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One Sunday morning, the Lawyer stops by his chambers on a whim. To his surprise, he discovers his key will not fit in the lock. Then, the door is opened by Bartleby in his shirtsleeves. Bartleby asks the Lawyer to return in a few minutes, and the Lawyer finds himself compelled to obey. He returns to find Bartleby gone, but from signs around the office he realizes that Bartleby has been living there. This sad truth makes the Lawyer feel even more pity for Bartleby. The next day, the Lawyer tries to find out more information from Bartleby, about his life or his work, but Bartleby prefers not to tell the Lawyer anything about himself. Turkey and Nippers again threaten Bartleby, but the man ignores them.
A few days later, Bartleby comes to the Lawyer and tells him he will do no more writing. He merely sits in his cubby, staring out the window. The Lawyer suspects that Bartleby's vision has become impaired, and so he assents; but Bartleby replies that he will do no more writing, even if he regains his vision. The Lawyer therefore tells Bartleby that he must leave, but the scrivener does not do so. The Lawyer asks him: "What earthly right have you to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay any taxes? Or is this property yours?" Bartleby makes no response, and the Lawyer becomes resigned to the idea that Bartleby will simply haunt his office, doing nothing. The Lawyer believes he is doing a good, Christian thing by allowing Bartleby to continue existing in his office.
However, Bartleby's presence soon begins to draw the notice of some of the Lawyer's clientele, and he decides that Bartleby is bad for business. Knowing Bartleby will never leave, the Layer decides to simply move his offices to another building.
A few days after moving, the new tenant, another lawyer, confronts the Lawyer and asks him to take care of Bartleby. The Lawyer says he has nothing to do with Bartleby, so the other lawyer says he'll take care of him. A few days after that, the Lawyer is again accosted by the neighboring lawyer and some police officers, and they charge him with dealing with Bartleby, who now sits all day on the banister of the stairs and sleeps in the entryway to the office building, frightening the other tenants. The Lawyer agrees to speak to Bartleby.
Bartleby is as passively stubborn as ever. The Lawyer even offers to allow Bartleby to live in his own home, but Bartleby refuses to move from the banister. The Lawyer, helpless and stupefied, simply leaves. Bartleby is arrested as a vagrant and thrown in jail. The Lawyer visits him, but Bartleby refuses to speak to him. The Lawyer arranges for Bartleby to be fed good food in jail, but Bartleby refuses to eat. Finally, one day, the narrator visits Bartleby, who has fallen asleep under a tree in the prison yard. The Lawyer goes to speak to him and discovers Bartleby is dead.
The Lawyer ends his narration of the story with the one clue he was ever able to discover about Bartleby: the late scrivener once worked at the Dead Letter office, and was fired after the administration changed hands. The Lawyer wonders whether it was this job, sad and depressing as it is, that drove Bartleby to his strange madness.
One important theme in "Bartleby" is that of charity. Many readers have puzzled over the character of the Lawyer. We must ask, in the end, does he do well by Bartleby, or does he contribute to the man's ruin? Most readers would admit that the Lawyer is surprisingly accepting of Bartleby's stubborn attitude. At first, this is due to the fact that the Lawyer simply doesn't know how to deal with Bartleby. He is so surprised that Bartleby refuses him (especially in such a calm manner), that he doesn't reprimand him. At one point, Bartleby's calm attitude—as if it were perfectly reasonable that he prefer not to do what the Lawyer asks of him—drives the Lawyer to wonder whether he's the one that's crazy: "It is not seldom the case that, when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins
to vaguely surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side."
The Lawyer does his utmost to figure Bartleby out, but he does abandon Bartleby at the end, moving his office to escape the morose man. Many readers, puzzled by the mystery of Bartleby, often pass over this greatly humorous event: the Lawyer actually moves his office rather than having Bartleby taken away. Most of Melville's humor is very subtle, or lost in the shuffle of other themes and meanings). But when Bartleby is threatened with imprisonment, the Lawyer actually offers to allow Bartleby to stay in his own home, which Bartleby refuses. Most readers might interpret this as the ultimate act of charity; but has the Lawyer really done everything he could for Bartleby? The Lawyer may actually have made a crucial, self-centered error: he momentarily thinks that perhaps the reason that Bartleby haunts the office is in some way connected with the Lawyer himself, not the office. But Bartleby is not really connected to either of these things. His tendency is to become increasingly more withdrawn and less mobile, for whatever reason—that is what keeps Bartleby around the offices.
No analysis of Bartleby is complete without mentioning the last paragraphs, where the Lawyer reveals the one clue he has discovered about Bartleby: a rumor that the man once worked in the Dead Letter office before being fired in an administrative shake-up. The narrator wonders whether it was this lonely, depressing job, reading letters intended for people now dead or gone, that drove Bartleby into the depressive spiral that ended in his final stillness beneath a prison-yard tree.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!