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 “older gentleman” whose profession has brought him “into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:- I mean the law-copyists, or scriveners”(Melville 153).
Even though the Lawyer knows many interesting stories of such scriveners, “he waive the biographies of all the other scriveners” (Melville 158) in favor of telling the story of Bartleby, whom he finds to be the strangest of all the scriveners he has ever known. 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” (Melville 154). The narrator begins this novel by describing himself as a “man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (Melville 154).
He uses multiple illusions to depict the confinements of his environment; the blank walls, brick walls, and privacy screens. Aside from the Lawyer and Bartleby, the only other characters in the story are two copyists and an office boy. The first copyist introduced is Turkey, a short, pursy, Englishman, who is productive in the mornings, but drunk by the afternoon. From that point on, he is less than productive. When drunk, he’s brash and over-enthusiastic. Nippers, the second copyist is “the victim of two evil powers ambition and indigestion” (Melville 156).
Though not a drinker, young Nippers’ natural temperament is so irritable that it hardly matters. But because his irritation is caused by indigestion, his irritability dwindles as the day goes on. Thus, when Turkey is productive, Nippers is foul-tempered, and when Nippers is productive Turkey is drunk. Ginger Nut, the office boy, is a lad of twelve whose nickname comes from the ginger nut cakes he fetches for the men. Bartleby is introduced into the story when he responds to an ad the Lawyer placed in the paper for a scrivener.
He is described by the narrator as a pale and miserable-looking man; “I can see that figure now pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! ” (Melville 158). The Lawyer hired Bartleby in hopes that he would bring a sense of balance to the office. Part of a scrivener’s job is the boring work of double-checking a copy’s accuracy to the original. One day, when Bartleby is asked to help proofread one of the documents he copied, he answers simply, “I would prefer not to” (Melville 159).
This is the first of many refusals. The Lawyer makes several attempts to reason with Bartleby and learn about him, but Bartleby always responds the same way when asked to do tasks or provide any information about himself by stating, “I would prefer not to”(Melville159). One weekend, when the Lawyer stops by his office, he discovers that Bartleby is living there. The loneliness of Bartleby’s life struck the Lawyer, and he didn’t know whether to pity him or have contempt regarding Bartleby’s bizarre behavior.
Bartleby continues to refuse duties; until finally, he is doing no work at all. The Lawyer’s business associates begin to wonder about Bartleby’s presence at the office because he does not work. Fearing the threat of a ruined reputation, the Lawyer has no choice but to do something. He attempts to get Bartleby to leave but he refuses, so the Lawyer moves his offices to a new location. But soon afterward, the new tenants of the Lawyer’s old offices come to him asking for help because his former employee, Bartleby, will not leave.
When they throw him out of the offices, Bartleby haunts the hallways. The Lawyer goes to see Bartleby in one last attempt to reason with him, but Bartleby rejects him. For fear of being bothered by the anti-Bartleby folks, the Lawyer stays away from work for a few days. When he returns, he learns that Bartleby has been put in prison. Bartleby seems even more gloomy than usual when the Lawyer visits him in prison. The Lawyer bribes a turnkey to make sure Bartleby stays well fed, but when he returns a few weeks later, he discovers Bartleby has died. He preferred not to” (159) eat. The story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” depicts the deterioration of Bartleby as seen by the Lawyer. The subjective loneliness and deterioration of Bartleby pointed out through numerous details of the story, forces the reader to make their own conclusions about how one is to interpret Bartleby’s character. The reader never knows who Bartleby really is; his spirit and motives remain a mystery from his introduction into the story, to his death in prison.
Although the story alludes to the physical and mental degeneration of a man and separation from his own humanity, nothing is known for certain about Bartleby other than he was described as a pale and miserable-looking man, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! ” (Melville 158), that he always answered when asked to do anything with the infamous phrase “I prefer not to” (159), and that he died in prison. While reading Melville’s story, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, one wonders why he provides so little explicit information about Bartley’s character.
I believe that perhaps the writer wanted the reader to allude to the fact that Bartleby is the Lawyers Psychological double. The Lawyer at the beginning of this story stated that he was a “man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best” (Melville 154). He was taught at an early age what society considered normal. On several occasions throughout the story the Lawyer is shown to be non-confrontational and that he looked highly on what his other associates thought of him.
He can be best described as one who never rocks the boat, a conformist. The fact that Bartleby has no history makes the reader believe that the writer is suggesting that he is a character that the lawyer has created in his own mind and functions to remind the lawyer of his repressed hatred of his own life. Bartleby’s compulsive way of life, tranquil determination, and otherwise mysterious persistence suggest that he is an incarnation of the kind of person we might expect to see in the rather calm and caring lawyer should he give in to an unbending passivity, as a protest against his way of life.
Bartleby the Scrivener is a story that captivates the reader from beginning to end. Throughout the story the writer never provides the reader with explicit details about Bartleby. The incite given was vague and consisted of only his physical attributes, his tendencies to always refuse any requests made of him, and ultimately his end. The gap in the details, perhaps, was more for the reader than author because it allows for individual perspective, a varied conclusion, and a story that evolves with time.