Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“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...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“Bartleby the Scrivener” is narrated by a prosperous Wall Street lawyer who, in “the cool tranquillity of a snug retreat,” does “a snug business among rich men’s bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds.” Among his clients, the nameless narrator is proud to report, was John Jacob Astor, the richest man in the United States at the time of his death.
The narrator’s employees, as the story begins, are Turkey and Nippers, who are scriveners, or copyists, and Ginger Nut, a young office boy. The Dickensian copyists present problems for their employer, for each displays a different personality during each half of the working day. Turkey, who is short and fat, works quickly and steadily before noon but becomes clumsy and ill-tempered after his midday meal. At the opposite extreme is the dyspeptic Nippers, nervous and irritable in the mornings but mild and productive in the afternoons. Because they are regular in their inconsistent behavior, the narrator reports that he “never had to do with their eccentricities at one time,” and the work of the office proceeds, with Ginger Nut keeping the scriveners under some control by supplying them with cakes and apples.
The unusual order of the office is disrupted when the lawyer, because of extra work created by his being appointed a Master in Chancery, hires an additional copyist. At first, Bartleby works constantly, but one day he suddenly declines to compare a copied document and its...
(The entire section is 493 words.)