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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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Student Question

What adjectives describe the work environment in "Bartleby the Scrivener" and how does it relate to Bartleby's behavior?

Expert Answers

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As the story begins, the narrator, an attorney, establishes the setting in which it takes place. From his description, three appropriate adjectives would be small, gloomy, and crowded.

The narrator’s chambers, which are on Wall Street (the financial district in the southern part of Manhattan, New York City), show a contrast between light and dark. He states his suspicion that others might think that the space was somewhat “tame” or “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life.’” One end of the chambers has windows that look out onto a white wall, which is on the opposite side of an airshaft with a skylight above it, while the windows at the other end give a view of a blackened brick wall that is in total shade.

The narrator then describes the “beauties” of various parts of this office. In particular, he emphasizes the supposedly positive features of the brick wall. Being only ten feet from the window, it is so close that he, and even near-sighted people, can see all the details of its soot-darkened surface, which he calls “its lurking beauties.” The overall impression is of a “huge square cistern.”

This small, gloomy space is also divided by glass folding doors, so that the narrator/boss sits on one side, and his employees occupy the other. These are two men who work as copyists and an office boy, to whom he refers by their nicknames. The copyists each have a table, and the boy has a small desk.

When the workload increases and he hires Bartleby as a third scrivener, he decides to put the new man’s desk in his side of the chambers, “within easy call.” The corner where his desk is placed technically has a window, but there has been so much construction outside that it is only three feet from the wall of the next building. He says that “it gave some light,” which comes “down from far above ... as from a very small opening in a dome.” He then erects a screen in front of Bartleby’s desk so the scrivener can hear but not see him.

While the narrator concludes that through his arrangement, “privacy and society were conjoined,” it is easy to understand how Bartley would feel trapped in a dark corner screened off from human contact.

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