Summary and Analysis
A regular employer of law-copyists over a thirty-year period, the elderly and conservative narrator, who remains unnamed, reports on a singular young man who once worked as a scrivener in his law office, which specializes in legal paperwork, notably bonds, mortgages, and title-deeds. Located on Wall Street and serving as Master in Chancery, the speaker occupies a second floor office that looks out on two walls — one white and the other grimy black. Employing two copyists and an office boy, the lawyer finds his business grown to the point of needing an additional copyist. Upon hiring Bartleby, the narrator retains him on his side of a glass folding door, which separates him from the three other employees. Bartleby's nook overlooks a blank wall three feet from the window.
Throughout this story, the limited first-person point of view of the narrator reveals more of his own values and motivation than those of Bartleby, whom he never fully appreciates or comprehends. Like yin and yang, the two form the necessary dichotomy of clerical worker and professional, just as Turkey and Nippers offset each other's propensities and idiosyncrasies. This motif of duality suggests the complementary nature of human beings, who must accommodate both points of view in order to comprehend life fully. The setting, an integral unit of the financial center of the United States, is actually Melville's own childhood neighborhood and also the general location of the Custom House, where he spent the last years of public service until his retirement.
John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) American entrepreneur who amassed a fortune in the fur trade.
Master in Chancery chief clerk of the court of equity.
Wall Street Dating from a Dutch settlement, a walled street in New York City, reaching from Broadway to the East River and currently comprising the financial nerve center of the United States.
cannel coal bituminous coal, which burns with a bright flame.
anthracite a hard, slow-burning form of coal.
sand-box container holding sand which is sprinkled to blot up excess ink.
boxing his papers evening the edges of a stack of papers by tamping them into place.
with submission meaning no disrespect.
the Tombs nickname for a New York City prison.
a dun a bill collector.
car-man van driver; deliveryman.
Spitzenbergs strong-flavored red and yellow apples common to the New York area.
conveyancer attorney who prepares documents to facilitate the transfer of property; a real estate lawyer.
title hunter attorney who establishes prior claims on property.