when his business is threatened that the narrator finally takes action and moves to another office.

It is the threat to his business that causes the greatest disturbance to the narrator. When the narrator's professional friends start questioning Bartleby's purpose, he takes his most dramatic action of switching offices. Even then, the narrator says, "I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of." On multiple occasions the narrator notes how he pities Bartleby. He offers his home to Bartleby so they can come up with "some convenient arrangement for [him]." Other times he loses patience or rushes away. He has no clue how to deal with Bartleby's disturbance of the workplace that also functions as the narrator's surrogate home.

The narrator makes numerous references to charity as he attempts to help Bartleby, but he admits that his efforts are meant to help him think better of himself—to "cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval." It is self-interest, he says, that should "prompt all beings to charity." This interpretation, however, is in direct conflict with the Christian gospel he quotes: "A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another." The narrator does not love Bartleby, and as critic Thomas Dilworth has pointed out, his story can be read as a response to the guilt he feels over this failure. Bartleby's behavior does indeed "unman" the narrator, as it brings out his lack of humanity.

The narrator has another reason to feel guilty; his position as Master in Chancery requires him to handle paperwork for foreclosed properties, including those acquired by John Jacob Astor. Dilworth further suggests that the narrator's guilt over forcing people from their homes might have motivated him to allow Bartleby to stay on at the office. He tries to make up to one man for the harm he has done to many others.

At the end of the story, the narrator is able to recognize his subject's humanity and the way in which the tragedy of Bartleby's existence underscores the absurdity of human life. This realization marks the narrator as the only character who has changed and grown over the course of the story.

Office Workers

The fact that the other office workers don't have names is noticeable in Bartleby, the Scrivener. All three—Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut—have nicknames based on a single dimension of their characters. The narrator goes unnamed. The only primary character with a name is Bartleby.

The office workers are portrayed as second-class citizens. Their status does not entitle them to be named. Instead they are flat characters, dehumanized by their tedious, repetitious, and low-level work as scriveners.

Turkey is a man of near 60 who gets drunk every afternoon. He does not dress well, which the narrator says is because he cannot afford "such a lustrous face and a lustrous coat at one and the same time." Turkey's life has been spent at a job where he cannot get ahead. He drinks seemingly as a form of escape from his tedious position.

Nippers is not content with his situation. The narrator says he has two clear qualities: ambition and indigestion. The two may be related. He is hungry to rise up and make something better of himself. He dresses smoothly, has his own personal clients, and is a ward-politician.

Ginger Nut is only 12 years old. His father, a laborer, has gotten him the job with the hopes his son will learn the law and have a better job than himself. Instead of being an apprentice and learning about being a lawyer, Ginger Nut is an errand boy. Unlike the others, the reasoning behind his nickname is clear: he fetches ginger nuts for his colleagues.

Finally there is Bartleby, the one character who has a name. It is not clearly a first or last name and offers no hints about his nationality or background. While some information is shared about the other characters, nothing is revealed about Bartleby until the last paragraph of the story. There the reader learns about his work at the Dead Letter Office. Despite this tidbit and his name, Bartleby (like the others) is faceless. He distinguishes himself from the other workers only by taking a stand against the dullness of their routine.

Wall Street and Capitalism

The story's full title is Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, and Wall Street looms large on the story.

As the center of American finance, Wall Street represents capitalism in the story. Many Americans have made their fortunes by trading in Wall Street's stock exchanges. The interactions between the wealthy narrator and his meagerly paid office workers suggest the way in which the investment industry benefits only those who can afford to invest.

The issues that plague capitalism are played out every day in the narrator's office. The scriveners represent the lower-class workers. While two of the employees (Nippers and Ginger Nut) dream of prosperity, they are trapped doing mind-numbing labor. They simply copy what their superiors have already done.

The company's profits are in the hands of the narrator, a manager. He is the driving force in the office, and everything that happens—with the single exception of Bartleby's passive resistance—revolves around his business and its needs. The narrator's employees are viewed and measured by their usefulness as labor.

Bartleby confuses everything. He is a member of the working class but refuses to use his own manual labor to enrich his employer. His refusal to work can be viewed as a protest against a system that does not fairly reward his labor. It can also be viewed as detrimental behavior caused by an overwhelming and isolating existence. All of this occurs on Wall Street, the home of capitalism, where Bartleby's refusal to work is particularly disquieting to the narrator, who is comfortable and content with the system as it is.

Bartleby the Scrivener Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 The narrator introduces himself and his employees.

Rising Action

2 Bartleby is hired by the narrator.

3 Bartleby declines to do work.

4 The narrator discovers Bartleby is living in the office.

5 Bartleby refuses to do any work at all.

6 The narrator gives Bartleby an ultimatum.

7 The narrator's associates wonder about Bartleby.

8 The narrator moves office to get away from Bartleby.

Climax

9 Bartleby refuses the narrator's help. He goes to jail.

Falling Action

10 The narrator visits an angry Bartleby in jail.

11 The narrator discovers Bartleby's dead body.

Resolution

12 The narrator notes Bartleby's previous job.

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