Bartleby, the Scrivener

"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville, first serialized anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam's Magazine and reprinted with minor textual alterations in his The Piazza Tales in 1856. In the story, a Wall Street lawyer hires a new clerk who, after an initial bout of hard work, refuses to make copies or do any other task required of him, responding to any request with the words "I would prefer not to."

"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street"
Short story by Herman Melville
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Short story
Published inPutnam's Magazine
Publication typePeriodical
Publication dateNovember–December 1853

The story likely takes place between 1848 and 1853, during the Antebellum Period in American history.

Numerous critical essays have been published about the story, which scholar Robert Milder describes as "unquestionably the masterpiece of the short fiction" in the Melville canon.[1]



The narrator is an unnamed elderly lawyer who works with legal documents and has an office on Wall Street in New York. He already employs two scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, to copy documents by hand, but an increase in business leads him to advertise for a third. He hires the forlorn-looking Bartleby in the hope that his calmness will soothe the other two, each of whom displays an irascible temperament during an opposite half of the day. An errand boy nicknamed Ginger Nut completes the staff.

At first, Bartleby produces a large volume of high-quality work, but one day, when asked to help proofread a document, Bartleby answers with what soon becomes his perpetual response to every request: "I would prefer not to." To the dismay of the narrator and the irritation of the other employees, Bartleby begins to perform fewer and fewer tasks and eventually none. He instead spends long periods of time staring out one of the office's windows at a brick wall. The narrator makes several attempts to reason with Bartleby or to learn something about him, but never has any success. When the narrator stops by the office one Sunday morning, he discovers that Bartleby is living there. He is saddened by the thought of the life the young man must lead.

Tension builds as business associates wonder why Bartleby is always present in the office yet does not appear to do any work. Sensing the threat to his reputation, but emotionally unable to evict Bartleby, the narrator moves his business to a different building. The new tenant of his old office comes to ask for help in removing Bartleby, and the narrator tells the man that he is not responsible for his former employee. A week or so after this, several other tenants of the narrator's former office building come to him with their landlord because Bartleby is still making a nuisance of himself; even though he has been put out of the office, he sits on the building stairs all day and sleeps in its doorway at night. The narrator agrees to visit Bartleby and attempts to reason with him. He suggests several jobs that Bartleby might try and even invites Bartleby to live with him until they figure out a better solution, but Bartleby declines these offers. The narrator leaves the building and flees the neighborhood for several days, in order not to be bothered by the landlord and tenants.

When the narrator returns to work, he learns that the landlord has called the police. The officers have arrested Bartleby and imprisoned him in the Tombs as a vagrant. He goes to visit Bartleby, who spurns him, and bribes a cook to make sure Bartleby gets enough food. The narrator returns a few days later to check on Bartleby and discovers him dead of starvation, having preferred not to eat.

Months later, the narrator hears a rumor that Bartleby had once worked in a dead letter office and reflects on how this might have affected him. The story ends with the narrator saying, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"



Melville's major source of inspiration for the story was an advertisement for a new book, The Lawyer's Story, printed in the Tribune and the Times on February 18, 1853. The book, published anonymously later that year, was written by popular novelist James A. Maitland.[2] This advertisement included the complete first chapter, which started: "In the summer of 1843, having an extraordinary quantity of deeds to copy, I engaged, temporarily, an extra copying clerk, who interested me considerably, in consequence of his modest, quiet, gentlemanly demeanor, and his intense application to his duties." Melville biographer Hershel Parker said nothing else in the chapter besides this "remarkably evocative sentence" was notable.[3] Critic Andrew Knighton said Melville may have been influenced by an obscure work from 1846, Robert Grant White's Law and Laziness: or, Students at Law of Leisure, which features an idle scrivener,[4] while Christopher Sten suggests that Melville found inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, particularly "The Transcendentalist", which shows parallels to "Bartleby".[5]

Melville may have written the story as an emotional response to the bad reviews garnered by Pierre, his preceding novel.[6] Financial difficulties may also have played a part: Moby-Dick and Pierre sold so poorly that Melville was in debt to his publisher Harper & Brothers.[7]

Publication history


The story was first published anonymously as "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" in two installments in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, in November and December 1853.[8] It was included in Melville's The Piazza Tales, published in by Dix & Edwards in the United States in May 1856 and in Britain in June.[9]



The narrator and the text do not explicitly explain the reason for Bartleby's behavior, leaving it open to interpretation.

Bartleby's demeanour


A 1978 article in ELH posits that Bartleby shows classic symptoms of depression, such as his lack of motivation. He is a passive person, and good at the work he agrees to do. He refuses to divulge any personal information to the narrator. Bartleby's death is consistent with depression—having no motivation to survive, he refrains from eating until he dies.[10]

Function of narrator


Bartleby has been interpreted as a "psychological double" for the narrator that criticizes the "sterility, impersonality, and mechanical adjustments of the world which the lawyer inhabits."[11] Until the end of the story, Bartleby's background is unknown and may have sprung from the narrator's mind. The narrator screens off Bartleby in a corner, which has been interpreted as symbolizing "the lawyer's compartmentalization of the unconscious forces which Bartleby represents."[11]

Psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas says the main focus of the story is the narrator, whose "willingness to tolerate [Bartleby's] work stoppage is what needs to be explained ... As the story proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the lawyer identifies with his clerk. To be sure, it is an ambivalent identification, but that only makes it all the more powerful."[12]



Scholars have long explored the possibility that Bartleby serves as an autobiographical portrait.[13] Lawrence Buell suggested that the scrivener may reflect Melville as disenchanted writer or artist,[14] Leo Marx connected the story's theme of alienation with Melville's experiences and feelings of isolation,[15] and Giles Gunn posited that Melville's personal struggles and disillusionment with the literary world influenced his portrayal of Bartleby as a withdrawn and passive character.[16]

Free will and ethics


"Bartleby, the Scrivener" alludes to Jonathan Edwards's "Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will" and Jay Leyda, in his introduction to The Complete Stories of Herman Melville, comments on the similarities between Bartleby and The Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity by Joseph Priestley. Both Edwards and Priestley wrote about free will and determinism. Edwards states that free will requires the will to be isolated from the moment of decision, in which case Bartleby's isolation from the world would allow him to be completely free. He has the ability to do whatever he pleases. The reference to Priestley and Edwards in connection with determinism may suggest that Bartleby's exceptional exercise of his personal will, even though it leads to his death, spares him from an externally determined fate.[17]

"Bartleby" is also seen as an inquiry into ethics. Critic John Matteson sees the story (and other Melville works) as explorations of the changing meaning of 19th-century "prudence." The story's narrator "struggles to decide whether his ethics will be governed by worldly prudence or Christian agape." He wants to be humane, as shown by his accommodations of the four staff and especially of Bartleby, but this conflicts with the newer, pragmatic and economically based notion of prudence supported by changing legal theory. The 1850 case Brown v. Kendall, three years before the story's publication, was important in establishing the "reasonable man" standard in the United States, and emphasized the positive action required to avoid negligence. Bartleby's passivity has no place in a legal and economic system that increasingly sides with the "reasonable" and economically active individual. His fate, an innocent decline into unemployment, prison, and starvation, dramatizes the effect of the new prudence on the economically inactive members of society.[18]



Though no great success at the time of publication, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is now among the most noted of American short stories. Albert Camus, in a personal letter to Liselotte Dieckmann published in The French Review in 1998, cites Melville as a key influence.[19]

On November 5, 2019, the BBC News listed "Bartleby, the Scrivener" on its list of the 100 most influential novels.[20]

Adaptations and references




References to the story



  • Bartleby: La formula della creazione (1993) by Giorgio Agamben and Bartleby, ou la formule by Gilles Deleuze are two philosophical essays reconsidering many of Melville's ideas.
  • Abdulrazak Gurnah references Bartleby, the Scrivener throughout his 2001 novel By the Sea. The protagonist Saleh Omar quotes Bartleby's mantra to explain his decision to abstain from speaking English on seeking asylum in the UK.
  • Jeff Smith's comic book series Bone features a "rat creature" named Bartleby who declines to partake in the violence and savagery of his feral brethren. The Melville connection is reinforced by the fact that Moby Dick is the series protagonist's favorite novel.

Film and television



  • The electronic text archive is named "after the humble character of its namesake scrivener, or copyist—publishes the classics of literature, nonfiction, and reference free of charge."[27]
  • The British newspaper magazine The Economist maintains a column named Bartleby focused on managers trying to understand how to motivate their employees and to empathize with employees who "carry out their bosses' often bewildering orders, even when they would 'prefer not to'."[28]
  • The 92nd Street Y presented a livestreamed and on-demand reading of the story by actor Paul Giamatti in November 2020. A December 3, 2020 conversation between Giamatti and Andrew Delbanco is archived on YouTube.[29]

See also



  1. ^ Milder, Robert. (1988). "Herman Melville." Emory Elliott (General Editor), Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05812-8, p. 439
  2. ^ Bergmann, Johannes Dietrich (November 1975). ""Bartleby" and The Lawyer's Story". American Literature. 47 (3). Durham, NC: 432–436. doi:10.2307/2925343. ISSN 0002-9831. JSTOR 2925343.
  3. ^ Parker 2002: 150. (The opening sentence of the source is quoted there as well.)
  4. ^ Knighton, Andrew (2007). "The Bartleby Industry and Bartleby's Idleness". ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance. 53 (2): 191–192. doi:10.1353/esq.0.0004. S2CID 161627160.
  5. ^ Christopher W. Sten, "Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville's Dead Letter to Emerson." Modern Language Quarterly 35 (March 1974): 30–44.
  6. ^ Daniel A. Wells, ""Bartleby the Scrivener," Poe, and the Duyckinck Circle" Archived March 2, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 21 (First Quarter 1975): 35–39.
  7. ^ Machor, James L. (2008). "The American Reception of Melville's Short Fiction in the 1850s". In Goldstein, Philip; Machor, James L. (eds.). New Directions in American Reception Study. Oxford (GB): Oxford University Press. p. 88. ISBN 9780195320879. Why Melville turned to the short story form after working exclusively in the novel is difficult to say with any certainty. In all likelihood, economic necessity and his damaged reputation after Pierre were factors. Following the disappointing sales of Moby-Dick, Pierre had sold a mere 283 copies by March 1853, causing Melville to make so little from the two novels that he was actually in debt to Harpers, his American publisher ... Melville needed to do something to address both problems, and when George P. Putnam invited him, as one of seventy authors, to contribute to the new monthly magazine Putnam was about to commence, an avenue opened.
  8. ^ Sealts (1987), 572.
  9. ^ Sealts (1987), 497.
  10. ^ Robert E. Abrams, Bartleby's prolonged silences (mutism) and prolonged periods of standing and staring are also symptoms of catatonia, a syndrome associated with depressive illness '"Bartleby" and the Fragile Pageantry of the Ego", ELH, vol. 45, no. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 488–500.
  11. ^ a b Mordecai Marcus, "Melville's Bartleby As a Psychological Double", College English 23 (1962): 365–368. Archived January 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ "Pushing Paper – Lapham's Quarterly". Archived from the original on May 29, 2012. Retrieved September 4, 2012.
  13. ^ Oliver Tearle (May 2022). "A Summary and Analysis of Herman Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'".
  14. ^ Lawrence Buell (1987). Melville's Masks: Private and Public History in American Novels. University of Chicago Press.
  15. ^ Marx, Leo (2000). The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford University Press.
  16. ^ Gunn, Giles (1987). The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture. Oxford University Press.
  17. ^ Allan Moore Emery, "The alternatives of Melville's "Bartleby", Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 31, no. 2 (September 1976), pp. 170–187.
  18. ^ Matteson, John (2008). "'A New Race Has Sprung Up': Prudence, Social Consensus and the Law in 'Bartleby the Scrivener'". Leviathan. 10 (1): 25–49. doi:10.1111/j.1750-1849.2008.01259.x. S2CID 143452766 – via Project MUSE.
  19. ^ Jones, James F. (March 1998). "Camus on Kafka and Melville: an unpublished letter". The French Review. 71 (4): 645–650. JSTOR 398858.
  20. ^ "100 'most inspiring' novels revealed by BBC Arts". BBC News. November 5, 2019. Retrieved November 10, 2019. The reveal kickstarts the BBC's year-long celebration of literature.
  21. ^ Stanley Hochman (ed.), "Albee, Edward", in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama: An International Reference Work in 5 Volumes, 2nd. ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984, vol. 2, p. 42.
  22. ^ "Britannica Classic: Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener – Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved September 4, 2012.
  23. ^ "BBC Radio 4 Extra - Herman Melville - Bartleby the Scrivener". BBC.
  24. ^ a b "Le spectacle de Daniel Pennac au coeur d'un documentaire télévisuel vendredi soir – La Voix du Nord". Archived from the original on April 3, 2012. Retrieved September 4, 2012.
  25. ^ "Pigem ei". Von Krahl. Retrieved October 16, 2022.
  26. ^ "Bartleby". IMDb.
  27. ^ "Welcome to". Retrieved March 5, 2018.
  28. ^ "Introducing Bartleby, our new column on management and work". The Economist.
  29. ^ "Paul Giamatti in Conversation with Andrew Delbanco". December 4, 2020 – via YouTube.