"Bartleby the Scrivener" centers on a "scrivener," or copyist, for a law firm. The story is narrated by the Lawyer, the man who employs Bartleby. The Lawyer has two other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, and an errand boy, Ginger Nut. As the story begins, the Lawyer realizes he needs another copyist. A strange young man named Bartleby answers the ad, and the Lawyer hires him. Bartleby writes swiftly and accurately for the first few days.
All copies must be examined for accuracy, and the Lawyer calls in Bartleby and asks him to examine a document; Bartleby replies, "I would prefer not to." This reply surprises the Lawyer so much he can't respond. Later, when a large document must be examined and all the copyists are lined up to examine each page, the Lawyer again calls in Bartleby, who again replies that he "would prefer not to" examine the document. The Lawyer knows he should fire Bartleby, but he is so puzzled by the man he allows him to continue working. The Lawyer begins to notice other odd habits about Bartleby. He never eats anything, except snacks. He never leaves the office. He still refuses to examine his own papers, always saying that he prefers not to.
When stopping by the office on a Sunday, the Lawyer discovers that Bartleby has been living there. He pities for Bartleby's cheerless life, but he is still troubled. A few days later, Bartleby tells the Lawyer he is going to stop writing. He gives Bartleby his salary and tells him to leave. But when he returns to the office after hours, Bartleby is still there.
The Lawyer points out the injustice of Bartleby's remaining in the office when he refuses to work. Bartleby hides in his corner, and the Lawyer cannot bring himself to force Bartleby out. He decides to let Bartleby remain in the office, doing nothing. But after the Lawyer's friends and clients make some unpleasant remarks about the squatter in his office, he realizes that allowing Bartleby to stay is bad for business. The only answer he can find is, if the scrivener will not leave, then the Lawyer will have to buy a new office.
A few days after the move, the Lawyer is confronted by a small mob of people who inform him that Bartleby is now hanging around inside the building all day. The Lawyer speaks to Bartleby again, telling him that either he must leave the building, or he will be arrested. The Lawyer even invites Bartleby to stay at his own home, but Bartleby refuses. He is arrested as a vagrant and sent to prison. The Lawyer visits him, but Bartleby wants nothing to do with him. Later, the Lawyer again visits Bartleby, who is sleeping outside in the prison yard. Upon reaching him, he discovers Bartleby has died.
The Lawyer tells the reader that sometime after Bartleby's death, he heard a rumor that the scrivener had once been a clerk in the Dead Letter office. He wonders whether such a depressing job might have driven the man to his deranged behavior.
"The Encantadas" consists of ten "sketches," or short accounts, about the Galapagos Islands. Each sketch describes either a particular island or a particular characteristic or inhabitant of an island. The sketches are based mostly on Melville's own experience as a sailor, having visited the Galapagos. Each sketch is preceded by several lines of verse, usually from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen.
The first sketch describes the whole Galapagos region in general. The islands were formed by volcanoes, and are mostly dusty and barren, with a few lush spots here and there. They were once a popular resort for pirates raiding the South American coast. Because of their many peculiar features, some sailors believe the Galapagos to be "enchanted." The primary inhabitants of the islands are reptiles.
The second sketch describes three tortoises that were brought onto the ship. The narrator spent much time examining the tortoises, and was fascinated by them. The next day, the tortoises were killed and eaten, and their shells made into giant bowls.
The third sketch describes the "Rock Redondo," a tall rock that stands on one of the islands. Over two hundred feet high, the rock provides an excellent view of the surrounding islands. The narrator lists the various sea birds that inhabit the Rock.
In the fourth sketch, the narrator climbs the Rock Redondo. As he invites the reader to gaze at the islands, he tells the story of how the Galapagos Islands were discovered, when mariners decided to sail farther out from the continent to avoid the dangerous currents from Peru to Chile.
The fifth sketch tells the story of the U.S.S. Essex and how, during the War of 1812, it spotted a ship near the Galapagos Islands. The captain believed it to be an enemy ship, although it unfurled an American flag; but as they approached, currents dragged the Essex away. When they returned, the ship had British flags flying. A sudden breeze allowed the ship to escape. It was never seen again, and so the sailors believed it was enchanted.
The sixth sketch describes Barrington Isle, a popular spot for pirates. It is small, but it has many plants, animals, and areas of fresh water, and it makes for good fishing.
The seventh sketch tells the story of Charles's Isle. It is almost as lush and productive as Barrington, and much larger. Charles's Isle was given to an adventurer who fought for Peru in its revolt against Spain. The adventurer called for pilgrims to populate the island, and he started a new colony. The adventurer took twenty attack-dogs with him. Soon the colony went sour, since criminals were amongst the colonists, he formed a bodyguard from some of the best men of the colony, but even they turned traitor, and finally a great battle was held between the colonists and the dogs. The adventurer lost and was exiled by the populace. As time wore on, the colony began to lure sailors away from unsuspecting ships that stopped at Charles's Isle for water or supplies, and soon any wise ship captain stayed away from the island.
The eighth sketch is another story, this one describing the "Chola widow," Hunilla. The narrator's ship spots a lone woman on an island, and they pick her up. She had been marooned on the island months earlier when she and her husband, newly-wed, had been on a cruise. They had come near the Galapagos Islands, and the woman's husband and her brother had wanted to stay at one of the islands and collect valuable tortoise oil. The French captain agreed to drop them off with some supplies, and then to pick them up on his return trip four months later. The husband and brother had collected a lot of tortoise oil, so they decided to celebrate with a fishing trip in a makeshift boat. It sank, and both men drowned. The French ship never returned. The narrator's ship drops Hunilla off on the mainland, where they give her the money for the tortoise oil and a little of their own cash besides.
The ninth sketch tells the story of Hood's Isle and Oberlus, a hermit. Oberlus is a former sailor who deserted to Hood's Isle. He lived on the island growing small potatoes and other crops, which he sold to passing sailors. Eventually Oberlus fancied himself a king and wanted subjects, so he kidnaps four sailors and presses them into service, using his musket to frighten them into submission. He later arms them with cutlasses and leads them as pirates. One day, two large ships come in, sending four small boats to get supplies from Oberlus. Oberlus steals one of the boats. He escapes to the mainland of Peru, but his suspicious character gives him away, and he is thrown in jail.
In the tenth and final sketch, the narrator describes many of the runaways, castaways, and other human-related features of the islands, such as grave markers and messages-in-a-bottle.
In "Benito Cereno," the narrator is Amasa Delano, the captain of a Massachusetts whaling ship. When the story begins, Captain Delano and his ship, the Bachelor's Delight, are anchored off an island near Chile. They spot another ship coming toward the island, floating rather listlessly. Delano decides to take a boat over and investigate.
He and his men reach the ship, the San Dominick. Delano boards the ship, and immediately he is accosted by both sailors and black slaves, all begging for water and supplies. He sends his men back to his own ship for supplies and tries to find out what happened to the San Dominick. He meets its captain, Benito Cereno. Cereno seems strange, very nervous and somewhat aloof. His behavior constantly puzzles Delano. Cereno is constantly attended by Babo, his young black servant, who helps Cereno when he has fainting spells. Delano is a kind man, so he persuades himself that Cereno's behavior is a result of the troubles he has suffered.
Cereno tells him that the ship had left Buenos Aires six months earlier. While rounding Cape Horn, they struck heavy winds, so to lighten the ship they threw supplies overboard, including much of their fresh water. While telling this story, Cereno has one of his many coughing fits, which makes Delano believe that Cereno is both sick and perhaps mentally troubled. Cereno finishes the story, claiming that the ship spent months on the sea with no wind, and that all the officers and most of the crew died from scurvy. He concludes by praising Babo as his faithful companion through it all.
Delano tells Cereno he will help him reach the nearest port. This briefly cheers up Cereno, but Babo draws him aside, and when Cereno returns he is again morose. As Delano investigates the ship, he begins to have suspicious feelings. He sees a young slave hit a white cabin boy, and chides Cereno for allowing this to happen. Cereno makes no effort to punish the attacker. Delano inquires as to the owner of the slaves; Cereno says that they belonged to Alexander Aranda, a friend of Cereno's who died of the fever.
Cereno rather rudely begins whispering with his servant. Delano believes he is the subject of their conversation. He wonders if Cereno is actually some low- born adventurer, masquerading as a ship captain, perhaps planning to murder Delano and then take his ship. But the good-natured Delano dismisses the idea, even after Cereno asks him some suspicious questions, such as how many men his ship holds and whether they would be present on it that night.
Delano again dismisses his suspicions as silly, but he witnesses several strange events, including two blacks pushing a sailor to the ground. Cereno always ignores these incidents or brushes them off. Delano thinks the Spanish sailors are giving him meaningful glances. He tries to question them, but the slaves crowd them out. Delano questions Cereno further and, when he mentions Cape Horn, Cereno responds, "Who spoke of Cape Horn?" Cereno corrects himself, but Delano's suspicions are further aroused. Delano has lunch with Cereno, and is annoyed that Cereno refuses to dismiss Babo so they can talk in private.
The wind returns, and Delano pilots the San Dominick to his own ship. Delano calls for a boat to be lowered from his ship with supplies for the San Dominick. The supplies are delivered, and Delano prepares to leave the San Dominick. Just as he gets into his boat, Cereno leaps over the side of the San Dominick and falls at the captain's feet. Babo also leaps over, with a dagger in his hands. Delano's men stop Babo. Delano realizes that Babo intended to stab Cereno, not himself.
Delano sends his men to recover the ship. The rest of the story consists mostly of Cereno's court deposition, revealing the truth about the San Dominick.
The slaves had revolted, led by Babo and Atufal, killing most of the Spanish crew and taking control of the ship. They forced Cereno to sail toward Senegal, where they planned to escape. But they needed supplies. Babo would not let Cereno come to a port that would put the ship in view of people, so he chose to sail to the island of Santa Maria. He told Babo he was planning on getting supplies, but in actuality he hoped a passing vessel would save them. In the meantime, the slaves killed their owner and master, Alexandro Aranda, and hung his corpse on the figurehead to serve as a warning to the other sailors (this was covered before Delano came to the ship). When the Bachelor's Delight came near, Babo gave Cereno a story to tell, as well as the other sailors, then set up the masquerade of himself as a servant to Cereno, so as to keep an eye on him. Cereno and all the sailors were threatened with instant death if they give anything away. Cereno struggled between wanting to tell Delano the truth and the constant threat of Babo. Finally, he leapt overboard into Delano's boat, thus ending the charade.
At the end of the trial, Babo is executed and his head placed on a pole. Cereno falls into a deep depression, and a few months later he dies. He did indeed "follow his leader."
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