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.)
The Law Office on Wall Street and Bartleby's Peculiar Resistance
The Law Office on Wall Street
The narrator of "Bartleby the Scrivener" begins the story by introducing the reader to the law office on Wall Street of which he was the manager when he first met Bartleby. The narrator describes himself as an unambitious, elderly lawyer who has enjoyed a comfortable tenure as Master in Chancery. Before hiring Bartleby, the narrator—henceforth referred to as the lawyer—employed two law-copyists, or scriveners, and one office boy. The lawyer describes each of his employees in turn. The elder scrivener, nicknamed Turkey, is nearing sixty and it is implied that he drinks heavily on his lunch hour. The other scrivener, who goes by the nickname Nippers, is younger and considered overly ambitious by the narrator. The office boy is called Ginger Nut after the cakes which he brings to the two scriveners.
Bartleby's Peculiar Resistance
Because of an increased work load at his office, the lawyer is forced to hire a third scrivener. He hires Bartleby mostly on account of his sedate and respectable demeanor, which he hopes will temper the manners of his other two scriveners. The lawyer situates Bartleby behind a high folding screen and in front of a window that looks out upon a wall. Bartleby is quietly industrious in his work until the third day, when he is asked to proofread some documents. To the lawyer's astonishment, Bartleby responds to his request with the simple reply, "I would prefer not to." The...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
The Lawyer Attempts to Rid Himself of Bartleby and Bartleby Dies in Prison
The Lawyer Attempts to Rid Himself of Bartleby
The next morning, the lawyer questions Bartleby about his personal life. Bartleby replies that he prefers not to answer. The lawyer begs Bartleby to cooperate and be reasonable, but Bartleby responds that he prefers not to be reasonable. The lawyer resolves that he must rid himself of Bartleby before the rebellion spreads to the other scriveners—who, he notes, have begun to use the expression "prefer'' for the first time—but he takes no immediate action. The next day, Bartleby informs the lawyer that he has given up copying—the one task that he had been willing to perform previously. Several more days pass. Finally, the lawyer is satisfied that Bartleby will never resume his work. He tells Bartleby that he must vacate the premises by the end of six days. At the end of the sixth day, the lawyer reminds Bartleby that he must leave, gives him his wages plus twenty dollars, and tells him goodbye. The next day Bartleby is still there. Exasperated, the lawyer decides that he will not use physical force or call the police, remembering the Bible's injunction "that ye love one another." Instead, he attempts to conduct his business as usual, ignoring the fact that Bartleby inhabits his office without working and refuses to leave. This state of affairs lasts until the lawyer becomes aware that Bartleby's presence in his office has become the subject of much gossip which has jeopardized his professional...
(The entire section is 613 words.)