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At first, Bartleby produces a large volume of high-quality work, but one day, when asked to help proofread a document, Bartleby answers with what soon becomes his perpetual response to every request: "I would prefer not to. The narrator makes several futile attempts to reason with Bartleby and to learn something about him; when the narrator stops by the office one Sunday morning, he discovers that Bartleby has started living there.

Bartleby the scrivener essay | The Quay House

Tension builds as business associates wonder why Bartleby is always there. Sensing the threat to his reputation but emotionally unable to evict Bartleby, the narrator moves his business out. Soon the new tenants come to ask for help in removing Bartleby, who now sits on the stairs all day and sleeps in the building's doorway at night.

The narrator visits Bartleby and attempts to reason with him; to his own surprise, he invites Bartleby to live with him, but Bartleby declines the offer. Later the narrator returns to find that Bartleby has been forcibly removed and imprisoned in the Tombs. Finding Bartleby glummer than usual during a visit, the narrator bribes a turnkey to make sure he gets enough food.

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When the narrator returns a few days later to check on Bartleby, he discovers that he died of starvation, having preferred not to eat. Sometime afterwards, the narrator hears a rumor that Bartleby had worked in a dead-letter office and reflects that dead letters would have made anyone of Bartleby's temperament sink into an even darker gloom. The story closes with the narrator's resigned and pained sigh, "Ah Bartleby!

Shmoop Literature Guide: Bartleby the Scrivener

Ah humanity! Melville's major source for the story was an advertisement for a new book, The Lawyer's Story , printed in both the Tribune and the Times on February 18, The book was published anonymously later that year but in fact was written by popular novelist James A. Melville biographer Hershel Parker points out that nothing else in the chapter besides this "remarkably evocative sentence" was "notable".

This source contains one scene and many characters—including an idle scrivener—that appear to have influenced Melville's narrative. Melville may have written the story as an emotional response to the bad reviews garnered by Pierre , his preceding novel.


Bartleby is a scrivener —a kind of clerk or a copyist—"who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him". During the spring of , Melville felt similarly about his work on Moby Dick. Thus, Bartleby may represent Melville's frustration with his own situation as a writer, and the story itself is "about a writer who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions".

Melville made an allusion to the John C. Colt case in this short story. The narrator restrains his anger toward Bartleby, his unrelentingly difficult employee, by reflecting upon "the tragedy of the unfortunate Adams and the still more unfortunate Colt and how poor Colt, being dreadfully incensed by Adams Bartleby's character can be read in a variety of ways. Based on the perception of the narrator and the limited details supplied in the story, his character remains elusive even as the story comes to a close.

Bartleby shows classic symptoms of depression, especially his lack of motivation. He is a passive person, although he is the only reliable worker in the office other than the narrator and Ginger Nut. Bartleby is a good worker until he starts to refuse to do his work. Bartleby does not divulge any personal information to the narrator.

Bartleby's death suggests the effects of depression—having no motivation to survive, he refrains from eating until he dies. Bartleby's character can be interpreted as a "psychological double" for the narrator that criticizes the "sterility, impersonality, and mechanical adjustments of the world which the lawyer inhabits". This lack of history suggests that Bartleby may have just sprung from the narrator's mind.

Also consider the narrator's behavior around Bartleby: screening him off in a corner where he can have his privacy "symbolizes the lawyer's compartmentalization of the unconscious forces which Bartleby represents". The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas insists the story is more about the narrator than the narrated. As the story proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the lawyer identifies with his clerk. 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. Instead, he calls in Nippers to examine the document instead. Take the 'Bartleby the Scrivener' Quick Quiz. Melville Stories by: Herman Melville. Character List Bartleby. Themes Motifs Symbols Key Facts. Important Quotations Explained.

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