Bartleby, the Scrivener: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Edward Zipperer

Eddie has an MFA in English from Georgia College where he has taught scriptwriting, English 101, English 102, and World Literature since 2007.

This lesson provides a brief summary of Herman Melville's short story, 'Bartleby, the Scrivener.' You can learn about the conflict between the protagonist of the story, the lawyer, and the antagonist, the lawyer's scrivener, Bartleby. Read about the humorous situations that occur throughout the story, and find out its tragic ending.

What Happens in 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'

Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' is a short story that takes place in a Wall Street law office. The story's first-person narrator is the lawyer who runs the law office. He begins by informing the reader that he has known many scriveners (law-copyists) during his time as a lawyer, but none as interesting as Bartleby.

The story paints a picture of the daily goings-on in the law office before the arrival of Bartleby. The lawyer has three employees: Turkey, Nippers and Ginger-nut. Turkey and Nippers are both scriveners, while Ginger-nut is an assistant.

The conflict of the story begins when the lawyer hires Bartleby to be a third scrivener. At first, he seems to be working out great. The lawyer's first problem with Bartleby begins when it is time to proofread the documents. In order to quickly and efficiently check for accuracy, all the employees sit together with copies and go through them together. This is described by the lawyer as being 'an indispensable part of a scrivener's business.' When Bartleby is asked to do this, he replies, 'I would prefer not to.'

The lawyer is shocked at this response and continues to press Bartleby, who merely continues to say 'I would prefer not to.' Finally, the lawyer and the others carry on without Bartleby.

After this, Bartleby begins to say, 'I would prefer not to,' to everything he is asked, no matter how small. The lawyer has no idea how to deal with Bartleby's unreasonableness and, as a result, constantly gives in to it.

One day, the lawyer attempts to stop into the office on a Sunday, but he can't open the door. His key is blocked. Then, the door unlocks from the inside and out pops Bartleby, who has moved into the office.

With Bartleby living at the office and doing no work, the lawyer finally decides to move his office to another building. But it is not long before the tenant of the new building shows up, wanting to know who the heck Bartleby is, and why is he living there. The lawyer attempts to hold no responsibility for Bartleby, but the new tenant brings the landlord, and they persist until the lawyer agrees to speak with Bartleby. And so he tries. He offers to help Bartleby get any kind of job he wants. But Bartleby says he'd not prefer any of them.

Finally, the new tenant has Bartleby removed by the police and taken to a New York jail called the Tombs. The lawyer visits Bartleby there. He pays the grub man to provide Bartleby with better food. But Bartleby stops eating altogether, saying he'd prefer not to dine. At the end, the narrator shows up and finds Bartleby dead.

In a small epilogue, the lawyer says that he can't shed any light on who Bartleby was or what was wrong with him. All he knows is that Bartleby, before coming to work for him, worked at the Dead Letter Office burning undeliverable mail, much of it letters and packages for dead people. He concludes with the exclamation, 'Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!'


The Lawyer: The narrator of the story is a gray-haired Wall Street lawyer. He is the protagonist of the story because the plot is driven by his problem and goal. He has two major conflicts which drive the story. The first is his outer conflict with Bartleby. He cannot control Bartleby in the most basic way that an employer ought to be able to control an employee. He can't get him to go to the Post Office. He can't get him to join the proofreading sessions. And eventually, he can't even get him to copy papers, which is his entire purpose for being there! When he discovers that Bartleby is living in the office, he can't get him to leave. Whenever he asks Bartleby for anything, Bartleby responds, 'I would prefer not to.'

The lawyer's second conflict is his inner conflict with himself. His desire to run his business in a proper fashion and to get rid of Bartleby is at war with his compassion for Bartleby. For a Wall Street lawyer, he is surprisingly passive-aggressive in his dealings with Bartleby. He could easily call the police and have the constable remove Bartleby from his office, but instead he actually moves to another building.

Bartleby: Bartleby is a deeply disturbed person but it is impossible to pinpoint why and how. Bartleby confines himself to a small 'hermitage' in the office. He stares blankly at a brick wall most of the time. He barely eats and never leaves the office. When asked to perform even the smallest task, such as running to the post office, Bartleby constantly responds, 'I would prefer not to.' Technically, he is the story's antagonist. That doesn't mean he is a bad person or an evil character. But he is the main obstacle of the protagonist. He is impossible to deal with, and the reader feels the lawyer's frustrations when his various attempts to deal with Bartleby fail. It is likely that if the reader had any sort of window into Bartleby's motivation for being obstinate, he or she might sympathize more with Bartleby than the lawyer. But Melville provides no such window. Bartleby's strange behaviors remain an enigma to the narrator and the reader even after Bartleby's death.

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