The title character of the story, Bartleby, is hired by the lawyer as a scrivener, whose job is to copy out legal documents by hand. Bartleby is described as neat, pale, and forlorn. Although Bartleby's demeanor suggests sadness or discontent, he never expresses any emotion in the story and is described by the lawyer as "mechanical" in his actions. The plot of the story revolves around Bartleby's enigmatic refusal to carry out his employer's orders. When asked to perform a task, Bartleby frequently responds, "I would prefer not to." This peculiarly passive form of resistance causes his employer much consternation. Eventually, Bartleby refuses to do anything at all and simply stares vacantly at the wall. Bartleby is finally carried off to prison, where he starves himself to death. The reason for Bartleby's disturbed state of mind is never revealed, although the lawyer believes it may have something to do with a previous job that Bartleby may had held in the dead letter office of the U.S. Post Office. Because so little is learned about Bartleby in the story, critics have tended to interpret him in purely symbolic terms.
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Ginger Nut is the nickname of the twelve-year-old boy hired to run small errands around the law office for a dollar a week. His name is derived from the ginger nut cakes that he brings every day to the two scriveners, Turkey and Nippers. Ginger Nut's father hopes that his job will one day help him enter a legal career. The lawyer describes him as quick-witted.
Although he is not the title character, the lawyer, who narrates the story, is arguably the key figure in "Bartleby the Scrivener." He is approximately sixty-years-old and holds the prestigious position of Master in Chancery. His job is widely viewed as a sinecure—a profitable position requiring little actual work that is given to relatives or friends of the very powerful. The lawyer describes himself as a "safe" and "unambitious" man. He seems to pride himself on his even temper, prudence, and gentility. Because the story is told from his point of view, determining the lawyer's prejudices and social outlook is crucial to an interpretation of the story. The narrative revolves around the lawyer's reactions to Bartleby's behavior. Some critics contend that the lawyer empathizes on some level with Bartleby's despair and find his intentions toward Bartleby generally admirable. Others view him as a pathetic figure whose supposedly "liberal" outlook only serves to mask (even from himself) his self-interest in exploiting and controlling the Bartlebys of the...
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