By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Of Herman Melville’s shorter works, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ has remained the most popular and widely studied. Critics have disagreed over the story’s meaning, with this tale of one man who repeatedly asserts that he ‘would prefer not to’ carry out the orders of his employer inviting a raft of interpretations. Melville (1819-91) wrote ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ in 1853, and it was first published in Putnam’s Magazine later that year.
The various themes of ‘Bartleby’, which is subtitled ‘A Story of Wall Street’, include alienation, capitalism, and non-conformity in an increasingly bureaucratic and regimented world. You can read ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ here before proceeding to the summary and analysis below.
‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’: plot summary
The story takes place in the law office on Wall Street in New York City. The narrator is an elderly lawyer who runs an office with two copyists or ‘scriveners’, whose job it is to copy out legal documents by hand. An office boy also works for him.
The two copyists are referred to by their nicknames: Turkey, a man approaching sixty who appears to be fond of a drink during his lunch hour, and Nippers, a younger and more ambitious man. The twelve-year-old office boy is nicknamed Ginger Nut because he brings spicy cakes to the scriveners.
The narrator decides to hire a third scrivener, and employs Bartleby in the role partly in the hope that the man’s sedate manner will provide a good example to the other two. However, after a few days in the job, Bartleby, when asked to proofread some documents, responds by saying, ‘I would prefer not to.’ Tempted to fire the man on the spot, the narrator is surprised by how calm and unruffled Bartleby is, so keeps him on.
The same thing happens a few days later, with Bartleby responding, once again, with ‘I would prefer not to.’ The narrator challenges him this time, but Bartleby refuses to offer any explanation for his refusal. He calls upon the other two scriveners, and Ginger Nut, to reassure him his request was not unreasonable, and they agree that it was not.
But Bartleby retains his position, regardless, and refuses again the following day; he also refuses to run an errand for the narrator.
When the narrator pops in at his office one Sunday and discovers Bartleby is living in the office, he initially pities him, but then he finds himself repelled by him. He resolves to challenge Bartleby about his life and to dismiss him from the office if he refuses to answer.
But Bartleby announces that he ‘would prefer not to’ be reasonable, and this attitude begins to influence that of the other two scriveners. So the narrator dismisses Bartleby, who refuses to leave.
Reluctant to use physical force or to call the police, he endeavours to ignore Bartleby, who continues to sit in the office even though he doesn’t work there anymore. But word has spread of this recalcitrant ex-employee, and the narrator fears for his professional reputation if he doesn’t evict Bartleby.
So he decides instead to relocate to new premises, and moves everything out of his old office. But shortly after this, a group of people arrive and demand that the narrator come and remove Bartleby, so he goes back to the old office to try to reason with him. He even offers to have Bartleby come and live with him until he has found a new job, but Bartleby declines this offer, too. Giving up on him, the narrator leaves.
The narrator goes on holiday, and when he returns, he discovers from his old landlord who owns the old office that Bartleby has been put in prison. The narrator agrees that this was probably inevitable, given Bartleby’s attitude. When he goes and visits Bartleby in prison, he finds the man is refusing even to eat, and when he returns a few days later, Bartleby is lying dead in the courtyard, facing the wall, having starved himself to death.
‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’: analysis
Melville’s story is a classic example of a work of fiction in which the narrator reveals more about himself than about his titular subject. Although Bartleby is the putative protagonist of the story, it is the elderly narrator, whose initial passivity in the face of Bartleby’s staid non-compliance gives way to pity and compassion towards another human being by the end of the narrative, who is arguably the real subject of ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’.
Certainly, we learn very little about Bartleby, and he acts as an opaque surface which reveals little: less a mirror than a brick wall: indeed, much like the wall which Bartleby faces at work, and the prison wall which he is staring at when he dies. (It’s worth bearing in mind that, happily enough, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ bears the subtitle ‘A Story of Wall Street’.)
Bartleby’s refusal to do his job is always offered, not aggressively, nor yet passive-aggressively, but always with a quiet passivity and calm which unsettles his employer. He may be as discontented as Nippers appears to be (albeit without any of his nervous energy), but we simply cannot say. He is an enigma to the narrator, and to us as a result.
Alongside such passivity, we find, in ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, the theme of conformity. The story’s setting on Wall Street, the financial centre of the United States, is no accident: the world of finance, law, and business, Melville appears to be suggesting, stifles and restricts the individual, turning everyone into mindless cogs in the machine of industry.
Even the job which appears in the story’s title, ‘scrivener’, involves not writing original content but merely copying existing documents. Bartleby stands out to the narrator because he pushes back against this urge to conform and comply.
Because a scrivener is a kind of writer, numerous critics have viewed Bartleby as an autobiographical portrait. Herman Melville ‘preferred not to’ continue writing the sea stories which had proved hugely popular early in his career, preferring to branch out into more experimental and challenging fiction (including, most famously, Moby-Dick, published a couple of years before Melville wrote ‘Bartleby’ and greeted by a number of hostile and bewildered reviews).
The capitalist machine wants Melville to continue producing more formulaic works which would sell copies and make his publishers lots of money: the system wants to turn him into nothing more than a ‘scrivener’, of sorts. His determination to resist this demand will lead to selling fewer books; in ‘Bartleby’, it will end with the scrivener losing his job and starving himself to death (like many a less successful author before).
Indeed, with its emphasis on the symbolic activity of writing and the ways in which bureaucracy can imprison us into a passive and pointless existence, ‘Bartleby’ can be analysed as a forerunner to the works of twentieth-century writers like Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges.
Indeed, Borges pointed out that Melville’s story anticipates Kafka’s work in ‘the genre of fantasies of conduct and feeling’. ‘Bartleby’ has also been viewed as prefiguring existentialism, with Bartleby offering a neutral ‘no’ to the demand to roll the Sisyphean boulder back up the hill.