Bartleby, the Scrivener Essay

August 31, 2022 by Essay Writer

Updated: Nov 10th, 2019

The story ‘Bartley’ is a description of a Scrivener or copyist of a law firm. The narration of the story is done by a lawyer of a firm who had employed Bartley.

Apart from Bartley, the law firm had two other employees working as copyists who were Turkey and Nippers. The story is given the title ‘Bartley the Scrivener’ due to the amazing character which Bartleby displays in the law firm since the first day he was hired in the law firm.

During the first few days of his work, Bartley did excellent work because his work was swift and accurate. During one of the incidences when the lawyer requested him to examine all copies of work for accuracy, he calmly replied that he would prefer not to examine the document.

Shortly after this incident, Bartley denies the responsibility given by the lawyer to all the copyists to examine the large document by directly replying, “I would prefer not to examine the document.” The story contains a description of the life of Bartley hence the title “Bartleby the Scrivener.”


The book has several characters with each playing varied roles in the story. There are major characters that include the Lawyer, Bartleby, Turkey, Nippers among many other characters in the story. The “Lawyer” is not given any name in the story and is described as the narrator of the story.

He is the owner of the law firm situated in Wall Street and the sole employer of the three copyists. He is depicted as an industrious, ambitious and business minded person and is nearly reaching sixty years of age. He is known for his good interaction with employees until he met Bartleby. Bartleby is a major character in the story. He was employed as a copyist in the law firm and displayed excellent work in the initial days of his employment.

It reaches a point when he refuses to respond to duties given to him by the lawyer by openly showing defiance. Turkey is another character in the story. He has a predictable characteristic as shown in the story. He is known for his excellent performance of duties in the early hours of the day but all changes in the afternoon. During the afternoon hours of working, he makes a lot of mistakes as well as getting hot tempered.

On the other hand, Nippers is the opposite of Turkey. He carries out his activities perfectly in the afternoon, but displays bad characteristics of working in the morning hours (Melville, 11). Ginger Nut is the other character who is considered the errand of the narrator and got his name as a result of being sent to buy ginger nut cakes by the three copyists (Melville, 14). Hunilla, a character in the story, has a sorrowful background due to the fact that his husband had perished in a boating accident and was saved by the ship of the narrator.

Oberlus abandoned his ship and became a hermit in the Hood Isle where he was engaged in vegetable farming for sale to the passing ships. Over time, he began kidnapping sailors and made himself the lord but was later arrested when he stole a boat and escaped to mainland. Other characters include Amasa Delano who is the dominating character in the ‘Benito Cereno’, Benito Cereno, Babo, Atufal and Alexandro Aranda.


The manner and setting in which the story is told has got several themes. One of the themes of the story is race. The story was told at a time when slavery was the order of the day and the author was aware of widespread discrimination against the blacks. Melville, the author of the book decorates the story to a large extent and writes down the thoughts of Captain Delano concerning the black people. According to the story, slaves were directly fetched from the tribes of black people from which Melville came from.

It is as a result of this use that the author thinks the blacks acquired ruthlessness and war like characters when the whites had completed using them. The other theme in the book is that of charity and selfishness. In the story, the lawyer shows pity to Bartleby and recognizes that he is useful to him as a worker. He also came up with a conclusion that if Bartleby were to leave for another work station, he would be mistreated which would make him less productive to other employers and the society at large.

As a result, decides to carry the burden of retaining him as a co worker. The lawyer tries to earn himself good conscience by offering charity services. On the contrary, Bartleby ignores any assistance offered to him by the lawyer using the words “would prefer not to” (Melville, 72).


Some symbols have also been used in the story. One of the Symbolic features in the story is Alexandro Aranda’s Skeleton, a slave owner which was suspended on the bow of the ship. Just beneath the skeleton are written the words, “follow your leader,” that Babo describes to the white sailors as very white bones implying they were from a white man.

It was quite ironical that the white and black people had the same color of bones. Dead letters have also been symbolically used. At the end of the story, the Lawyer gives a clue to what he believes is the cause of Bartleby character. He reveals that Bartleby had once worked in the dead letter office. By linking him to dead letters, the Lawyer implied that through reading these letters, Bartleby suffered depression and emotional detachment. The letters could also symbolize emergence of middle class jobs.

End reading

The end reading of the story contains the circumstances that would have caused the condition of Bartleby. According to the author, there were rumors that Bartleby had worked as a clerk in Washington in one of the offices that dealt with dead letters but was later sacked by the administration. The indication of the author is that, by handling these letters on daily basis one gains a sense of hopelessness and misfortune which is linked to the condition of Bartleby (Melville, 251).

The story has some significance with regards to some activities that we engage in the real world. Some jobs which have repetitive tasks like sorting letters on daily basis would offer a lot of difficulty to employees and could be a source of low morale and depression among workers today. When the author uses dead letters, this concept is made more visible.


In my opinion, the condition which Bartleby suffers from is justified in the comments made towards the end of the story. By working with Dead office letters, Bartleby had encountered several experiences that made him loose hope in life. Bartleby choice of words to reject responsibilities was “prefer not to do” rather than “I won’t do.” This implies that he was not rude but was bored repeating the same tasks over time.

Work Cited

Melville, Herman. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall street, New York, NY: G.P. Putnam & Co., 1994.

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