Bartleby, the Scrivener

A Story of Wall-Street

Revisiting a Timeless Classic with Modern Eyes

Dense paragraphs and outdated expressions can make 19th-century American literature appear twisted and out of reach. Even the names of certain works might introduce unfamiliar terms – like ‘scrivener’, an individual who meticulously recorded legal documents in the pre-photocopier and pre-typewriter era.

Pair that with intricate and bewildering meanings, and you’ve got the very essence of ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’. This legendary tale by Melville has seen a myriad of interpretations. In this Summary, we’ll cut through the jargon to present the plot in an uncomplicated manner, interwoven with a selection of meaningful quotes. We’ll also offer our own unique interpretation of some prevalent themes resonating today such as alienation, isolation, compliance, and mental well-being.

Given the brevity of the story, we’ll be able to touch on most of the crucial plot elements. Our analysis, however, will not encompass all potential interpretations, and that’s perfectly fine. Both the original work and this Summary invite you to delve deeper, encouraging you to form your unique interpretations of the story, Bartleby, and his renowned utterance, “I would prefer not to.” If you fancy a quick rundown, feel free to jump to the concluding section.

Section 1: The Storyteller, the Crew, the Catchphrase

Our protagonist, an unnamed, easy-going attorney in his sixties with offices on Wall Street, remains largely anonymous. As a producer of legal documents, he has experienced many law-copyists or scriveners.

Scriveners, he observes, are “an interesting and somewhat singular set of men” – quirky to him, yet one outshines all, “Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” His understanding of Bartleby is based solely on his personal interaction, barring a vague account he’ll share later.

Before we become acquainted with the peculiar scrivener, the attorney gives us an overview of his staff – Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.

Turkey, a scrivener the same age as the attorney, proves to be a valuable asset in the morning. Post-lunch, however, his efficiency plummets. His face shines “like a grate full of Christmas coals”, his suits emanate a distinct food smell, and his work deteriorates. But, the attorney overlooks Turkey’s quirks as Nippers steps in to cover for the afternoon.

Nippers, a 25-year-old scrivener, displays the demeanor of a gentleman and abstains from drinking. However, chronic indigestion hampers his productivity in the morning, which magically improves post-lunch – just as Turkey falters. “Their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa.”

Ginger Nut, their 12-year-old errand boy, often fetches for Turkey and Nippers the “peculiar cake—small, flat, round, and very spicy—after which he had been named.” His father hoped that working with the attorney might offer Ginger Nut a chance to learn law, aspiring for him to have a career beyond pushing a delivery cart – his father’s job.

Business surges, leading the attorney to seek another scrivener. As a response to his advertisement, a motionless young man named Bartleby stands on his office threshold one summer morning. The attorney is instantly captivated by Bartleby’s qualifications and his calm demeanor, hiring him immediately. Anxious for Bartleby to start, he arranges a desk for him in his office, behind a screen and next to a window with a wall view.

Bartleby’s initial productivity astounds everyone, as if he had been craving work. However, when asked to proofread a document – an integral part of a scrivener’s job – Bartleby declines, saying, “I would prefer not to.”

This leaves the attorney flabbergasted. He feels he should reprimand or dismiss Bartleby, but his fascination for the enigmatic scrivener prevents him. The attorney, burdened with work, turns to Nippers to proofread the document instead.

Days later, the attorney calls for all four of his employees to proofread four copies of a document. While Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut comply, Bartleby doesn’t budge from his desk, repeating, “I would prefer not to.”

With sanity hanging by a thread, the attorney seeks others’ opinions. Turkey, being his amiable morning self, agrees with the attorney. An irritable Nippers is keen on evicting Bartleby, while Ginger Nut labels Bartleby as slightly crazy. The attorney might concur, but he’s too occupied, and intrigued, to act on it.

Analysis

The characters’ peculiar conduct and their odd nicknames lend the story a fable-like vibe. The hilariously contrasting characters of Turkey and Nippers further reinforce this fantastical quality. Their distinct personas – morning vs. afternoon, old vs. young, drunk vs. sober, scruffy vs. dapper – create an unreal symmetry. As a parable, this story invites numerous interpretations, a process that critics and readers have been actively engaging in since its publication.

The initial description of Bartleby paints him as “incurably forlorn,” suggestive of a mental health condition. Other choice of words, like “pallid,” “pitiably,” and “sedate,” could also hint at his mental state. Even Ginger Nut describes Bartleby as “luny.”

Despite Bartleby’s melancholic appearance, the attorney stations him at a desk in a corner, secluded by a screen, with a view of a brick wall – almost like a prison cell. It’s a potent symbol of the modern office work culture that was emerging in places like Wall Street, often seen by Melville and others as a prison. The unnatural blend of isolation and uniformity can trigger a sense of estrangement and eventually stifle the human spirit. This rings especially true for those predisposed to mental health concerns, like Bartleby appears to be.

Bartleby defies the norm with his refrain, “I would prefer not to.” This act of defiance, however, only heightens his sense of isolation and presumably accelerates his mental health decline.

 

 

Section 2: An Endless Vigil

Perplexed, the attorney flits between exasperation and empathy for Bartleby. This puzzling clerk declines to do anything other than write. He won’t run an errand to the post office. He won’t even cross the room to summon Nippers. At the very least, he’s industrious – barring those intervals where he simply settles into a vacant stare at the wall.

Moreover, the attorney notices Bartleby never seems to vacate the office. He is the ceaseless guardian in the corner. A random stop at the office one Sunday on his way to church reveals Bartleby inside, with the door locked. The clerk expresses his preference not to grant him entry, suggesting the attorney takes a few laps around the block, while he wraps up his affairs.

Under the bewitching sway of Bartleby’s peculiar conduct, the attorney complies, skulking away from his own threshold. Upon his return, Bartleby is absent, yet traces of him linger. The indentation of a body on the couch, a rolled-up blanket under the desk, a bar of soap and a tattered towel on a chair. It dawns on the attorney that Bartleby has made the office his home, evoking a surge of empathy. The sight he’s confronted with confirms that the clerk suffers from an inherent, incurable affliction. His affliction is not physical; it’s his soul that endures the torment.

Dispensing with his plans for church, the attorney retreats home, consumed with thoughts of Bartleby. Resolving to learn more about the clerk’s life, he plans to engage him in conversation the next day or, failing that, offer him compensation to depart.

The conversation doesn’t progress well. Bartleby, predictably, expresses a preference not to disclose personal information. He declines even the smallest attempt at reason, declaring, “At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.”

Later, the attorney finds himself echoing Bartleby’s choice of words – ‘prefer.’ Then, he hears Turkey using it, fostering concerns that Bartleby’s condition has begun to influence him psychologically.

Upon Bartleby’s announcement that he will cease writing, the attorney presumes it’s a result of failing vision. When the attorney realizes Bartleby’s sight is intact, he resolves to take a stand — or so he thought. He grants Bartleby a six-day ultimatum to vacate the premises. Yet, following the sixth day, the clerk remains.

Interpretation

The central section of the narrative reveals additional indications of Bartleby’s mental health struggles. The first is his propensity to gaze at the wall for extended periods, either a sign of mental illness or a symbol of the tedious, restrictive nature of office life potentially triggering a mental health crisis.

Upon discovering Bartleby’s living arrangement, the attorney perceives the clerk’s behavior as indicative of a psychological issue. The attorney views Bartleby as a victim of an “innate and incurable disorder,” reflecting the initial portrayal of Bartleby as “incurably forlorn.” Moreover, the attorney believes it’s Bartleby’s “soul that suffered,” suggesting mental health distress. When he and Turkey start to use the term “prefer,” the attorney even questions if Bartleby’s condition is infectious.

Modern readers can relate to Bartleby’s predicament. We recognize symptoms akin to depression and the need for guidance, support, and tranquility. The attorney grapples with feelings of sympathy but struggles to act on them, often succumbing to frustration. Such confusion surrounding mental health was commonplace during the time of the story’s publication (1852). Furthermore, the attorney personifies the crushing modern office environment that exacerbates or perhaps even instigates Bartleby’s condition. His office location on Wall Street, the epitome of capitalism, is a purposeful representation of the modern world shaping these circumstances.

 

Section 3: The Unraveling

In the pursuit of compassion, our lawyer gradually accepts his duty to Bartleby, though this tolerance erodes once his clients start raising concerns. It forces him to a crucial decision point – he opts to relocate, though not without giving Bartleby fair warning.

Come moving day, Bartleby is there, a solitary figure in the vacant spaces.

The anticipation builds as our lawyer anxiously awaits Bartleby at the new premises. Instead, a different lawyer, the new tenant of the old office space, shows up with news about the peculiar copyist. Apparently, Bartleby has refused to abandon the former office. The lawyer is urged to return and engage his ex-employee. Initial refusal soon morphs into acceptance after repeated pleas from the new tenant and his entourage.

Upon his return, our lawyer discovers Bartleby lurking in the stairwell of the old Wall Street office. He extends multiple job offers to Bartleby – as a clerk, a bartender, a roving bill collector. Each suggestion is met with refusal and a chilling, consistent response, “but I am not particular.” Even an offer to house Bartleby is rejected. Having exhausted all options, the lawyer departs.

News of Bartleby’s arrest reaches him days later. He rushes to the jail, only to be told by Bartleby to leave him alone. Regardless, he arranges for Bartleby’s sustenance, which is, yet again, refused.

Upon his subsequent visit, he is led to the prison yard, the final resting place of Bartleby.

The heartbroken narrator reveals an additional piece of Bartleby’s history, the clue alluded to at the start. Bartleby once sorted “dead letters” in Washington – undeliverable mail that carried unwelcomed or lost news. The emotional toll of this job, the lawyer reckons, must have been immense – handling unfulfilled “pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping.” The memory of Bartleby and those dead letters imbues a sense of profound sorrow.

“Imagine a man naturally inclined towards bleak despair. Can you think of a profession more apt to amplify that despair than handling these letters, destined for the flames?… Oh, Bartleby! Oh, humanity!”

Insights

In this final stretch, we grapple with the lawyer’s conundrum. Despite his extensive tolerance and even inviting Bartleby into his home, all his generosity is rebuffed. Intriguingly, we see the lawyer’s benevolence tainted with curiosity. Bartleby becomes a subject to be observed, a creature under a microscope. Ultimately, the lawyer’s goodwill fails to protect Bartleby from destitution and a tragic end.

This narrative – the descent from mental health issues to homelessness, then incarceration or death, is eerily prevalent in 21st-century America. As per the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there’s been an uptick in homelessness in the US every year from 2017 to 2022. In 2022, homelessness reached a grim milestone. Approximately 30% of this population struggles with some form of mental health condition, significantly higher than the 20% in the general population.

The revelation of Bartleby’s past employment in the Dead Letter Office delivers a poignant conclusion. It is the final puzzle piece, tying together all the loose ends. This explicitly portrays that individuals like Bartleby, “naturally and unfortunately inclined towards bleak despair,” are more likely to slide into deeper despair when stuck in dismal jobs. It leaves us pondering the number of such desolate and estranged Bartlebys scattered nationwide.

 

Conclusions

Our protagonist, an anonymous legal professional, thrives in the bustling hub of Wall Street, crafting meticulous legal papers. With business flourishing, he seeks to expand his team of law-copyists, the diligent scribes who replicate his documents. His current crew consists of two contrasting scriveners – Turkey, a seasoned professional who thrives in the morning and imbibes a bit too much, and Nippers, a disciplined, youthful character who excels in the afternoons – supplemented by an enthusiastic office apprentice, Ginger Nut.

Bartleby enters the scene responding to the lawyer’s ad for another copyist and is promptly employed. Bartleby’s writing skills are unparalleled, but his work ethic takes a curious turn when asked to proofread a document. His response, “I would prefer not to” baffles the team.

This enigmatic phrase soon becomes Bartleby’s mantra. Any task beyond writing is met with the same reticence, until eventually, he desists even from that. The plot thickens as the lawyer discovers Bartleby’s makeshift home in the office. But despite Bartleby’s defiant idleness, the lawyer finds it impossible to terminate him or eject him from the premises. The lawyer opts for a change of scenery, relocating to different offices. Yet, Bartleby remains stubbornly attached to the old Wall Street building, leading to his arrest and subsequent imprisonment. In a tragic twist, Bartleby refuses sustenance and succumbs to a sorrowful and solitary demise.

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