“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 leave the premises, and spends much time staring out a window at the brick wall only inches away from him.
The lawyer’s melioristic optimism is pushed to the limit. He tries to discuss the situation with Bartleby, attempts reasoning with him, even attempts bribing him. He invites him to stay at his home. Bartleby’s maddening response is always the same: “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer eventually surrenders, trying to escape his responsibility for this strange, broken human being by moving his offices and leaving Bartleby behind, but before long the new residents of the building are complaining about the strange character who lives in the hallways. The lawyer renounces any responsibility, and Bartleby is hauled off to the Tombs, the city prison, where he is surrounded by walls such as those he stared at from the lawyer’s window.
The lawyer tries to bribe a jailer to assure that Bartleby is treated well, but upon his return weeks later, he discovers that Bartleby has been refusing to eat and has died of malnutrition. At the story’s end, when the lawyer sighs “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” the reader recognizes the universal implications of the story and knows that the lawyer will be unable to approach life with the same simplistic optimism he had before.
As an epilogue of sorts, the narrator adds a bit of information about Bartleby’s past, explaining that he had been previously employed in the dead letter office of the post office. In this position he was repeatedly faced with the tragedies of miscommunication. This revelation should not serve as an easy explanation for Bartleby’s condition, however, for Melville’s story depicts the mystery of despair and argues that some suffering is beyond melioration. Melville’s “story of Wall Street” has been praised for its modernity. Certainly the tale foreshadows the twentieth and twenty-first century theme of urban alienation and describes a dehumanized environment of brick and mortar that is shut off from the consolations of the natural world.
“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 original, offering no explanation, saying simply, “I would prefer not to.” Gradually, he prefers not to perform any of his tasks. His employer also discovers that Bartleby has no home other than the office and is sleeping there nights and weekends, eating little more than ginger nuts (small, spicy cakes).
The lawyer pleads with Bartleby to work or leave, but the obstinate scrivener continues to pursue his preference not to do anything. Growing increasingly distraught over these circumstances, the lawyer finally moves his chambers to another building. When Bartleby is expelled from the office by the new tenant, he remains in the building. The lawyer makes final pleas, even offering to take Bartleby home with him. Still, the scrivener prefers not to make any change, and the narrator flees the city in his frustration. On his return, he learns that Bartleby has been taken to the Tombs, the forbiddingly named city prison, as a vagrant.
The lawyer bribes a Tombs employee to take care of Bartleby, but the prisoner refuses to eat, preferring to stand beside and stare at the prison wall. The narrator tries to convince him that his surroundings are not that depressing; the prisoner replies, “I know where I am.” Eventually, he dies.
After Bartleby’s death, the lawyer learns that he had previously been a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington and thinks that such a melancholy duty explains the poor man’s peculiar behavior. He ends his story by proclaiming its pathetic universality: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”