Herman Melville Short Story Bartleby The Scrivener Essay

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Summary

The narrator of "Bartleby the Scrivener" is the Lawyer, who runs a law practice on Wall Street in New York. The Lawyer begins by noting that he is an "elderly man," and that his profession has brought him "into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men the law-copyists, or scriveners." While the Lawyer knows many interesting stories of such scriveners, he bypasses them all in favor of telling the story of Bartleby, whom he finds to be the most interesting of all the scriveners. Bartleby is, according to the Lawyer, "one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and, in his case, those were very small."

Before introducing Bartleby, the Lawyer describes the other scriveners working in his office at this time. The first is Turkey, a man who is about the same age as the Lawyer (around sixty). Turkey has been causing problems lately. He is an excellent scrivener in the morning, but as the day wears on—particularly in the afternoon—he becomes more prone to making mistakes, dropping ink plots on the copies he writes. He also becomes more flushed, with an ill temper, in the afternoon. The Lawyer tries to help both himself and Turkey by asking Turkey only to work in the mornings, but Turkey argues with him, so the Lawyer simply gives him less important documents in the afternoon.

The second worker is Nippers, who is much younger and more ambitious than Turkey. At twenty-five years old, he is a comical opposite to Turkey, because he has trouble working in the morning. Until lunchtime, he suffers from stomach trouble, and constantly adjusts the height of the legs on his desk, trying to get them perfectly balanced. In the afternoons, he is calmer and works steadily.

The last employee—not a scrivener, but an errand-boy—is Ginger Nut. His nickname comes from the fact that Turkey and Nippers often send him to pick up ginger nut cakes for them.

The Lawyer spends some time describing the habits of these men and then introduces Bartleby. Bartleby comes to the office to answer an ad placed by the Lawyer, who at that time needed more help. The Lawyer hires Bartleby and gives him a space in the office. At first, Bartleby seems to be an excellent worker. He writes day and night, often by no more than candlelight. His output is enormous, and he greatly pleases the Lawyer.

One day, the Lawyer has a small document he needs examined. He calls Bartleby in to do the job, but Bartleby responds: "I would prefer not to." This answer amazes the Lawyer, who has a "natural expectancy of instant compliance." He is so amazed by this response, and the calm way Bartleby says it, that he cannot even bring himself to scold Bartleby. Instead, he calls in Nippers to examine the document instead.

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