Barlteby the Scrivner: Summary
Bartleby, the Scrivener is a novella with no divisions, reading more like a long short story. This plot summary is in four sections: 1) introductory background before Bartleby appears; 2) Bartleby’s introduction and performance in the law office; 3) the narrator’s attempts to get rid of Bartleby; 4) the demise of Bartleby. References to page numbers are to The Harper American Literature, Vol. 1, edited by Donald McQuade, et al., Harper and Row, New York, 1987.
Summary of the Introductory Background
The setting is Wall Street in the 1850s. The first-person narrator introduces himself and his Wall Street law office where he employs three other people. He is an elderly man, working on Wall Street for thirty years and is quite used to the class of people called scriveners or law-copyists. He could tell the history of many a scrivener but wants to focus on the strangest one he ever met: Bartleby. He cannot give a full biography of the man, for no such materials exist. He can only give his eye-witness account.
The narrator explains his business and his philosophy. He is an “unambitious” (p. 1952) lawyer who likes to stay out of the limelight. He avoids court cases and just sees to bonds, mortgages, and title deeds. Nevertheless, he is gratified at being given the office of “Master of Chancery” which involves little work but good money. He explains he does not lose his temper, but he is annoyed that this lucrative position was deleted in a new constitution, because he had counted on the profits for life.
His chambers look out on the brick walls of Wall Street, which some might say makes it lacking in beauty and life, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He then describes his employees. The first is an elderly clerk whose nickname is Turkey, supposedly because he flutters about, breaking his pens and upsetting things in a noisy fashion. Turkey’s face and manner are “florid,” or ruddy and flowery in the morning when he does his best work. His energy is like the sun, however; he blazes most at noon, and then starts to decline in the afternoon when he makes mistakes and reckless blots on the paper. The narrator claims to be “a man of peace” (p. 1953) and does not admonish Turkey too strongly. Turkey does not take the hint that he should retire, and the boss does not push it.
His other clerk is Nippers, a thin, whiskered man of twenty-five who looks like a pirate. He is ambitious to be more than a copyist and would like to take over the lawyer’s duties. He is irritable because of indigestion and is constantly moving or fixing his table: “Nippers knew not what he wanted” (p. 1954). He dresses well, while Turkey dresses so poorly that the lawyer has to give him a coat to wear. Nippers is visited in the office by bill collectors, apparently owing them money. Fortunately, the lawyer does not have to put up with too much inconvenience, for Turkey is reliable in the morning, and Nippers in the afternoon. They each have their on time and off time: “Their fits relieved each other” (p. 1955).
Ginger Nut is the office boy who is apprenticed to the lawyer and runs errands, chiefly to get ginger-nuts for the copyists to snack on. Once the lawyer gets appointed as Master of Chancery, he decides to employ another scrivener and hires Bartleby.
Commentary on Introductory Background
The story takes place on Wall Street, which was in Melville’s day, as it is today, the financial heart of America in Manhattan, including the New York Stock Exchange as the center of trading. The high buildings, shoulder to shoulder, do not allow for any natural view or much light. The name “Wall” is both descriptive and symbolic. In this story, Wall Street is a symbol of capitalism in its dehumanizing effect, and Bartleby, its opponent and victim.
Before there were copy machines, documents had to be copied by hand. The work was tedious and did not pay well. The narrator wants to tell us of the strangest copyist he ever met but feels he has to prepare us by telling us of himself first. He must establish his own good and reasonable character against which to measure the oddity of Bartleby. He feels assured he will gain the support of the reader whose values of common sense are no doubt similar to his own. We are told from the beginning, there can be no verification of Bartleby but what the narrator’s own eye-witness account tells us, but since he is a respectable lawyer on Wall Street, his word should be acceptable.
The lawyer establishes details carefully and slowly, building up his case. First, he explains that not only is he a lawyer, but a successful lawyer whose opinion is respected. Secondly, he employs other eccentric scriveners in his office with whom he is lenient. The reader, however, has to read between the lines, as in a legal document, for though it appears to be fair, this account is one-sided. What interests does the narrator serve? Should we accept his version of the story? Does he contradict himself? These are questions every reader has to consider, for Melville always employs ambiguity in his narrative. As in a legal case, evidence could be interpreted more than one way.
The narrator says his philosophy is that “the easiest way of life is the best” (p. 1952). This implies he does not want to rock the boat. He accepts the way things are. He is “unambitious” and likes “the cool tranquility of a snug retreat” on Wall Street (p. 1952). He deals only with rich men’s bonds and is known as a “safe man” (p. 1952). On the other hand, he is proud of his success—a name-dropper. He implies that John Jacob Astor, the first millionaire in America, was satisfied with putting his business in his hands. Astor is a symbol of the narrator’s values. He was a self-made man from Germany who made a fortune in the fur-trading industry and later diversified, buying up property in New York and Manhattan, foreseeing the future growth of the city. When he died in 1848, Astor was the richest man in America.
The narrator also mentions his appointment as Master of Chancery, a job that is a political appointment, eventually abolished by the law in 1848. He complains of the loss of income from this job, as he was counting on it for life. There are implications to this title. Before its abolishment, the court of Chancery concerned itself with questions of “equity” or fairness. The cases it dealt with were not black and white criminal cases or legal cases. They had more to do with moral fairness. “Equitable relief” was given when there was no clear remedy at law. It softened the harshness of the legal system.
The fact that this concept of the law is already dwindling when the narrator is appointed a Chancellor is reflected in the narrator having very little work to do as this type of judge. He thinks of the position largely for its income. Already, most legal work on Wall Street has to do with property, not moral justice. Bartleby’s case, however, cannot be tried by the law. The narrator, as a Chancellor, is keen to track down the justice of this case, but it leads to larger and larger implications. It is an equity case, in a sense, but ultimately a metaphysical equity case, for the whole story leads to the question of human freedom and true justice. Melville was very much interested in what constituted justice, as for instance in his story of Billy Budd, but it is not always an easy answer. Melville saw the impossibility of finding an absolute justice within the limitations of human society.
Although he seems reasonable in humoring his employees and in trying to help Bartleby, the narrator’s main motives are the Wall Street values of success and money. He seems fair-minded, but he is a worldly man. He stresses that his employees are of “use” to him. Human beings have value only in their use and not for themselves. We never hear about the personal life of anyone in the story. All characters, including the narrator himself, are only seen in light of their usefulness to the lawyer’s business. They only appear in the bleak setting of the office.
The Dickensian clerks are described comically, and the narrator seems quite lenient for putting up with their behavior. Turkey is of an age when he should retire, but though the lawyer suggests it, he does not insist. These facts work in the narrator’s favor, for he shows himself to be tolerant with the most outrageous clerks, and yet he is going to tell us about an even stranger one, Bartleby, with whom he will lose his patience.