Bartleby, the Scrivener Book Summary - Bartleby, the Scrivener Book explained in key points
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Bartleby, the Scrivener summary

Herman Melville

A Story of Wall-Street

4.3 (132 ratings)
20 mins

Brief summary

Bartleby, the Scrivener is a thought-provoking short story by Herman Melville. It follows the life of a passive and enigmatic scrivener named Bartleby, who refuses to conform to the demands of his job, sparking a series of perplexing and existential events.

Table of Contents

    Bartleby, the Scrivener
    Summary of 3 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 3

    Section 1: The narrator, the staff, the phrase

    We never learn the name of our narrator, but we do know he is an unambitious lawyer in his 60s who has offices on Wall Street in New York. He produces legal documents, so he has known and employed many law-copyists, otherwise known as scriveners.

    The lawyer finds scriveners to be “an interesting and somewhat singular set of men” – that is, he finds them odd – but to him one stands above the rest: “Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of.” The lawyer has only his own first-hand knowledge of Bartleby, except for one vague report he will share later.

    Before we meet the curious scrivener, the lawyer introduces us to the rest of his staff – Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.

    Turkey, a scrivener the same age as the Lawyer, is an efficient and valuable employee in the morning. Afternoons are a different story. He drinks at lunch and his face blazes “like a grate full of Christmas coals.” His greasy suits smell of food. Worst of all, his work suffers. But the lawyer overlooks Turkey’s faults, in part because Nippers picks up the slack in the afternoon.

    Nippers is a 25-year-old scrivener who dresses like a gentleman and doesn’t drink at all. Chronic indigestion, however, makes him mean and unproductive in the morning. His attitude changes after lunch, just when Turkey is slipping. “Their fits relieved each other like guards. When Nippers' was on, Turkey's was off; and vice versa.”

    Throughout the day, Turkey and Nippers have snacks delivered to them by Ginger Nut, most notably “that peculiar cake—small, flat, round, and very spicy—after which he had been named.” Ginger Nut is only 12. His father sent him to work with the lawyer so Ginger Nut could learn the law and find a career beyond pushing a delivery cart, which is his father’s job.

    Business picks up for the lawyer. He needs to hire another scrivener, so he takes out an ad. “In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning, stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now—pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.”

    The lawyer is impressed by Bartleby’s qualifications and his “sedate” aspect. He hires him on the spot. He’s so anxious for Bartleby to get to work that he gives him a desk in his own office, behind a folding screen and next to a window that looks out at a wall.

    Bartleby is extremely productive at first, as if he had been starving for work. But when, one day, the lawyer asks him to proofread a document – a tedious but integral part of the scrivener’s job – Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.”

    The lawyer is stunned. He knows he should reprimand or even fire Bartleby, but he can’t. He’s fascinated by his new scrivener. Plus, the lawyer is very busy, so he calls in Nippers to proofread the document.

    A few days later, the lawyer wants all four of his employees to proof four copies of the same document at the same time. Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut all come when their boss calls, but not Bartleby. He stays at his desk and repeats the phrase, “I would prefer not to.”

    Wondering if he’s losing his mind, the lawyer asks the other three what they think. Since it’s morning, Turkey mildly says the lawyer is right, while a cranky Nippers wants to kick Bartleby out of the office. Ginger Nut says, “[H]e’s a little luny.” The lawyer may agree, but he’s still too busy, and fascinated, to do anything about it.

    Analysis

    The characters’ bizarre behavior and nicknames give this story the feel of a fable or a fairy tale. The comical opposites of Turkey and Nippers cement this fairy-tale quality. Their symmetry is so perfect – morning vs. afternoon, old vs. young, drunk vs. sober, disheveled vs. well-dressed – that it seems unreal. As a fable, the story can be interpreted on many levels in many ways, which is what critics and non-critics alike have been doing since it was published.

    The first time we meet Bartleby, he is described as “incurably forlorn,” as if is ill. And what is his symptom? Being “forlorn,” which sounds like a mental health issue. Other word choices in the initial description of Bartleby could lead to the same mental illness conclusion – “pallid,” “pitiably,” and “sedate.” Later on, Ginger Nut describes Bartleby as “luny.”

    Despite Bartleby’s forlorn look, the lawyer sets him up at a desk in a corner, behind a screen, looking out at a brick wall. It’s almost like he’s putting Bartleby in a prison cell, which is exactly how Melville and others viewed the modern world of office work that was being created in places like Wall Street. Its unnatural mix of isolation and conformity could lead to feelings of alienation and eventually crush the human spirit. This is especially true for people who might be predisposed to mental health issues, which Bartleby seems to be.

    Bartleby resists the conformity with his refrain of, “I would prefer not to.” Unfortunately for him, this only adds to his isolation and, presumably, the decline of his mental health.

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    What is Bartleby, the Scrivener about?

    Bartleby, the Scrivener is a novella about the isolation and forced conformity of the modern work world. In flowery and sometimes humorous prose, the story tells the tale of Bartleby, an office worker who suffers from mental health issues and alienation. Although we don’t learn many details about the title character, we sympathize with his plight through the eyes of the unnamed narrator, Bartleby’s boss.

    Bartleby, the Scrivener Review

    Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853) is a unique and thought-provoking book worth reading. Here's why:

    • With its complex characters and their peculiar behaviors, the story explores the boundaries of human interaction and the mysteries of the human psyche.
    • The book sheds light on workplace dynamics and the challenges of conformity, raising important questions about identity and the true meaning of success.
    • Through its narrative twists and unexpected turns, the book keeps readers captivated, ensuring that no page is ever dull or predictable.

    Who should read Bartleby, the Scrivener?

    • Those interested in learning more about a classic novella
    • Fans of nineteenth-century American literature
    • People interested in the themes of alienation, isolation, and mental health in the modern work world

    About the Author

    Herman Melville was a renowned American writer best known for his novel Moby Dick (1851). He was born in New York City in 1819, and first took to the sea on a merchant ship in 1839. His first two books, Typee and Omoo, were based on his adventures in the South Pacific and were very successful. Moby Dick, on the other hand, was not received well when it was published and only gained acclaim after Melville’s death in 1891.

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    Bartleby, the Scrivener FAQs 

    What is the main message of Bartleby, the Scrivener?

    The main message of Bartleby, the Scrivener is a critique of industrial society and the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

    How long does it take to read Bartleby, the Scrivener?

    The reading time for Bartleby, the Scrivener varies, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Bartleby, the Scrivener a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Bartleby, the Scrivener is worth reading for its thought-provoking themes and unique narrative style.

    Who is the author of Bartleby, the Scrivener?

    The author of Bartleby, the Scrivener is Herman Melville.

    What to read after Bartleby, the Scrivener?

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