|Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site.
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
Type of Work
......."Bartleby the Scrivener" is a short story centering on the staff of a Wall Street office that prepares copies of legal documents. The story first appeared in 1853 in the November and December issues of Putnam's Magazine, a monthly journal devoted to literature, art, science, and national
.......The action takes place in the financial district of New York City in the middle of the nineteenth century. At one point in the story, the narrator reports that he traveled to upper Manhattan, suburban communities, and towns in New Jersey while on a short vacation from work. However, no scenes in the story
are set in those locales.
Note: Melville does not provide full names or family backgrounds for the characters in "Bartleby the Scrivener." Perhaps he intended them as representations of nineteenth-century American employers and employees in general. The Narrator: Well-to-do attorney. He operates a Wall Street business that prepares copies of legal documents such as deeds, mortgages, and transcripts of courtroom proceedings. He prides himself on the profitability and efficiency of his business but is unable to deal with the recalcitrance of a new employee, Bartleby, who refuses to perform
Bartleby: New scrivener (one who copies documents). He works quietly and efficiently but one day surprises his employer, the narrator, when he refuses to carry out an assigned task, saying "I prefer not to." Thereafter, he continues to "prefer not to" do the
Turkey: Scrivener who turns to alcohol to cope with the tedium of copying documents.
Nippers: Scrivener who suffers bouts of indigestion and irritability in reaction to the tedium of copying documents. He hopes to better himself and occasionally does outside work for
Ginger Nut: Twelve-year-old office boy who makes a dollar a week. His fathers hopes that he will learn the law.
Carman: Father of Ginger Nut. He
is the driver of a horse-drawn cart who wants his son to make something of himself. The carman plays no active role in the story.
Nippers' Clients: Men for whom Nippers does outside work unrelated to his job in the narrator's office. The narrator describes his clients as
"ambiguous-looking fellows in seedy coats." He suspects that one "client" who visited Nippers was really a bill collector.
Mr. B—: Attorney who contacts the narrator after the latter moves to a new office. He complains to the narrator that Bartleby refuses to leave the narrator's
Landlord: Owner of the building that houses the narrator's office. After Bartleby refuses to leave the building, the landlord calls the police, who arrest and jail Bartleby.
Landlord's Tenants: Office renters who are disturbed by Bartleby's presence.
Mr. Cutlets: Cook at the jail.
Officer and Two
Turnkeys: Prison officials who help the narrator find Bartleby after the latter's arrest.
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
.......The time is the middle of the nineteenth century. The place is New York City. The narrator, an unidentified lawyer, operates a Wall Street business in which he and his staff
produce copies of legal documents with pen, ink, and paper. His adult employees are known as copyists, or scriveners. The narrator says he has encountered many law copyists about whom he could tell interesting stories. But the strangest of them was Bartleby, a copyist in his employ. Looking back over the years, the narrator—who has made a comfortable living handling mortgages, bonds, and title
deeds—tells the story of Bartleby.
.......On the narrator's payroll before the hiring of Bartleby are two copyists and an office boy who had given one another the nicknames Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. The narrator sits at a desk in a room behind folding
glass doors; the others sit at desks in a room on the other side of the doors.
.......Turkey is a short Englishman who, like the narrator, is nearing age sixty. In the morning, when his face has a ruddy hue, he works quickly and efficiently. But after the noon
dinner hour, when his face flames like burning coals from the alcohol he has drunk at lunch, he works inefficiently, shuffling papers, breaking pens, and blotting documents. His temper often flares and he sometimes becomes insolent. Because the narrator values Turkey's morning work but deplores his afternoon work, he offers to give Turkey his afternoons off to rest. Turkey, however, insists on
remaining all day, saying he is the narrator's right hand man. When the narrator brings up the subject of the ink blots, Turkey says that a few blots from a man of advancing age are surely forgivable. Not wishing to cause trouble, the narrator allows Turkey's work schedule to remain the same. But in the afternoons, he gives him less important documents to work on.
.......Nippers, a bewhiskered fellow of twenty-five, has great ambitions, believing that he can do far more than merely copying legal documents. Occasionally, he does outside work at the Tombs, a jail and court complex. To bolster his sense of self-importance, he has clients
call upon him in the office. However, the narrator suspects that one so-called client is actually a bill collector. But Nippers' attacks of ambition are no worse than his attacks of indigestion, which always occur in the morning. During these bouts, he becomes peevish and curses. He directs much of his irritability at his working table; its height is not quite right. He has put various objects
under the legs—chips, blocks, pasteboard, folded paper—but can never get the table at the ideal level. When it is too high, it affects the circulation in his arms; when it is too low, it gives him a sore back.
.......But Nippers, too, has his merits. He
writes neatly and quickly. His deportment is generally quite good, and he dresses like a gentleman. By comparison, Turkey's pants are baggy, his coats are abominable, and his clothes in general smell of restaurants.
.......The third employee, Ginger Nut, is
the twelve-year-old son of a cart driver. Because Ginger Nut's father wants the lad to make something of himself, he sent him to the narrator as a “student at law, errand boy, and cleaner and sweeper at the rate of one dollar a week” with “a little desk to himself,” the narrator says. During the day, Turkey and Nippers send Ginger Nut into the neighborhood to buy apples and ginger nut cakes
(after which the two scriveners nicknamed the boy).
.......Thanks to an increase in business, the narrator advertises one summer for another scrivener. A man named Bartleby appears in the doorway. He is, the narrator says, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable,
.......After reviewing Bartleby's credentials, the narrator hires him, believing that Bartleby's composed, dignified manner might set a good example for the volatile Turkey and Nippers. The narrator situates him at a desk near his own, behind
the glass doors. In front of Bartleby's desk, he places a folding screen to afford himself and Bartleby a measure of privacy.
.......Bartleby is highly productive, copying on and on and on. One day, the narrator asks Bartleby to help him review a document
.......“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby says.
.......Thinking Bartleby may have misunderstood the request, the
narrator repeats it. Bartleby gives the same answer. Irked, the narrator walks over to Bartleby, places the document before him, and orders him to take it.
.......“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby again says.
.......Stunned, the narrator stares at him, then returns to his desk. In a hurry to get the document checked, he decides to deal with Bartleby later and gives the document to Nippers, who quickly does what he is told.
.......Several days later, Bartleby completes four copies of lengthy testimony in an important lawsuit in the High Court of Chancery. Because accuracy is of utmost concern, the narrator needs to have his four clerks check the copies while he reads the original. After summoning
Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, he gives each of them one of the copies to check. When he calls out to Bartleby, the latter steps forth from behind his screen, and the narrator orders him to check the fourth copy.
.......“I would prefer not to,” Bartleby says,
then goes back behind the screen.
.......Angry, the narrator demands to know why he refuses to check the copy. Bartleby merely repeats that he would prefer not to. With any other person, the narrator would have flared into a rage. But Bartleby's strange behavior
prompts a different approach. What the narrator does is calmly explain the task, noting that checking all four copies in one session will save time. He adds that every copyist has a duty to help examine his own copies.
.......“I prefer not to,” Bartleby
.......Turkey and Nippers side with the narrator, Nippers saying that he would “kick [Bartleby] out of the office.” (Nippers' answer here is consistent with his ill morning humor from indigestion.) Ginger Nut thinks Bartleby a bit daft.
.......The narrator and the three clerks proceed on their own, but not without grumbling from Nippers.
.......Several more days pass. By this
time, the narrator notices that Bartleby never leaves the office for lunch. However, at 11 a.m. every day, he sends Ginger Nut out for a handful of ginger-nut cakes, rewarding the boy with two of them for his trouble. The narrator wonders what a diet of such cakes will do to a man's constitution.
....... After due consideration, the narrator decides to tolerate Bartleby, for he is useful, though eccentric. If the narrator were to fire him, Bartleby would probably have difficulty holding another job—and eventually end up starving. Keeping Bartleby on is, therefore, a meritorious act that the narrator sees as a “sweet morsel for my
.......All goes well for a time, but Bartleby begins to irritate the narrator all over again. One afternoon, he decides to have a showdown with Bartleby, telling him that after he copies certain documents, “I will compare them with
.......Bartleby says, “I would prefer not to.”
.......“Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?” the
.......Bartleby does not answer. The narrator then opens the glass doors and calls out to Turkey, telling him of Bartleby's attitude and asking him what he thinks. Because it is afternoon, Turkey is very red-faced and easily provoked. Turkey says he
will blacken Bartleby's eyes, then gets up—fists held high—and goes toward Bartleby's desk. The narrator stops him, however, fearful of what the irascible Turkey might do. Instead, he tells Turkey to sit down and listen to what Nippers has to say about the situation. Nippers, normally irritated in the morning from his indigestion but calm in the afternoon, acknowledges that Bartleby's conduct is
strange but says it “may only be a passing whim.”
.......The narrator closes the glass doors so that he is alone with Bartleby, then orders him to go to the post office to see whether any mail has arrived. Bartleby gives his usual answer. The narrator returns to
his desk, frustrated, then decides to issue another order. He calls out loudly for Bartleby. Three times he shouts his name. Finally, Bartleby appears next to the screen. The narrator asks him to open the glass doors and summon Nippers.
.......“I prefer not to,”
.......The narrator resigns himself to the presence of Bartleby but, as the days pass, also acknowledges his value. After all, he is quiet, works continually, and is never absent. Moreover, he seems completely trustworthy.
.......The narrator notes at this point that there are four keys to his office—one for himself, one for the cleaning woman, one for Turkey, and one that was lost or misplaced.
.......One Sunday morning, the narrator goes to Trinity Church to hear a famous preacher. Because he arrives early, he decides to walk over to his office. When he inserts his key to unlock the door, it strikes another key already in the lock. He calls out. The other key turns the lock and Bartleby appears half-dressed. Holding the door partly open, he tells the
narrator that he cannot enter. He suggests that the narrator walk around the block a few times and return. By that time, Bartleby says, he will have finished up his business.
.......What is Bartleby up to?
.......When the narrator returns later, he unlocks the door and enters his office. Bartleby is nowhere to be seen. However, there are signs that he has been sleeping, eating, and living in the office—a blanket, soap, a water basin, a towel, and a bit of cheese and a few cake
crumbs on a sheet of newspaper. The narrator concludes that Bartleby is an impoverished, lonely man who has no home or family. Melancholy overcomes the narrator. He feels sorry for Bartleby.
.......The narrator notices that Bartleby has left a key in the lock of
his desk. He turns the key and draws back the panel, revealing neatly arranged papers. In one of the pigeonholes he finds money wrapped in a bandanna, Bartleby's savings. The narrator's pity for Bartleby gives way to a less sympathetic feeling, which the narrator identifies as “repulsion.” He concludes that Bartleby suffers from an “incurable disorder.”
.......The narrator returns home, without stopping at church. He decides that he will dismiss Bartleby on Monday but give him an extra $20 and offer to assist him with his plans for the future, including helping him pay expenses if he relocates.
.......In the morning, he asks Bartleby whether he will tell him where he was born.
.......“I prefer not to,” Bartleby
.......When he asks Bartleby whether he will reveal anything at all about himself, Bartleby gives his usual reply.
.......He asks why Bartleby is withholding the information.
.......“At present,” Bartleby says, “I prefer to give no answer.
.......Although irritated by Bartleby's behavior, the narrator—feeling “something superstitious knocking at my heart, and forbidding me to carry out my purpose”—sits down at his desk and merely tells Bartleby to begin in a few days to check documents for accuracy and in general to be more reasonable.
.......“At present I would prefer not to be reasonable,” Bartleby says.
.......Nippers overhears this answer through the glass doors, gets up and opens them, and angrily storms forth and makes known
his displeasure with Bartleby. Bartleby says, “Mr. Nippers, I prefer that you would withdraw for the present.” Nippers, irritated, contains himself and goes back to his desk. Turkey then comes forth and tells the narrator, “ I think that if he [Bartleby] would but prefer to take a quart of good ale every day, it would do much towards mending him, and enabling him to assist in examining his
.......The narrator notices that Turkey has used Bartleby's word—prefer.
.......Bartleby says he would
prefer to be left alone.
.......The narrator tells Turkey to return to his desk. Turkey says, “Oh, certainly, sir, if you prefer that I should.”
.......The next day, Bartleby spends his time standing at a window. He tells the narrator that he does not plan to do any more copying. The narrator thinks Bartleby's eyes are tired and tells him that it is all right if he does not write for a while. However, several days later, Bartleby says he has ceased copying—permanently.
.......But he does not leave. He continues to come in—and do nothing.
.......Days pass. Bartleby is still there. The narrator begins to
think that Bartleby had been “billeted on me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.” Visitors to the office begin remarking on Bartleby's presence and making offensive comments. Sometimes a visiting lawyer would ask him a question or ask him to run an errand. Bartleby would not respond. News gets around that the narrator is
keeping a “strange creature” in his office. The narrator then decides that if Bartleby will not leave him he will leave Bartleby—that is, he will relocate to a new office. On the scheduled day, movers haul away all the furniture and the narrator bids Bartleby goodbye, leaving money for him.
.......In the new office, the narrator keeps the door locked during the first few workdays, and all goes well. But one day a lawyer contacts him and tells him he is responsible for a man he left behind at his old Wall Street office. The lawyer says Bartleby does nothing there but refuses to leave the premises. The narrator sympathizes with the lawyer but tells
him Bartleby no longer works for him and has no connection with him whatsoever. The lawyer leaves, saying he will settle the matter.
.......Several days pass uneventfully. Then, at the end of another week, the narrator believes he will never again hear any more
about Bartleby. When the narrator arrives at his office the next morning, several persons are waiting for him. One is the lawyer who recently visited him, and another is the landlord from the narrator's old office building. The latter complains that Bartleby, having been turned out by the attorney, now occupies the hallways of the building during the day and sleeps in the entry area at night. His
presence has unnerved occupants of other offices, and they are beginning to leave. The landlord holds the narrator responsible for Bartleby. Worried that refusing to do anything would cause an uproar that finds its way into the newspapers, the narrator says he will do what he can. So he goes to his old office building and meets with Bartleby in the lawyer's office.
.......The narrator asks Bartleby to consider another occupation—tending bar, for example, or collecting bills. Bartleby says he prefers not to look for a new job. When the narrator invites Bartleby to his own home to discuss the scrivener's future, Bartleby says he prefers to
remain where he is.
.......The narrator decides to take several days off and leaves Nippers in charge of his business. Afraid that the landlord and others will track him down, he travels about in his rockaway (a horse-drawn carriage with a top and open
sides) in the upper part of the city and and the suburbs and even goes over to New Jersey.
.......When he returns to his office, he finds a note from the landlord. It says he had Bartleby arrested and jailed in the Tombs on a vagrancy charge. The landlord
requests that the narrator go to the Tombs to give an account of the facts in the case. Because Bartleby is a vagrant and poses no threat of violence, the police allow him to roam the halls and the grass yard, where the narrator finds him standing near a wall. Bartleby tells the narrator he has nothing to say to him, so the narrator turns and leaves the yard. In the corridor, he encounters the
cook (who is called “the grub man”), gives him money, and tells him to prepare Bartleby a good meal.
.......The cook, Mr. Cutlets, goes out and invites Bartleby to dinner with him and Mrs. Cutlets, but Bartleby says, “I prefer not to dine to-day.” The cook
is puzzled. The narrator tells him Bartleby appears to be deranged. Before leaving, he tells the cook to look after him.
.......A few days later, the narrator returns to check on Bartleby. A guard tells him he is asleep in the prison yard. The narrator finds
him lying on his side near the wall.
“Something prompted me to touch him,” the narrator says. “I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine.”
.......Bartleby is dead. Several months later, the narrator hears a rumor saying that Bartleby had been clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington until he lost his job after an election and a change in the government administration.
Now Available...............................Shakespeare: a Guide to the Complete Works...................................................
By the Author of This Web Site
Plot Summaries of All the Plays and Narrative Poems | Themes | Imagery | Historical Background | Glossaries
Shakespeare's Theatre | Drama Terms | Essays | Analysis of the Sonnets | and Much
.......The narrator provides only scant information about himself and the other characters in the short story. For example, he withholds the full names and family backgrounds of everyone except deceased persons. In addition, he never learns why Bartleby refuses to perform certain assigned tasks and why he eventually
refuses to do anything at all. Consequently, interpretations of the story vary among readers.
.......Cummings Study Guides interprets the story as a denunciation of nineteenth-century workplace conditions that impaired the well-being and morale of
employees by turning them into little more than machines.
Narrator's Point of View and His Shortcomings
.......An unidentified narrator tells the story in first-person point of view. He is a lawyer but does not practice in courts. Instead, he operates a profitable business in which he and his staff prepare copies of legal documents. He tells his story from a biased perspective, blaming his workers for problems for
which he is indirectly at fault. Consider, for example, that he hired Bartleby without thoroughly checking his background. At the time of the hiring, the narrator does not even know what Bartleby's previous job was. It is not until Bartleby dies that the narrator hears, via rumor, that Bartleby had worked in the Dead Letter office in Washington.
.......As for Nippers and Turkey, the narrator never asks the former what causes his indigestion or the latter why he gets tipsy every day at noon. All he does is accept their behavior and try to work around it. Clearly, though, they are reacting to their tedious,
low-paying jobs. If the narrator had hired several more employees (ones whose background he thoroughly screened) and raised the wages of Turkey and Nipper, he probably could have remedied Turkey's disruptive behavior in the afternoons and eliminated Nipper's dyspepsia.
.......The narrator's approach to management—to get the most out of his employees for the least amount of pay—reflects that of many other corporate executives of the mid-nineteenth century. It is the narrator and his kind who drive common workers to desperation and who are more in need of reforming their ways than the workers.
Failure of Management to Deal With the Quiet Desperation of Employees
.......“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Henry David Thoreau observed in Walden, published in 1854. The previous year, Herman Melville reached a similar conclusion in “Bartleby the Scrivener”—namely, that many men live quietly from day to day in a desperate struggle against the tedium of a
routine. Some men become drinkers, like Turkey. Some become irritable dyspeptics, like Nippers. And some, like Bartleby, quit the daily routine and become zombies dead to the world around them. In fact, the narrator repeatedly refers to Bartleby as pale, ghostly, deathly, etc., as in the following passages:
Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage.
.......Although the narrator attempts to fathom Bartleby's problems, invites him to his own home to allow Bartleby to discuss his problems in comfortable surroundings, and offers him severance pay, the narrator does so primarily to resolve a nettlesome office problem. The narrator is more concerned with restoring sanity to
his office routine than he is with restoring sanity to the mind of Bartleby.
I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery
there is none. These sad fancyings—chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain—led on to other and more special thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of Bartleby. Presentiments of strange discoveries hovered round me. The scrivener's pale form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding
I was quite sure he never visited any refectory or eating house; while his pale face clearly indicated that he never drank beer like Turkey, or tea and coffee even, like other men; that he never went any where in particular that I could learn; never went out for a walk, unless indeed that was the case at present;
that he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world; that though so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health. And more than all, I remembered a certain unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid haughtiness, say, or
rather an austere reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities, when I had feared to ask him to do the slightest incidental thing for me, even though I might know, from his long-continued motionlessness, that behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall reveries of his.
What shall I do? what ought I to do? what does conscience say I should do with this man, or rather ghost. Rid myself of him, I must; go, he shall. But how? You will not thrust him, the poor, pale, passive mortal,—you will not thrust such a helpless creature out of your
As I afterwards learned, the poor scrivener, when told that he must be conducted to the Tombs, offered not the slightest obstacle, but in his pale unmoving way, silently acquiesced.
.......As for Nippers and Turkey, the narrator regards their symptoms of discontent as mere eccentricities instead of serious problems. Consequently, he fails to take remedial
action, such as paying better wages and enlarging his staff with several more scriveners.
The Emptiness of a Programmed Existence
.......Everyday life has become ritualized and repetitive for Turkey, Nippers, and Bartleby. Each is a captive of a humdrum routine; each leads a programmed existence. Only Bartleby appears to understand what is happening, and only he makes an effort to escape the office routine.
.......Oddly, the tedium of this routine causes other repetitive activity. For example, to cope with the monotony of copying documents, Turkey gets tipsy every day during his lunch hour. So regular is he in keeping his appointment with the midday bottle that the narrator
compares him to the sun. In the morning, his face is merely flushed. After lunch, it burns life fire—like the sun itself at its zenith. By the end of day, the fire wanes as the sun begins to set.
.......For Nippers, the work routine produces a daily bout of
indigestion, occurring always in the morning. He becomes irritable and given to cursing, and he entertains ambitions of becoming more than a mere copyist. Meanwhile, he constantly adjusts the height of his desk, putting blocks or folded papers under it. In the afternoon, his indigestion disappears, and he is a model workman.
.......Bartleby also falls into a routine after the narrator hires him. His routine is uncomplicated: He simply copies documents, one after the other, and at precisely 11 a.m. stops for a moment to send Ginger Nut out to buy small cakes for him. But Bartleby rebels against his
routine when he begins telling the narrator, “I prefer not to.” Bartleby's previous job as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington was also repetitve, requiring him to determine the disposition of letters that could not be delivered because of missing or faulty addresses or illegible handwriting. The volume of dead letters handled was enormous, as James H. Burns points out: "At the end of
the 19th century it was not uncommon for the clerks in the Dead Letter Office to handle as many as 23,000 pieces of 'dead' mail daily. Unfortunately, scarcely more than 40 percent of these letters ultimately got to the proper destination, although not for lack of effort" ("Remembering the Dead." EnRoute July-September 1992. Smithsonian National Postal Museum. 21 Aug.
.......But apparently it was not only the sheer numbers of letters that affected
the fictional Bartleby but also the sometimes poignant contents of the letters. (He had to read the letters to look for clues that might make them deliverable.) The narrator says,
Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by
unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.Perhaps in his job as a scrivener for the narrator, Bartleby was also privy to sensitive information about people involved in legal action over deeds, mortgages, bequests, and so on.
Exploitation of Workers
.......In the mid-nineteenth century, employers often got rich on the backs of their workers, making handsome profits for themselves but paying their employees meager wages for working long hours. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the narrator makes excellent profits but is tight-fisted when it comes to remunerating his
staff, as he unwittingly discloses in the following passage about Turkey. Note the words highlighted in red.
He wore his pantaloons very loose and baggy in summer. His coats were execrable; his hat not be to handled. But while the hat was a thing of indifference to me, inasmuch as his natural civility and deference, as a dependent Englishman, always led him to doff it the moment he entered the room, yet his coat was another matter. Concerning his
coats, I reasoned with him; but with no effect. The truth was, I suppose, that a man with so small an income, could not afford to sport such a lustrous face and a lustrous coat at one and the same time. .......Nippers, who is less than half Turkey's age, probably receives even less money than Turkey. And as a newcomer, Bartleby probably makes less than either man. Yet the narrator expects each scrivener to do excruciatingly tedious work. Here is the narrator's own evaluation of the task of checking copies for
It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy
hand.Bartleby's Rebellion as a Reflection of the Labor Movement's Discontent
.......Bartleby's refusal to follow orders reflects the discontent of exploited workers who were pressing for reform in the middle of the nineteenth century. Their activism led to the foundation of the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor in the 1860s and the powerful American Federation of Labor in 1886. Of
course, Bartleby does not explain why "I prefer not to" work, but it may well be that he—like other workers—is growing tired of a repetitive daily routine that pays low wages. He does not wish to become a machine that churns out legal documents one after the other. Unfortunately, Bartleby carries his protest campaign to the extreme, refusing even to eat when he is in jail.
Who Is the Protagonist?
.......Who is the protagonist, Bartleby or the narrator?
.......Let us first consider Bartleby. He is the title character and the one who generates conflict with repeated refusals
to carry out the narrator's orders. When he says "I prefer not to," he enables the author to develop a central theme in the story: that workplace conditions for common laborers of the mid-nineteenth century had turned them into desperate, broken men who yearned to be more than mere machines of production.
.......However, most of the story centers on the narrator and his reactions to Bartleby. It is the narrator who tells the story. It is he whom the reader follows from one episode to the next as he tries to cope with the mulish Bartleby. Although the reader knows little about Bartleby, he knows a great deal about the narrator—his pride
in his accomplishments, his resolve, his hesitation in acting on his resolve, and his tendency to make excuses for his behavior when it crosses the bounds of propriety. For example, when he is alone in his office and notices the key Bartleby left in the lock of his desk, the narrator opens the desk, invading Bartleby's privacy, but justifies his action to himself. Here is the passage that reports
his justification of his infraction: "I mean no mischief, seek the gratification of no heartless curiosity, thought I; besides, the desk is mine, and its contents too, so I will make bold to look within."
.......Here is another passage in which the narrator
makes an excuse (actually, an outright lie): "Acting accordingly, next day I thus addressed him: 'I find these chambers too far from the City Hall; the air is unwholesome. In a word, I propose to remove my offices next week, and shall no longer require your services. I tell you this now, in order that you may seek another place.' "
.......In addition, the reader knows of the narrator's inordinate concern for what others think of him. The first hint of this concern comes in the third paragraph, when the narrator notes that one of his clients—John Jacob Astor, the world's wealthiest man in his time—had once
praised him. The narrator says:
All who know me consider me an eminently safe man. The late John Jacob Astor, a personage little given to poetic enthusiasm, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first grand point to be prudence; my next, method. I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor;
a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. I will freely add, that I was not insensible to the late John Jacob Astor's good opinion.The narrator again reveals his sensitivity to others' opinions when lawyers and witnesses visit his office and see Bartleby unoccupied but refusing to run errands for them. The narrator then says,
I was made aware that all through the circle of my professional acquaintance, a whisper of wonder was running round, having reference to the strange creature I kept at my office. This worried me very much. And as the idea came upon me of his possibly turning out a long-lived man, and keep occupying my chambers, and denying my authority; and
perplexing my visitors; and scandalizing my professional reputation . . . I resolved to gather all my faculties together, and for ever rid me of this intolerable incubus.Later, when the landlord and his supporters complain to the narrator about Bartleby's presence, the narrator worries that the situation will result in a hubbub that will reach the newspapers.
In vain I persisted that Bartleby was nothing to me—no more than to any one else. In vain:—I was the last person known to have any thing to do with him, and they held me to the terrible account. Fearful then of being exposed in the papers (as one person present obscurely threatened) I considered the matter, and at length said, that if the
lawyer would give me a confidential interview with the scrivener, in his (the lawyer's) own room, I would that afternoon strive my best to rid them of the nuisance they complained of........Thus, because the story centers mostly on how the narrator reacts to Bartleby as a way to develop the themes, it seems that the narrator is the more logical choice as the protagonist. Bartleby then becomes the antagonist, the catalyst who makes the narrator react.
The Role of Ginger Nut
.......The twelve-year-old Ginger Nut represents the future. He is to become a lawyer, like the narrator. Ginger Nut spends little time at his desk, the narrator says, but he is called in to help check documents for accuracy. In addition, he sweeps up and runs errands, including buying snacks for Turkey, Nippers, and
Bartleby. Ginger Nut does not exhibit any symptoms of discontent. Perhaps he realizes that he will someday work in a challenging profession that pays him well. Ginger Nut brings out a positive characteristic of the narrator--namely, the narrator's willingness to help a boy just starting out in life. He also brings out a positive characteristic of Bartleby, benevolence. Whenever Ginger Nut returns
with Bartleby's snacks--small cakes--Bartleby rewards the boy with two of the cakes.
.......The climax occurs when the narrator fails on his last attempt to persuade Bartleby to leave the office building.
Imagery: Walls and Other Barriers
.......To underscore the idea that the central characters are prisoners of their daily routine, Melville presents images of walls and other barriers that surround or separate the characters. Consider the narrator's description of his office near the beginning of the story:
At one end they [the office chambers] looked upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom. This view might have been considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call "life." But if so, the view from the other end of my
chambers offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes. Owing to the great height of the surrounding
buildings, and my chambers being on the second floor, the interval between this wall and mine not a little resembled a huge square cistern. After hiring Bartleby, the narrator mentions other barriers in the office area to which he assigns Bartleby:
I should have stated before that ground glass folding-doors divided my premises into two parts, one of which was occupied by my scriveners, the other by myself. According to my humor I threw open these doors, or closed them. I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to
have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done. I placed his desk close up to a small side-window in that part of the room, a window which originally had afforded a lateral view of certain grimy back-yards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though it gave some light. Within three feet of the panes was a wall,
and the light came down from far above, between two lofty buildings, as from a very small opening in a dome. Still further to a satisfactory arrangement, I procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice. The narrator later tells the reader that “for long periods he [Bartleby] would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall. . . .” So frequent are Bartleby's staring spells that the narrator comes to call them “dead-wall reveries.” After Bartleby goes to prison, the narrator visits him and
describes the scene:
Being under no disgraceful charge, and quite serene and harmless in all his ways, they had permitted him freely to wander about the prison, and especially in the inclosed grass-platted yards thereof. And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall, while all
around, from the narrow slits of the jail windows, I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves.At the end of the story, Bartleby dies while lying next to the prison wall.
.Figures of Speech
Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.
After a few words touching his qualifications, I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man
of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thought might operate beneficially upon the flighty
temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.
Concerning his coats, I reasoned with him; but with no effect. The truth was, I suppose, that a man with so small an income, could not afford to sport such a lustrousface and a lustrouscoat at one and the same time.
There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him.
Of a cold morning when business was but dull, Turkey would gobble up scores of these cakes, as if they were mere wafers—indeed they sell them at the rate of six or eight for a penny—the scrape of his pen blending with the crunching of
the crisp particles in his mouth.
Nippers . . . ground out between his set teeth occasional hissing maledictions against the stubborn oaf behind the screen
Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there. (Comparison of Bartleby's workplace to the dwelling of a hermit.) Simile
In plain fact, he had now become a millstone to me, not only useless as a
necklace, but afflictive to bear. (Comparison of Bartleby to a millstone.)
Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he [Bartleby] appeared at the entrance of his hermitage. (Comparison of Bartleby to a ghost.) Anaphora
But he answered not a word; like the last column of some
ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room. (Comparison of Bartleby to a temple column.)
.......Anaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance, as in the following example:
As days passed on, I became considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his freedom from all dissipation, his incessant industry (except when he chose to throw himself into a standing revery behind his screen),
his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances, made him a valuable acquisition. Personification
Nevertheless I strangely felt something superstitious knocking at my heart, and forbidding me to carry out my purpose, and denouncing me for a villain if I dared to breathe one bitter word against this forlornest of mankind. (Comparison of "something superstitious" to a person.)Irony
.......The narrator becomes frustrated with Bartleby's repeated response, "I prefer not." Ironically, although he does not realize it, the narrator responds in a similar way to Bartleby, Nippers, Turkey, and society in general. For example, he prefers not to practice courtroom law in order to make an easy but profitable
living in an office. He prefers not to make changes that would ease the burden on his staff. He prefers not to pay Turkey (and presumably Nippers and Bartleby) a good salary.
Allusions and Definitions
Adam: First man in the Bible's Book of Genesis. The narrator refers to himself and Bartleby as "sons of Adam" to point out that they are, in a sense, brothers.
Astor, John Jacob: Famous financier and industrialist who was the
world's wealthiest man at the time of his death. Astor (1763-1848) was a real historical personage. He plays no role in "Bartleby the Scrivener," but the narrator refers to him as a former client, saying Astor praised him for his business qualities.
Adams: See Colt.
Byron: George Gordon Lord Byron (1788-1824), one of the great English romantic poets.
Cicero: Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC), Roman statesman,
writer, and scholar who attempted to preserve the republican government (in which citizens elected their representatives) during civil wars that culminated in the replacement the Roman republic with a government ruled by an emperor.
Colt: John C. Colt. In a
sensational trial in New York City, Colt was convicted in January 1842 of murdering printer Samuel Adams in 1841 after the latter attempted to collect money Colt owed him. Adams had printed textbooks that Colt used to teach bookkeeping. Colt was sentenced to hang on November 18, 1842, but committed suicide shortly before the scheduled execution.
Edwards: Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), American theologian, philosopher, and fiery preacher. Edwards, a Puritan, espoused a form of determinism arguing that a human being cannot act in contradiction to the will of God. He explained his opposition to the concept of free will in his book A Careful
And Strict Enquiry Into The Modern Prevailing Notions Of That Freedom Of Will Which Is Supposed to Be Essential to Moral Agency, Virtue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame.
Edwards, Monroe: Notorious Kentucky-born forger. After Edwards (1808-1847) was tried and
convicted in New York City, he was sentenced to the Tombs prison, where he died after prison guards beat him.
Kings and Counselors: This phrase, which appears in the last sentence of the story, alludes to the Old Testament's Book of Job, Chapter 3, Verses 13-14.
Marius: Gaius Marius (157-86 BC), Roman general and consul who had won great military victories for Rome. In a political struggle, Marius fell from power and was exiled for a time to Africa. He stayed briefly in Carthage before sailing to an island to escape his enemies.
new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another: Allusion to words spoken by Christ, as reported in the New Testament in John, Chapter 13, Verse 34.
Petra: Ancient capital of a
Middle Eastern Semitic people known as Nabateans. The remains of the city are in present-day Jordan. Petra is famous for its beautiful structures carved from rose-red rock.
Priestley: Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), English clergyman and scientist best remembered as the discoverer of
oxygen. He rejected many orthodox Christian beliefs, earning a reputation as radical religious thinker. In "Bartleby the Scrivener," the narrator's phrase "Priestley on Necessity" may be a reference to one of Priestley's books, The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity, published in London in 1777.
Sing-Sing: Prison established in 1824 at Sing Sing (a town now known as Ossining), about thirty miles north of New York City.
Spitzenbergs: Spitzenburgs. A spitzenburg (or esopus spitzenburg) is a variety of apple prized for its
Tombs: A Manhattan prison and court complex known officially as The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention. The granite structure was modeled after an Egyptian mausoleum.
.......Although "Bartleby the Scrivener" ends tragically, the story is not without humor. Consider the Dickensian characters: a red-faced man half-drunk at his desk attempting to copy a document word for word, a finicky dyspeptic adjusting and readjusting his desk, and a zombie-like man staring out the window all day at
a wall. After Bartleby repeatedly says "I prefer not to," the other characters begin using the word prefer as well, making the narrator wonder what the deuce is going on. And then there is the narrator's continuing struggle with Bartleby. No matter what the narrator does, he cannot get Bartleby to do his bidding. The narrator's schemes are reminiscent of those of the cartoon character Wile
E. Coyote in his losing battle with the Roadrunner.
.......Herman Melville, was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819, and died there on Sept. 28, 1891. His name was Herman Melvill until 1832, when the family added the final "e" to the name. He was one of eight children, four boys and four girls. Melville taught school briefly in Pittsfield, Mass., studied surveying,
served as a cabin boy on a voyage to Liverpool, England, and in 1841 joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet for a voyage to the South Seas. He jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and spent time there with the native people according to unconfirmed accounts. He also reportedly served on an Australian whaler, the Lucy Ann. Later, in Nantucket, Mass., he was hired as a harpooner
on the Charles & Henry, then quit the ship in the Hawaiian Islands and signed on as a seaman with a frigate, the United States, and ended his sea career in 1844. His sea background, along with his extensive reading of the great works of literature, provided him the raw material for his great novel Moby Dick. His life in New York City provided him the background for
"Bartleby the Scrivener." Study Questions and Essay Topics
1....Point out several passages in the story indicating that the narrator did not thoroughly check Bartleby's background before hiring him.
2....Do you believe the narrator has a wife and
children? What about Nippers, Turkey, and Bartleby? Explain your answer.
3....Do you sympathize more with the narrator or Bartleby?
4....Write a psychological profile of the narrator.
5....Write a psychological profile of Bartleby.
only female mentioned in the story is the woman who cleans the narrator's office. In 19th-century America, was it hard for a woman to become a lawyer or a copyist?
7....At the end of the story, the narrator says Bartleby once worked in the dead-letter office
in Washington. Write an informative essay describing the purpose and functions of the dead-letter office. Among the Internet research sources you might wish to consider are Associated Content, Wikipedia, and the National Postal Museum.