Mentor Yourself: Book Review – Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Streetby Herman Melville
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is a short story written by Herman Melville and is one of the oddest stories I have ever read. You are not given sufficient details in the story, and at the end you are left with many questions that you cannot really answer. Despite that, it’s a fascinating story.
To get the most from this SummaReview of Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, after you have read it, answer the following questions:
- Is this a book you’d like to read for yourself? Why? Why not?
- What has made an impression on me?
- Were there any kernels of wisdom?
- What are five takeaways from the SummaReview?
- What is one action that you can take as a result of reading this SummaReview?
The story is told from the point of view of an elderly Manhattan lawyer who helps his wealthy clients with bonds, mortgages and title deeds. The lawyer has two scriveners – people who copy legal documents – who he nicknames Turkey and Nippers working for him. Turkey, who is nearly 60 years old, is the same age as the lawyer, and an alcoholic who does his best work before noon. Nippers, who is 25 years old suffers from indigestion, does his best work in the afternoon. The boss is able to deal with them because their eccentricities as he calls it do not appear at the same time in the day.
Business is booming so the lawyer hires a third scrivener named Bartleby. When Bartleby is first hired, he is a great addition to the business because he produces an “extraordinary quantity of work.” He works long hours at a frenetic pace not taking breaks. He is the first at work in the mornings and the last to leave at nights. One of the requirements of the jobs as a scrivener is that one person reads the original while another reviews the copied document to ensure it is accurate. When Bartleby is asked to assist in that capacity, he responds, “I prefer not to.” He refuses to give any explanation for his refusal.
Whenever Bartleby is asked to perform other tasks that the other scrivener will happily do, he responds, “I prefer not to.” Instead of nipping things in the bud and firing Bartleby, his boss indulges him and comes up with many reasons why Bartleby behaves in such a manner. Turkey and Nipper feel that it is unfair for them to do part of Bartleby’s work without being compensated for it.
One Sunday morning while on his way to Trinity Church, the lawyer decides to stop at his office first. When he puts his key in the lock, he discovers that there is something preventing him from opening the door. He calls out, and he hears someone turning a key from the inside. A dishevelled Bartleby appears telling him he would rather not let him in right now and suggests that he take a walk around the block two or three times so that he can take care of his affairs.
Once again, the lawyer indulges Bartleby and when he returns, the scrivener is nowhere in sight. After the boss walks around inspecting things he realizes that Bartleby has been living in the office. A melancholy sweeps over him and he reflects on Bartleby’s behaviour and some things become clearer to him. Bartleby doesn’t talk to any of his colleagues. They know nothing about him, where he is from, who his relatives and families are.
The following morning the lawyer tries to engage with Bartleby to find out more about him, and his standard answer as always, “I would prefer not to.” Since Bartleby refuses to share any of his history, the lawyer tried a different tactic, and asks him to be reasonable and examine the papers. Bartleby refuses to be reasonable and Nippers and Turkey become very upset about the situation.
The following day, Bartleby doesn’t do any work and stands by the window. His boss thinks that Bartleby’s eyes are affected because of the long hours of copying, and decides to let him take a little time off from copying. The days go by and yet Bartleby doesn’t do any work. When his boss asks him about it, his response, “I have given up copying.”
The lawyer gives Bartleby six days notice to vacate the office and find his own accommodation, but it isn’t an easy decision. Six says pass and Bartleby is still there.
However, the lawyer struggles with what he should do next. “What shall I do? I now said to myself, buttoning up my coat to the last button. What shall I do? what ought I to do? what does conscience say I should do with this man? or rather ghost. Rid myself of him, I must; go, he shall. But how? You will not thrust him, the poor, pale, passive mortal, – you will not thrust such a helpless creature out of your door? you will not dishonour yourself by such cruelty?” The lawyer moves his office to another location and leaves Bartleby behind.
The new tenant cannot get Bartleby to leave. Although he is no longer in the office he still hangs around and they are quite upset so they seek out the lawyer. The lawyer pleads with Bartleby even inviting him to stay at his home but once again, he refuses. The lawyer tries to find out from Bartleby if there is a new field that he would like to enter, but the scrivener likes the status quo. This is very perplexing for the lawyer and he doesn’t know how to deal with this situation. The lawyer stays away from work for a few days because he doesn’t want to be bothered by his former landlord and the new tenant.
In the end, the landlord and his new tenant call the authorities who forcibly remove Bartleby and imprison him at the Tomb, a place for vagrants. The lawyer visits Bartleby there, however, his former employee doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. The lawyer pays someone to provide food for Bartleby. Despite that, the scrivener starves himself to death.
In Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville, you see the lawyer always grappling with what is the right and moral thing to do about Bartleby. His religious experience comes into play, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.” He tries to do the right thing for Bartleby and is far more accommodating that he needs to be. There was a passive resistance in Bartleby, but what caused him to be that way?
The lawyer discovers after Bartleby dies, that he had worked as a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, but what does that mean? What is the significance? Dead letters are undeliverable letters. Bartleby wasn’t an assertive person, and it is clear that he was suffered from depression.
Is there a little bit of Bartleby inside each of us? The scrivener wasn’t brave even though he refused to do work he no longer cared for. His actions were passive and he resisted any form of change. Bartleby died because he couldn’t accept or adapt to changes.
I recommend Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street because it’s not an easy story to understand, and in the end we will come up with our own interpretation. In life we never have complete information so we are constantly filling gaps, based on our knowledge and experiences.
Bartleby, the Subversive
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Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street
Bartleby, the Scrivener
Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Close Examination and Analysis
Bartleby, the Subversive
Bartleby the Scrivener
Bartleby’s Occupation of Wall Street
Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street
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