“Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable . . .”(p. 1951)
Thus the story opens with the narrator’s hint that Bartleby, the main subject of the story, is a mystery.
“All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.”(p. 1952)
The narrator introduces himself as a responsible lawyer who takes care of other people’s property. He does not take chances. He plays it safe.
“. . . 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.”(p. 1952)
The narrator’s law offices on Wall Street partake of the gloomy atmosphere of that business district. This describes Bartleby’s prison, and the brick wall he contemplates in his “dead-wall reveries,” when he stares out the window.
“Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to’.”(p. 1957)
These represent the few words that Bartleby ever says to his employer. He merely objects in the mildest manner to any request made of him. The lawyer is intimidated by Bartleby’s assurance that he has a right to his own “preference.”
“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.”(p. 1959)
The narrator tries many strategies to get Bartleby to comply, but he never budges, thus making the narrator angry. Bartleby seems harmless, but has some power over the narrator. He is always calm and self-assured and cannot be provoked.
“Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were.”(p. 1961)
This is the narrator’s response when he finds Bartleby has locked him out of the office on Sunday morning. Bartleby asks the lawyer to come back later when it is more convenient. The narrator is ashamed for complying with Bartleby’s request, for he is the boss.
“Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.”(p. 1962)
The narrator becomes melancholy thinking of Bartleby’s lonely life, living in poverty in an office on Wall Street. He is not used to thinking about the misery in life or the want of others.
“What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”(p. 1963)
The narrator concludes that for Bartleby to live the way he does in isolation indicates some deeper malady than he can remedy. Bartleby is a symbol for the soul sickness represented by Wall Street.
“He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.”(p. 1966)
The narrator decides if he assumes Bartleby must leave, then he will. He finds however, that Bartleby’s preference not to leave prevails over his assumptions that he will leave.
“. . . the man you allude to is nothing to me—he is no relation or apprentice of mine, that you should hold me responsible for him.”(p. 1971)
The narrator denies responsibility for Bartleby, though he is held to account as his last employer. He tries to get rid of him, finally moving his offices and leaving town as Bartleby is arrested and put in prison as a vagrant.
Barlteby the Scrivner: Top Ten Quotes