Bartelby the Scrivener was written by Herman Melville. He published it anonymously in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator.
He begins by saying that his job has brought him into contact with a good deal of interesting men, that if he wanted to talk about them, he could write their histories down, but he won’t because he is going to talk about Bartelby.
He laments that all he knows is about a few months in his life and that it is a real loss to literature to not have his full story, but before he can talk about Bartelby he needs to talk about himself.
“I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. “
The narrator does not like things that disturb his peace and he never goes in front of a jury or judge for this reason, and it is for that reason that he is a lawyer that deals with Bonds and Mortgages. He works on Wall Street and around the time when the story starts a new office and group of accounts has been conferred upon him and he now has a good deal more business.
He talks about his office:
“This view might have been considered rather tame than otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call “life.” But if so, the view from the other end of my chambers offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction my windows commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade; which wall required no spy-glass to bring out its lurking beauties, but for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed up to within ten feet of my window panes.”
He then speaks about the people in the office before Bartelby arrives.
He has two copyists and an errand boy (Turkey, Nippers and Gingernut), and they all have nicknames. He never bothers to give their real names.
Turkey – He is a “Short pursy Englishman” about 60 like the narrator. He works well until after his dinner hour (noon) and after about 2 o clock he stops being functional. He is too energetic to be much use of copying. He gets reckless and noisy, splits his pens, boxes his papers, and is a real disruption. But because he does good work before noon the narrator overlooks the afternoon stuff. At one point he tries let him go home after noon. But Turkey doesn’t want to do this, he feels like he is the narrators right hand man and so the narrator only gives him trivial things to work on after noon.
Nippers – He is a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. He has indigestion as well as a nervous tick which causes disturbance in the workplace. But those ticks only occur before noon.
Because of their unique qualities each man is only useful to the narrator during half of the day.
“I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time. Their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers’ was on, Turkey’s was off; and vice versa. This was a good natural arrangement under the circumstances. “
And last Ginger Nut – A young industrious boy, he is an errand boy, a cleaner and sweeper. He often runs and gets cakes and apples for Turkey and Nippers
Now that the others in the office have been covered the narrator can get back to Bartelby. The narrator now has more business than ever so he is in need of a new scrivener (a scrivener is an old-fashioned name at the time for a copyist).
“There was now great work for scriveners. Not only must I push the clerks already with me, but I must have additional help.”
Then Bartelby appears at his door.
“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.”
He hires Bartelby and keeps him in his office and uses a divider to separate the two of them.
“I resolved to assign Bartleby a corner by the folding-doors, but on my side of them, so as to have this quiet man within easy call, in case any trifling thing was to be done.”
Bartelby works out great at first.
“He seemed to gorge himself of my documents.”
But after a few days of Bartelby doing wonderful work the narrator asks Bartelby to come help him compare documents. (A very common thing for a law office to do.) And Bartelby says that he would prefer not to.
“Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.”
The narrator overlooks this incident and forgets about it, but a few days later, they are reviewing documents again and Bartelby says that he would prefer not to again.
“With any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence. But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.”
The narrator tries to reason with Bartelby but his arguments are futile.
Again, the narrator shrugs this off, but for the next few days he watches Bartelby closely.
“I observed that he never went to dinner; indeed, that he never went anywhere. As yet I had never of my personal knowledge known him to be outside of my office. He was a perpetual sentry in the corner.”
He does notice that Ginger Nut Brings Him Ginger nut cakes. The narrator revels on this, and this leads into a passive resistance monologue.
“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment. Even so, for the most part, I regarded Bartleby and his ways. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. But this mood was not invariable with me. The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition, to elicit some angry spark from him answerable to my own. But indeed I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of Windsor soap. But one afternoon the evil impulse in me mastered me, and the following little scene ensued:”
The gist of it is that he doesn’t like Bartelby’s passive aggressiveness, but he’ll put up with him because if he went somewhere else, he probably wouldn’t be treated well. He then tries telling Bartelby to do trivial tasks again like he used to and Bartelby says he prefers not to do whatever the narrator asks.
As the days pass on the narrator eventually forgives Bartelby and continues to watch him. And one Sunday he finds that Bartelby is living in his office, and instead of flying into rage the narrator feels melancholy.
“For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.”
The next day he asks Bartelby a few questions about himself and like always Bartelby says that he would prefer not to. Then, a few days later, Bartelby says that he will do no more writing.
“He remained as ever, a fixture in my chamber. Nay—if that were possible—he became still more of a fixture than before. “
The narrator wonders what to do with Bartelby but he feels sorry for him. If he could get out a name of a friend, he would contact them, but he knew of no one.
“He seemed alone, absolutely alone in the universe.”
And one day the narrator tells Bartelby that he must go. He offers Bartelby an extra 20 dollars plus the twelve he owes him. He tells him he must leave. Bartelby makes no reply. The next day Bartelby is still there.
“Turn the man out by an actual thrusting I could not; to drive him away by calling him hard names would not do; calling in the police was an unpleasant idea; and yet, permit him to enjoy his cadaverous triumph over me, —this too I could not think of.”
He contemplates killing Bartelby – for charity’s sake, but then he just accepts it.
“Gradually I slid into the persuasion that these troubles of mine touching the scrivener, had been all predestinated from eternity, and Bartleby was billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom. Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs; in short, I never feel so private as when I know you are here. At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestinated purpose of my life. I am content. Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to”
Later the narrator moves his office. He leaves Bartelby in the old office and for a few days in his new office he listens for Bartelby. Then a man asks the narrator about the man he left in the old office.
“In mercy’s name, who is he?”
“I certainly cannot inform you. I know nothing about him. Formerly I employed him as a copyist; but he has done nothing for me now for some time past.”
And again, another person asks him about the strange denizen haunting the building. – And the narrator denies having any association with Bartleby again.
But then goes to the old office and finds Bartelby there. He speaks to him.
“Now one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for some one?”
“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”
They go through a few jobs and eventually the narrator just quits. He washes his hands of Bartelby.
“As soon as tranquility returned I distinctly perceived that I had now done all that I possibly could, both in respect to the demands of the landlord and his tenants, and with regard to my own desire and sense of duty, to benefit Bartleby, and shield him from rude persecution.”
And a few days later the narrator receives a note saying that Bartelby was in a prison called the Tombs. He learns Bartelby doesn’t eat and doesn’t want to do anything, and in a few days the narrator returns and finds him dead.
The narrator does some investigation and finds that Bartelby used to work in the dead letter office.
“Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? 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? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, molders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers anymore; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Bartelby the scrivener is probably the story that I have heard the most different interpretations of. Melville never commented on the meaning of this short story and so the academic world has been debating what this story means. I’ve always thought that people should take their own meanings from the story.