Herman Melville

Bartleby the Scrivener

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Bartleby the Scrivener Summary

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The short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” written by Herman Melville in 1853, was first published anonymously in serial form. “Bartleby” is a critics’ favorite and one of Melville’s most debated works. It is surprisingly modern—even by today’s standards. Some see “Bartleby” as an examination of the toll the business and legal world can take on its workers. Others see it as an autobiographical tale of Melville’s frustration with writing. Most agree, although the story was not as popular at the time of publication, it is an important piece of literature from Melville.

The narrator of “Bartleby” is an elderly lawyer who oversees his own office on Wall Street in New York City. The narrator employs two scriveners. Scriveners are hired to copy or write documents for court and examine them, or do the same for other official capacities. These two scriveners, Nippers and Turkey, can be ill-tempered and often neglect their work. Turkey is older and has difficulty concentrating in the afternoon, whereas Nippers is young and has difficulty working in the morning. The narrator also employs an errand boy called Ginger Nut because he often fetches ginger nut cakes for the scriveners.

The narrator soon hires Bartleby since he has been having difficulties with his other scriveners. He believes Bartleby’s cool and calm demeanor might calm down the other two and possibly convince them to work harder. Bartleby is a great worker at first; he works day and night, sometimes he has great output working solely by candlelight. One unremarkable day, the lawyer calls Bartleby into his office and asks him to look over a small document. Strangely, Bartleby responds, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s answer confuses and astonishes the lawyer. His scriveners have always complied with his requests. He is so shocked by Bartleby’s response, he decides to ask Nippers to do it and does not confront Bartleby about his response.

A few days pass and the lawyer wants Bartleby and the rest of his staff to look over a large document, which was already copied by Bartleby. Again, to the confusion of everyone, Bartleby responds that he would “prefer not to.” The other scriveners are confused and angry that they must take on Bartleby’s work. The lawyer is dumbfounded and wonders if he is perhaps in the wrong, since Bartleby’s response is so unsystematic and strange. He is transfixed by Bartleby’s behavior and begins watching him. He rarely, if ever, leaves the office, and orders Ginger Nut to bring him food. The lawyer begins to pity Bartleby, even though he is not doing minimal work. He decides to keep Bartleby in his employment, as he would be treated badly for his behavior anywhere else in the profession.

Turkey soon becomes angry and frustrated with Bartleby and lashes out at him for not looking at a document Bartleby copied. The narrator attempts to save him from Turkey’s rage by asking Bartleby to run down to the post office for him, but Bartleby gives his standard response that he would prefer not to. Bartleby continues to copy documents, as Nippers and Turkey are forced to go over Bartleby’s work.

On a Sunday, the lawyer stops by his office. He is surprised to find that his key does not work. Soon, Bartleby answers the door and asks the lawyer to return in a few minutes. The lawyer finds himself obeying Bartleby. When he returns, Bartleby is gone, but the lawyer deduces Bartleby must be living at the office. The lawyer feels pity for Bartleby once again. At work the next day, the lawyer attempts to ascertain more about Bartleby’s life, but Bartleby is uninterested in divulging anything. Nippers and Turkey grow continuously frustrated with Bartleby, but he just disregards them.

Bartleby soon comes to the lawyer and tells him he will not be doing any more work. Bartleby just looks out of the window during the day, where all he can see is a brick wall. The lawyer still pities Bartleby and does not want to kick him out. He asks Bartleby to leave and wonders out loud to him what kind of entitlement he has that makes him think he can stay there. Bartleby does not respond. The lawyer acquiesces to him, accepting that Bartleby will be like a ghost who haunts his office and at least the lawyer is doing his Christian duty. Unfortunately, clients and other business associates of the lawyer start to notice Bartleby’s strange presence. He knows he cannot get rid of Bartleby, so he decides to move offices.

New tenants soon arrive and come to question the lawyer about Bartleby, who is still there, sitting on the stairs all-day and sleeping in a doorway at night. They ask the lawyer to help remove him, which the lawyer says he has no control over. After the new tenants involve the police, together they ask the lawyer to do something about Bartleby. The lawyer goes to see Bartleby, who is the same as ever. He refuses to leave, even when the lawyer offers Bartleby a place in his home. The lawyer leaves him, and Bartleby is soon arrested for vagrancy.

The lawyer goes to visit Bartleby in prison, but Bartleby does not say a word. The lawyer pays a guard at the prison to make sure Bartleby is fed well. Returning a few days later, the lawyer finds Bartleby asleep under a tree in the prison yard. When he attempts to speak to him, he finds that Bartleby has died. Bartleby, preferring not to eat, died of starvation. The story ends with the lawyer confessing he has discovered Bartleby used to work in a dead letter office—where undeliverable mail goes. He wonders if working there drove Bartleby to his strange behavior. He concludes with the famous line, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”