Melville Stories

by: Herman Melville

"Bartleby the Scrivener"

Analysis

"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.