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Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Wolfgang Buchta

Wolfgang Buchta

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. I
remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing
down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to
myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we
deem that misery there is none. These sad fancyings—chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly
brain—led on to other and more special thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of Bartleby.
Presentiments of strange discoveries hovered round me. The scrivener’s pale form appeared to me laid
out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding sheet.
Suddenly I was attracted by Bartleby’s closed desk, the key in open sight left in the lock.
I mean no mischief, seek the gratification of no heartless curiosity, thought I; besides, the desk is
mine, and its contents too, so I will make bold to look within. Every thing was methodically arranged,
the papers smoothly placed. The pigeon holes were deep, and removing the files of documents, I
groped into their recesses. Presently I felt something there, and dragged it out. It was an old bandanna
handkerchief, heavy and knotted. I opened it, and saw it was a savings’ bank.”

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville (1819–1891). It first appeared anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 editions of Putnam’s Magazine, and was reprinted with minor textual alterations in his The Piazza Tales in 1856.

Wolfgang Buchta

Wolfgang Buchta


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.”

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.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of Melville’s most famous stories. It is also one of the most difficult to interpret. For decades, critics have argued over numerous interpretations of the story.

The plot is deceptively simple. The Lawyer, a well-established man of sixty working on Wall Street, hires a copyist—seemingly no different from any other copyist, though the Lawyer is well-accustomed to quirky copyists. But Bartleby is different. Bartleby’s initial response of “I would prefer not to,” seems innocent at first, but soon it becomes a mantra, a slogan that is an essential part of Bartleby’s character. It is, as the Lawyer points out, a form of “passive resistance.”

Bartleby’s quiet, polite, but firm refusal to do even the most routine tasks asked of him has always been the main source of puzzlement. Bartleby has been compared to philosophers ranging from Cicero, whose bust rests a few inches above the Lawyer’s head in his office, to Mahatma Gandhi. His refusal of the Lawyer’s requests has been read as a critique of the growing materialism of American culture at this time. It is significant that the Lawyer’s office is on Wall Street; in fact, the subtitle of “Bartleby” is “A Story of Wall Street.” Wall Street was at this time becoming the hub of financial activity in the United States, and Melville (as well as other authors, including Edgar Allan Poe) were quick to note the emerging importance of money and its management in American life. Under this reading, Bartleby’s stubborn refusal to do what is asked of him amounts to a kind of heroic opposition to economic control.

But if this interpretation is correct—if Melville intended such a reading—it seems to be an extremely subtle theme, since the Lawyer never really contemplates Bartleby’s refusal to be a working member of society. He is simply amazed by Bartleby’s refusal to do anything, even eat, it seems, or find a place to live. Throughout the story, Bartleby simply exists; he does do some writing, but eventually he even gives that up in favor of staring at the wall. There are many more interpretations of Bartleby and the story, which will be discussed in the next section. It is important to note the other characters in the story, as well as Melville’s style.

Aside from the Lawyer and Bartleby, the only other characters in the story are Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut. Turkey and Nippers are the most important. Neither of their nicknames appears to really fit their character. Turkey does not seem to resemble a turkey in any way, unless his wrinkled skin, perhaps turned red when he has one of his characteristic fits, makes him look like he has a turkey’s neck. Nippers might be so named because he is ill-tempered and “nippy” in the morning, but this too seems like a rather glib interpretation. Melville seems to have named the characters in a way that makes them memorable, but in a way that also alienates them somewhat; by refusing to give them real names, Melville emphasizes the fact that they can easily be defined by their function, behavior or appearance—each is just another nameless worker.

Turkey and Nippers are also reminiscent of nursery rhyme or fairy tale characters, partially due to their strange names, but also in the way their behavior complements one another. Turkey is a good worker in the morning, while Nippers grumbles over a sour stomach and plays with his desk. In the afternoon, Turkey is red-faced and angry, making blots on his copies, while Nippers works quietly and diligently. As the Lawyer points out, they relieve each other like guards. They are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the Wall Street world.

Some critics have proposed that the Lawyer is a “collector” of sorts; that is, he collects “characters” in the from of strange scriveners: “I have known very many of them and, if I pleased, could relate [diverse] histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep.” Bartleby, then, is the “prize” of the Lawyer’s collection, the finest tale: the Lawyer says, “I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener, the strangest I ever saw, or heard of.” Under this reading, the Lawyer seems a little cold in his recollection—as if Bartleby were no more than an interesting specimen of an insect. The role of the Lawyer is just one of the many hotly debated aspects of the story. Of particular interest is the question of whether the Lawyer is ultimately a friend or foe to Bartleby. His treatment of Bartleby can be read both as sympathetic, pitying, or cold, depending on one’s interpretation. Some readers simply resign themselves to the fact that nothing in Melville is set in such black-and-white terms. (source: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/melvillestories/section1.rhtml)

E-book: Herman_Melville – Bartleby, the scrivener

Wolfgang Buchta , Vienna -Austria


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