“Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” was one of the first stories that Melville published during the brief period when his work was accepted by the major periodicals. It has become his most widely known story, praised for being ahead of its time. The story focuses on a prosperous lawyer, who prides himself on being a “safe man.”
Ensconced in his Wall Street law offices, the lawyer manages an office of complementary contrasting scriveners (law copyists) who represent opposing types. The lawyer works around the limitations of his employees in the optimistic belief that his is the enlightened and most effective way to lead life. In effect, he attempts to avoid conflict and promotes compromise. He stands as a representative of nineteenth century American optimism, an outlook that Melville questioned in much of his writing.
When a cadaverous man named Bartleby approaches him for employment, the lawyer, pressed for extra help at the time, gladly puts the new employee to work. Bartleby is clearly capable of doing acceptable work, but before long he exhibits an annoying refusal to engage in certain tedious activities, such as proofreading documents. Pressed for time, the lawyer works around this unusual refusal, but before long he discovers that Bartleby is living in the offices at night, subsisting on ginger nuts that he stores in his desk. The lawyer’s uneasiness is compounded when Bartleby begins to refuse all work, refuses to leave the premises, and spends much time staring out a window at the brick wall only inches away from him.
The lawyer’s melioristic optimism is pushed to the limit. He tries to discuss the situation with Bartleby, attempts reasoning with him, even attempts bribing him. He invites him to stay at his home. Bartleby’s maddening response is always the same: “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer eventually surrenders, trying to escape his responsibility for this strange, broken human being by moving his offices and leaving Bartleby behind, but before long the new residents of the building are complaining about the strange character who lives in the hallways. The lawyer renounces any responsibility, and Bartleby is hauled off to the Tombs, the city prison, where he is surrounded by walls such as those he stared at from the lawyer’s window.
The lawyer tries to bribe a jailer to assure that Bartleby is treated well, but upon his return weeks later, he discovers that Bartleby has been refusing to eat and has died of malnutrition. At the story’s end, when the lawyer sighs “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” the reader recognizes the universal implications of the story and knows that the lawyer will be unable to approach life with the same simplistic optimism he had before.
As an epilogue of sorts, the narrator adds a bit of information about Bartleby’s past, explaining that he had been previously employed in the dead letter office of the post office. In this position he was repeatedly faced with the tragedies of miscommunication. This revelation should not serve as an easy explanation for Bartleby’s condition, however, for Melville’s story depicts the mystery of despair and argues that some suffering is beyond melioration. Melville’s “story of Wall Street” has been praised for its modernity. Certainly the tale foreshadows the twentieth and twenty-first century theme of urban alienation and describes a dehumanized environment of brick and mortar that is shut off from the consolations of the natural world.