Bartleby, the Scrivener is a novella about the isolation and forced conformity of the modern work world. In flowery and sometimes humorous prose, the story tells the tale of Bartleby, an office worker who suffers from mental health issues and alienation. Although we don’t learn many details about the title character, we sympathize with his plight through the eyes of the unnamed narrator, Bartleby’s boss.
Introduction: View a curious classic through a contemporary lens
Table of Contents
Run-on sentences and archaic diction can make nineteenth-century American literature feel convoluted and inaccessible. Even the titles of some works may contain a puzzling word – such as, in this instance, scrivener. A scrivener was someone who wrote out or copied legal documents in the days before things like photocopiers and typewriters.
Nineteenth-century prose style is often paired with complex and perplexing meanings, and that’s definitely the case with Bartleby, the Scrivener. Melville’s classic story has been interpreted in a wide variety of ways and directions. For this summary, we’ll summarize the plot in simple language combined with a few choice quotes. We’ll also put our own spin on some of the consensus interpretations that feel most relevant today as we explore the story’s themes of alienation, isolation, conformity, and mental health.
Because the story itself is relatively short, we’ll be able to hit most of the key plot points. The analysis, on the other hand, can’t possibly cover the multitude of interpretations that have been offered over the years, or even all that might arise in your own mind as you take in the story, but that’s okay. Melville’s book, and this summary, are both meant to make you think and come up with your own interpretations of the story, Bartleby, and his famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” By the way – if you would like to listen to a very short summary right away, you can skip to the very last section.
Section 1: The narrator, the staff, the phrase
We never learn the name of our narrator, but we do know he is an unambitious lawyer in his 60s who has offices on Wall Street in New York. He produces legal documents, so he has known and employed many law-copyists, otherwise known as scriveners.
The lawyer finds scriveners to be “an interesting and somewhat singular set of men” – that is, he finds them odd – but to him one stands above the rest: “Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” The lawyer has only his own first-hand knowledge of Bartleby, except for one vague report he will share later.
Before we meet the curious scrivener, the lawyer introduces us to the rest of his staff – Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.
Turkey, a scrivener the same age as the Lawyer, is an efficient and valuable employee in the morning. Afternoons are a different story. He drinks at lunch and his face blazes “like a grate full of Christmas coals.” His greasy suits smell of food. Worst of all, his work suffers. But the lawyer overlooks Turkey’s faults, in part because Nippers picks up the slack in the afternoon.
Nippers is a 25-year-old scrivener who dresses like a gentleman and doesn’t drink at all. Chronic indigestion, however, makes him mean and unproductive in the morning. His attitude changes after lunch, just when Turkey is slipping. “Their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa.”
Throughout the day, Turkey and Nippers have snacks delivered to them by Ginger Nut, most notably “that peculiar cake—small, flat, round, and very spicy—after which he had been named.” Ginger Nut is only 12. His father sent him to work with the lawyer so Ginger Nut could learn the law and find a career beyond pushing a delivery cart, which is his father’s job.
Business picks up for the lawyer. He needs to hire another scrivener, so he takes out an ad. “In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.”
The lawyer is impressed by Bartleby’s qualifications and his “sedate” aspect. He hires him on the spot. He’s so anxious for Bartleby to get to work that he gives him a desk in his own office, behind a folding screen and next to a window that looks out at a wall.
Bartleby is extremely productive at first, as if he had been starving for work. But when, one day, the lawyer asks him to proofread a document – a tedious but integral part of the scrivener’s job – Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.”
The lawyer is stunned. He knows he should reprimand or even fire Bartleby, but he can’t. He’s fascinated by his new scrivener. Plus, the lawyer is very busy, so he calls in Nippers to proofread the document.
A few days later, the lawyer wants all four of his employees to proof four copies of the same document at the same time. Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut all come when their boss calls, but not Bartleby. He stays at his desk and repeats the phrase, “I would prefer not to.”
Wondering if he’s losing his mind, the lawyer asks the other three what they think. Since it’s morning, Turkey mildly says the lawyer is right, while a cranky Nippers wants to kick Bartleby out of the office. Ginger Nut says, “[H]e’s a little luny.” The lawyer may agree, but he’s still too busy, and fascinated, to do anything about it.
The characters’ bizarre behavior and nicknames give this story the feel of a fable or a fairy tale. The comical opposites of Turkey and Nippers cement this fairy-tale quality. Their symmetry is so perfect – morning vs. afternoon, old vs. young, drunk vs. sober, disheveled vs. well-dressed – that it seems unreal. As a fable, the story can be interpreted on many levels in many ways, which is what critics and non-critics alike have been doing since it was published.
The first time we meet Bartleby, he is described as “incurably forlorn,” as if is ill. And what is his symptom? Being “forlorn,” which sounds like a mental health issue. Other word choices in the initial description of Bartleby could lead to the same mental illness conclusion – “pallid,” “pitiably,” and “sedate.” Later on, Ginger Nut describes Bartleby as “luny.”
Despite Bartleby’s forlorn look, the lawyer sets him up at a desk in a corner, behind a screen, looking out at a brick wall. It’s almost like he’s putting Bartleby in a prison cell, which is exactly how Melville and others viewed the modern world of office work that was being created in places like Wall Street. Its unnatural mix of isolation and conformity could lead to feelings of alienation and eventually crush the human spirit. This is especially true for people who might be predisposed to mental health issues, which Bartleby seems to be.
Bartleby resists the conformity with his refrain of, “I would prefer not to.” Unfortunately for him, this only adds to his isolation and, presumably, the decline of his mental health.
Section 2: “A perpetual sentry”
The lawyer remains befuddled, vacillating between anger and pity for Bartleby. The strange scrivener refuses to do anything but write. He won’t go to the post office. He won’t even go to the other room and call for Nippers. He is, at least, productive – except for the stretches of time when he just sits and stares at the wall.
The Lawyer also notices Bartleby never seems to leave the office. He is “a perpetual sentry in the corner.” When the lawyer happens to stop by his office one random Sunday on his way to church, he finds the door locked and Bartleby inside. The scrivener tells his boss he would prefer not to admit him, and that the lawyer should “walk round the block two or three times, and by that time he would probably have concluded his affairs.”
Unable to resist the spell cast by Bartleby’s bizarre behavior, the lawyer does as he’s told and slinks away from his own door. When he returns, Bartleby is gone, but traces of him remain. The imprint of a reclining form on the couch, a blanket rolled under his desk, soap and a ragged towel on a chair. The lawyer realizes Bartleby has been living in the office, and he is overwhelmed with pity. “What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed!… What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered.”
No longer in the mood for church, the lawyer returns to his home and fixates on Bartleby. He decides he must know more about the scrivener’s life. He will talk to him the next day, and if that doesn’t go well, he’ll pay him to leave.
The talk doesn’t go well. When asked to share anything about himself, Bartleby replies, of course, “I would prefer not to.” When asked to be even a little reasonable, he says, “At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”
Later that day, the lawyer finds himself using the word prefer. Then, he hears Turkey use it, and worries that Bartleby “had already and seriously affected me in a mental way.”
When Bartleby declares he will no longer write, the lawyer assumes it’s because his eyesight has gone. When the lawyer realizes Bartleby’s eyes are fine, he puts his foot down – almost. He gives Bartleby six days to leave. But after the sixth day, the scrivener is still there.
We see more references to Bartleby’s mental health issues in the middle section of the story. The first is when we learn he stares at the wall for long stretches of time. This could be viewed as either a symptom of some mental illness, or symbolic of the confined tedium and conformity of office life, which might lead to a mental health crisis.
After discovering Bartleby has been living in the office, the lawyer certainly thinks the scrivener has a mental problem. He believes Bartleby is the “victim of innate and incurable disorder,” which echoes Bartleby’s introduction, when he was described as “incurably forlorn.” The lawyer also believes it’s Bartleby’s “soul that suffered,” again implying a mental health problem. When he catches himself and Turkey using the word “prefer,” the lawyer even worries that Bartleby’s condition might be contagious.
As a modern audience, we can sympathize with Bartleby’s plight. We can see the signs of something like depression, and a person who needs counseling, care, and quiet. The lawyer feels sympathy, but he’s not sure what to do with those feelings, and he often lets his anger get the better of him. Such confusion about mental health issues was typical for the time this story was published (1852). Plus, the lawyer represents the soul-crushing modern office world that has worsened, or perhaps even caused, Bartleby’s condition. It’s no coincidence that the lawyer’s offices are on Wall Street, the de facto center of the capitalism that is creating this modern world.
Section 3: Final descent
Gradually, the lawyer accepts that caring for Bartleby is his fate, but that only lasts until his clients start complaining. This finally pushes the lawyer past his limit. He knows what he must do. He’s going to move, but he’ll give Bartleby fair notice.
When the moving day arrives, Bartleby is still there, standing alone in the empty rooms.
The lawyer nervously waits for Bartleby to show up at his new location. Instead, another lawyer arrives with news of the strange scrivener. This lawyer has rented the old offices, and Bartleby won’t leave the building. The lawyer is asked to return and talk to his former employee. He refuses at first, but a few days later the new tenant returns with a group of people imploring the lawyer to speak to Bartleby, and he finally agrees.
The lawyer finds Bartleby loitering in the stairwell of his old office building on Wall Street. He offers to get Bartleby multiple jobs – as a clerk, a bartender, a traveling bill collector. Bartleby refuses each one, repeating a new refrain at the end of each refusal, “but I am not particular.” In the end the lawyer even says that Bartleby can come live with him, but Bartleby refuses. Feeling like he’s done all he can, the lawyer finally leaves.
A few days later, he learns that Bartleby has been arrested. He immediately visits him in jail, but Bartleby tells the lawyer to leave him alone. Still, the lawyer bribes the jail’s grub-man to make sure Bartleby is well fed. Bartleby, however, refuses to eat.
When the lawyer returns for another visit, a guard directs him to the prison yard. He had just seen Bartleby lie down beneath a tree not 20 minutes before. But when the lawyer finds him, Bartleby is dead.
Our distraught narrator then shares the only extra bit of information he has about Bartleby – the vague report he alludes to at the start of the story. Some time before working as a scrivener, “Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk at the Dead Letter Office at Washington.” This is where undeliverable letters were redirected. The clerks have to handle these letters, making the lawyer think of the undelivered “pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping.” The lawyer swallows an extra dose of dismay when he thinks of poor Bartleby and those dead letters.
“Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?… Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Again we’re faced with the confounding character of the lawyer in this final section. He has given Bartleby an absurd amount of leeway, and he has even opened the doors of his own home to the scrivener, but all his charity is refused. At the same time, we know the lawyer’s generosity really stems from curiosity. He treats Bartleby like something to be gawked at – an animal in a zoo or a circus freak. And in the end, the lawyer’s charity doesn’t matter, because Bartleby winds up homeless and dies in jail.
This sad path of mental health leading to homelessness leading to incarceration or death is all too familiar in twenty-first century America. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the homeless population in the United States has increased every year from 2017 to 2022, and the total number of counted homeless people reached a record high in 2022. It’s estimated that about 30 percent of the homeless population has some kind of mental health condition, compared to just 20 percent of the overall population.
Revealing Bartleby’s role as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office serves up a tidy conclusion. It feels like the final puzzle piece, the clue that links everything together. It tells the audience, in no uncertain terms, that men like Bartleby who are “by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness,” will feel more hopeless if they work in miserable jobs. It leaves the reader wondering how many other hopeless and alienated Bartlebys are spread across the country in depressing, dead-end jobs, or left loitering in hallways. You can imagine a handful in every office building, appearing like ghosts in the countless windows of smoggy urban skylines.
The narrator, an unnamed lawyer, works on Wall Street producing legal documents. Business is good, so he needs to hire another law-copyist (people who make copies of the documents he creates, also known as scriveners). The lawyer already employs two scriveners – Turkey, who is older, drinks, and works best in the morning; and Nippers, who is younger, sober, and works best in the afternoons– and a young office boy, Ginger Nut.
Bartleby answers the lawyer’s ad for another scrivener and is hired right away. Bartleby is a very productive writer, but when the lawyer asks him to proofread a document, Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.”
That becomes Bartleby’s catchphrase. He uses it when asked to do any task besides writing, and eventually he stops even that. The lawyer discovers Bartleby has been living in the office, but despite that, and his refusal to work, the lawyer can’t bring himself to fire Bartleby or make him leave the office. Instead, the lawyer decides to move to other offices. Still Bartleby won’t leave the building on Wall Street, and eventually he is arrested and sent to jail, where he refuses to eat and dies a sad, lonely death.
About the Author
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street is a short story by Herman Melville, first published in 1853. It is a fascinating and perplexing tale of a lawyer who hires a mysterious copyist named Bartleby, who gradually refuses to do any work and eventually stops living altogether. The story explores themes such as alienation, individualism, conformity, authority, and compassion in the context of the emerging capitalist society of nineteenth-century America.
The narrator of the story is an elderly lawyer who runs a law practice on Wall Street in New York. He has two other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, who are eccentric and unreliable, and an errand boy, Ginger Nut, who is often sent to buy cakes for them. The lawyer decides to hire a third scrivener, Bartleby, who appears to be a quiet and diligent worker at first. However, one day, when asked to proofread a document, Bartleby replies with his signature phrase: “I would prefer not to.” From then on, Bartleby refuses to do any task assigned to him, and spends most of his time staring at a blank wall through a window. The lawyer is baffled and annoyed by Bartleby’s behavior, but also feels a sense of pity and curiosity for him. He tries to reason with him, persuade him, bribe him, threaten him, but nothing works. He even discovers that Bartleby lives in the office, sleeping on a couch at night.
The lawyer’s business suffers from Bartleby’s presence, as his clients and colleagues wonder why he tolerates such an insubordinate employee. The lawyer decides to move his office to another building, hoping that Bartleby will leave on his own. However, Bartleby stays in the old office, refusing to budge. The new tenants of the building complain to the lawyer about Bartleby’s nuisance, and ask him to remove him. The lawyer visits Bartleby again, and offers him money and help, but Bartleby declines. The lawyer then abandons Bartleby to his fate, feeling guilty but helpless.
Bartleby is eventually arrested by the police for trespassing and taken to the Tombs prison. The lawyer visits him there, and tries to arrange for his release or better treatment, but Bartleby rejects his efforts. The lawyer leaves him some money and food, but Bartleby does not touch them. A few days later, the lawyer learns that Bartleby has died of starvation in his cell. He also hears a rumor that Bartleby used to work in the Dead Letter Office, where he had to deal with undelivered letters that contained messages of love, grief, hope, and despair. The lawyer concludes his story by saying: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
The story is a masterpiece of psychological realism and symbolic allegory. Melville creates a complex and intriguing character in Bartleby, who defies easy interpretation. Is he a hero or a villain? A rebel or a victim? A saint or a sinner? A human or a machine? His motives and background are never fully revealed, leaving the reader to speculate and wonder. His passive resistance challenges the norms and values of the society he lives in, exposing its flaws and contradictions. His preference for nothingness over life raises questions about the meaning and purpose of existence.
The narrator is also a well-developed character who undergoes a transformation throughout the story. He starts as a conventional and pragmatic man who values order and efficiency in his work. He is proud of his reputation and status as a lawyer who deals with wealthy clients. He is also tolerant and benevolent towards his employees, as long as they do their job properly. However, his encounter with Bartleby disturbs his worldview and forces him to confront his own limitations and responsibilities as a human being. He becomes fascinated and troubled by Bartleby’s mystery and misery. He feels sympathy and guilt for him, but also frustration and fear. He tries to help him, but also avoids him. He ultimately fails to understand or save him.
The story also offers a rich portrait of the social and historical context of its time. Melville depicts the rise of capitalism and urbanization in America during the Industrial Revolution. He shows how these forces create new forms of work and wealth that affect people’s lives and relationships. He portrays the contrast between the bustling activity of Wall Street and the bleak isolation of Bartleby’s wall. He criticizes the dehumanization and exploitation of workers in the modern economy that reduces them to mere machines or objects. He also explores the moral dilemmas and ethical challenges that arise from these changes.
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street is a classic of American literature that has inspired and influenced many writers and thinkers. It is a powerful and provocative story that invites the reader to reflect on the nature and value of work, freedom, society, and humanity. It is a story that resonates with the contemporary world and its problems. It is a story that deserves to be read and reread.
This book is recommended for readers interested in classic literature and philosophical reflections on society and the human condition.