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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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What social expectations does the title character in Bartleby, the Scrivener violate?

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This fascinating short story/novel by the author of Moby Dick is most striking because it takes place in the rule-bound world of Wall Street, where conventions both financial and social are rigid and penalty-strong. First, Bartleby’s living habits, including sleeping in the office, are completely taboo in these offices (in any office, actually).

Secondly, the business world has a strict ranking of hierarchy, enforced by dismissal if violated, and an often unwritten social code. For a lowly clerk (a scrivener is nothing more than a clerk of the lowest status, whose job consists of making copies of documents, by hand, without any decision-making responsibility) to state any preference at all is unthinkable, but to voice his refusal with the insubordinate statement “I prefer not to” repeated over and over, is clearly cause for dismissal. Melville, in this magnetic vignette, uses Bartleby's violation of social expectations to both contrast the common man’s ability to “choose” with other fictional characters, such large fictional “choosers” as Captain Ahab and Captain Vere (in Melville’s Billy Budd), and to outline the principles of emerging existentialism.

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