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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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How do the minor characters Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut in “Bartleby the Scrivener” contribute to the development of the story’s themes: individualism and peer pressure, freedom and imprisonment, passivity, and class conflict?

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Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut are all employees of the lawyer narrator. Nippers and Turkey are scriveners, meaning they copy documents, while the twelve-year-old Ginger Nut is an office boy who runs errands.

We can see the class issues from the start, which ties into the theme of people alienated from their work, which is especially prevalent in Nippers and Turkey. Neither of these men is an ideal employee, which suggests that copying documents is the kind of boring, low-paid, dead-end work that attracts people who cannot get other jobs. Nippers, for example, is an older man, in his sixties, who drinks heavily at lunch and can't do much decent work in the afternoon: he is always getting blots on the page. Turkey is only twenty-five, but the lawyer fears he is ambitious: he is more interested in a legal career than in his scrivener job. He dresses well but is unpleasant; Nippers dresses very poorly and is rude in the afternoons. Ginger Nut is very bright, but he is a child, underpaid even given the time period, at a dollar a week for full-time work, and likely will quickly move on. We see in these three a portrait of the type of marginal employee that is all the lawyer can afford. All of these men are individuals, and the lawyer puts up with their irritating quirks because he doesn't have much choice: he has to take what he can get. However, both Nippers and Turkey, while giving signs of feeling imprisoned—from Nippers's drinking to the way Turkey sits at his desk—respond to peer pressure enough to do their jobs with some bit of competence: they at least pretend to follow the rules while displaying passive aggression in other ways.

However, their signs of dissatisfaction with their jobs and the evidences that the lawyer (or the industry) does not pay good wages help us to understand why Bartleby might enact their repressed desires and decide not to do the soul-deadening work. They also explain why the lawyer might put up with Bartleby's oddities: he knows Bartleby can do good work if he wants to, and the lawyer is used to tolerating difficult employees.

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