Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
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 news.
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.
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 certain tasks.
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 narrator's bidding.
Scrivener who turns to alcohol to cope with the tedium of copying documents.
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 certain clients.
Ginger Nut: Twelve-year-old
office boy who makes a dollar a week. His fathers hopes that he will learn
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.
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 old office.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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, incurably forlorn!”
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.
is highly productive, copying on and on and on. One day, the narrator asks
Bartleby to help him review a document for accuracy.
would prefer not to,” Bartleby says.
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.
would prefer not to,” Bartleby again says.
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.
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.
would prefer not to,” Bartleby says, then goes back behind the screen.
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.
prefer not to,” Bartleby says.
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
narrator and the three clerks proceed on their own, but not without grumbling
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.
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 conscience.”
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
says, “I would prefer not to.”
you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?” the narrator says.
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.”
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.
prefer not to,” Bartleby says.
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.
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.
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.
is Bartleby up to?
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
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.”
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
the morning, he asks Bartleby whether he will tell him where he was born.
prefer not to,” Bartleby says.
he asks Bartleby whether he will reveal anything at all about himself,
Bartleby gives his usual reply.
asks why Bartleby is withholding the information.
present,” Bartleby says, “I prefer to give no answer.
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.
present I would prefer not to be reasonable,” Bartleby says.
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 papers."
narrator notices that Turkey has used Bartleby's word—prefer.
says he would prefer to be left alone.
narrator tells Turkey to return to his desk. Turkey says, “Oh, certainly,
sir, if you prefer that I should.”
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.
he does not leave. He continues to come in—and do nothing.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
me to touch him,” the narrator says. “I felt his hand, when a tingling
shiver ran up my arm and down my spine.”
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.
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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.
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.
Point of View and His Shortcomings
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.
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
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
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
Like a very ghost,
agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared
at the entrance of his hermitage.
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
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
pale form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers,
its shivering winding sheet.
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
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
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 door?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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. 2009
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
Exploitation of Workers
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.
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.
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
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.
Is the Protagonist?
is the protagonist, Bartleby or the narrator?
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Role of Ginger Nut
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.
climax occurs when the narrator fails on his last attempt to persuade Bartleby
to leave the office building.
Walls and Other Barriers
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:
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.
hiring Bartleby, the narrator mentions other barriers in the office area
to which he assigns Bartleby:
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.
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:
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.
end of the story, Bartleby dies while lying next to the prison wall.
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
a man of so
which I thought might operate beneficially
upon the flighty
and the fiery
one of Nippers.
I reasoned with him; but with no effect. The truth was, I suppose,
that a man with so
not afford to sport
face and a lustrouscoat
at one and the same
There was a strange, inflamed,
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.)
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
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.)
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,
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 (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.
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 (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.
established in 1824 at Sing Sing (a town now known as Ossining), about
thirty miles north of New York City.
A spitzenburg (or esopus spitzenburg) is a variety of apple prized
for its exceptional taste.
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
"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
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
Dick. His life in New York City provided him the background for "Bartleby
Questions and Essay Topics
out several passages in the story indicating that the narrator did not
thoroughly check Bartleby's background before hiring him.
you believe the narrator has a wife and children? What about Nippers, Turkey,
and Bartleby? Explain your answer.
you sympathize more with the narrator or Bartleby?
a psychological profile of the narrator.
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?
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
and the National