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The Lawyer, the narrator of the story, has already been surprised once before by Bartleby's refusal to examine a document, as all scriveners (law- copyists) are required to do. Bartleby said he would "prefer not to," and the Lawyer was so surprised that he hadn't argued with him.
A few days after this incident, there is a large document (already copied by Bartleby) to be examined. The Lawyer calls in all his employees—Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut—to work on the examination. But when he calls Bartleby to assist as well, the scrivener again replies that he "would prefer not to." The Lawyer presses him, wanting to know why he refuses, but Bartleby can only reply that he would "prefer not to." The Lawyer tells us that something in Bartleby's nature "disarmed him," and Bartleby's steadfast refusal to do what was asked of him confounds the Lawyer. Momentarily, the Lawyer wonders if it is he who is wrong, and he asks his other copyists who was in the right. All three agree that Bartleby is being unreasonable, if not downright impertinent. The Lawyer tries one last time to get Bartleby to examine the document, but business hurries him and he and his workers examine the document without Bartleby, though the other scriveners mutter that they won't examine another man's document without pay ever again.
The Lawyer has now become fascinated by Bartleby, and watches him closely. He never sees Bartleby enter or leave the office; he seems to always be there. He never leaves for lunch or tea, but simply has Ginger Nut deliver him snacks all day. Though the Lawyer admits that "nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," he eventually comes to pity Bartleby, believing that he "intends no mischief" and his "eccentricities are involuntary." The Lawyer decides to "cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval" by determining to keep Bartleby on his staff as something like a charity case. If Bartleby were to be employed by someone else, the Lawyer is certain he would be ill-treated.
Bartleby again prefers not to examine his papers, and Turkey becomes enraged by it, threatening to beat up his reluctant fellow scrivener. The Lawyer tries another tact, asking Bartleby to run down to the post office for him, but again: "I would prefer not to." The result is that Bartleby continues on at the chambers for some time doing nothing but copying, while the Lawyer pays Nippers and Turkey to examine his work.
Before discussing some of the themes of "Bartleby the Scrivener," it is important to note Melville's style. Melville had a unique gift for description and contemplation in his writing, and his short stories (and many of his novels) unfold very slowly and thoughtfully. This was not a style unique to Melville; his good friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, had a similar writing style. Melville's narrator, the Lawyer, slowly unfolds the events of the story, taking his time to provide small details that better set the scene or highlight a character. For instance, early in the story the Lawyer tells the reader that he once gave his scrivener Turkey a coat, and that Turkey became very protective of it, and even a little egotistical about having it.
But even more significant than this level of detail is Melville's pacing. Like films and music, stories can be paced, and Melville is a very methodical writer. His stories are generally paced very slowly, though they often have one or two scenes of intense action (for instance, the escape of Don Benito in "Benito Cereno," or the last few chapters of Moby Dick). Usually, these intense scenes serve as a climax or a revelation to all that has occurred before it. In "Bartleby," this action occurs in the rapid imprisonment, decline and death of Bartleby, all in the space of about three pages (the exact climax is probably when the Lawyer, after confronting Bartleby on the banister, is refused for the last time, and leaves Bartleby to be taken to prison). Though Bartleby's imprisonment and death seem like an inevitable conclusion to this sad tale, the speed with which it all occurs makes it seem like an afterthought, as if it isn't that important. By making his climax and falling action so swift, Melville forces the reader to be more considerate of everything leading up to it.
As mentioned in the previous section, "Bartleby" is one of the most complex stories ever written by Melville, and perhaps by any American writer of the period. There is little agreement among critics as to how it should be interpreted. It was extraordinarily ahead of its time, dealing with issues such as the rise of middle-class job dissatisfaction and depression, as well as realizing the future significance of Wall Street to American life. Yet it is also a deeply symbolic work; there are few, if any, real-life Bartlebys, telling their employers they would "prefer not" to do something, yet remaining at that place of business.
One popular strategy has been to approach the story from a biographical standpoint. When he published "Bartleby" in 1853, Melville had just come off the dismal failure of Moby Dick in the marketplace (the book wouldn't become a "classic" until it was rediscovered by critics nearly half a century after its publication, and years after Melville's death). Melville had had enormous success with his earliest books, such as Typee and Omoo—books that dealt with his experiences on the high seas and on various islands. These books were not nearly as contemplative or stylistic as Moby Dick. Melville knew such stories would sell, but he "preferred" to write stories more similar to Moby Dick. Under this interpretation, the Lawyer represents the ordinary reader, who desires that Melville continue "copying" his earlier works, while Melville, pained by the failure of Moby Dick, replies that he would "prefer not to," and finally stops writing entirely. The "dead letters," therefore, are Melville's shunned novels. This is a very brief version of the biographical interpretation of "Bartleby," and it is by no means the "right" interpretation—there is probably no such thing as a "right" interpretation—but it does give some insight into the themes of "Bartleby."
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!