Bartleby the Scrivener Summary
In the 19th century, lawyers employed scriveners, assistants whose job it was to copy legal documents by hand. In Herman Melville’s 1856 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” an elderly, unnamed Manhattan attorney needs to hire a third scrivener for his practice. Already he employs Nippers and Turkey, two men with wildly different personalities.
At first, Bartleby appears to be a perfect fit. His work habits are diligent and his product impeccable. Unexplainably, one day, the lawyer asks Bartleby to help proofread a document, and Bartleby gives an unexpected reply: “I would prefer not to.” This soon becomes Bartleby’s mantra, uttered ever more in response to any question. Soon, it is discovered that Bartleby has taken to living in the office. Bartleby appears to be sinking into a depression, perhaps the result of the view from his window being a blackened brick wall.
Rather than evict Bartleby, the lawyer simply moves his offices. The new tenants, however, are equally unsuccessful in dislodging Bartleby the Scrivener, who continues to respond, “I would prefer not to". Kicked out of the office proper, Bartleby spends his days sitting in the stairwell and sleeping in the doorway. Eventually, Bartleby is arrested and sent to the Tombs, a notorious New York prison. The lawyer comes to visit Bartleby, and finds him despondent. His offer to have Bartleby come live with him is equally rejected, and Bartleby dies of starvation several days later.