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Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, The Scrivener".

Characters

The Narrator

- a man not far from sixty, an unambitious lawyer in the office of a Master in Chancery

- his employees are known by their nicknames

Turkey

- a man not far from sixty, an Englishman

- dressed in oily bad smelling clothes

- his idiosyncrasy: after noon he becomes red in his face, noisy, and very energetic

Nippers

- a man of twenty five, victim of ambition and indigestion

- dressed in a gentlemanly way

- his idiosyncrasy: until noon he is extremely irritable and nervous

- also continually discontent with the height of the table where he works, always fixing it

Ginger Nut

- an office-boy of twelve

- his job is to bring Nippers and Turkey a peculiar cake: small, flat, round, and very spicy

Bartleby

- a newcomer to the office

- silent, pale, passive, a hard worker, but working mechanically

- occupies the same room as the narrator but is isolated from him by a folding screen


Summary

A law office in the Wall Street. The scriveners (law-copyists) revise their work in a pair, when one man is holding the copy and the other reads from the original. Bartleby refuses to do the examination saying: "I would prefer not to". The narrator is confused and thinks about this strange character.

Bartleby never leaves the office for dinner. He eats nothing but ginger nuts. His passivity is sometimes irritating. His very prime feature is that he is always there, in the office. The narrator tries to ask Bartleby to do some other tasks, like going to the post office or calling Nippers from the neighbouring room. But Bartleby always refuses: "I would prefer not to". The narrator feels pity toward him and hesitates to dismiss him.

One Sunday morning the narrator goes to the church and drops in the office. The key is turned from within. Bartleby opens the door and says he would prefer not to admit the narrator at present. When the narrator returns later, he finds the office deserted. He finds out that Bartleby has made the office his home: "his poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!"

The narrator tries to talk to Bartleby and offers him financial help. But Bartleby prefers not to tell anything about himself. He decides to do no more writing at all and stands looking out from the window and watching the brick wall. The narrator finds himself and his other two employees affected by Bartleby in a mental way, he catches them using the "I'd prefer to" phrase. He thinks of dismissing Bartleby, but still feels sorry for him. He thinks maybe Bartleby was predestined to him from eternity.

Finally, after some rude remarks from his professional visitors, he gives Bartleby twice more the money he owes him and dismisses him. But Bartleby does not leave his office and remains watching the brick wall. The narrator does not want to call police, so he moves his office. The new office holders come to tell him that Bartleby haunts the building generally after having been removed from the office by power. He sits upon the banisters of the stairs and sleeps in the entry. The narrator tries to talk to Bartleby, offers him to go to his dwelling, but Bartleby does not want to make any changes at present.

The new holder of the office calls police and Bartleby is removed to the Tombs as vagrant. The narrator visits him and provides him with all the possible comfort. Bartleby is found dead outside at the yard by his next visit. Nobody learns what sort of man Bartleby was.


Themes

- the tedium of mechanic office work and its impacts on human beings (each of the narrator's employees has an idiosyncratic feature of his own)

- failure of human communication (the screen which isolates Bartleby and the narrator in the office is not only physical but also figurative, symbolic of their failure in mutual understanding)

- dehumanization

Basics 

  • Author

    Melville, Herman. (1819 - 1891).
  • Full Title

    "Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street".
  • First Published

    1853.
  • Form

    Short story.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. "Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street". (1853). In: The Complete Shorter Fiction of Herman Melville. London: Campbell, 1997.

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