Summary and Analysis
For two days, Bartleby works well — almost too well. He is compulsive about his copying, "gorging" himself on documents. On the third day, however, he surprises his employer by casually stating three separate times that he would "prefer not to" assist in proofreading a small document. Ordinarily, the narrator would have considered firing Bartleby, but because of Bartleby's composure and rational manner and because the narrator is preoccupied with business, he moves on to more pressing matters.
A few days later, Bartleby refuses to take part in scanning his own sheaf of quadruplicates. The lawyer, exasperated to the breaking point, asks his other employees their opinion in the matter. Turkey agrees that the lawyer has made a reasonable request; Nippers suggests that they kick Bartleby out of the office. Ginger Nut, the least mature of the foursome, suspects Bartleby of lunacy. Bartleby, saying nothing in his defense, withdraws to his corner.
Days later, the narrator contemplates Bartleby's general behavior. He discerns that he never dines out and lives on a scanty diet of ginger cakes. Filled with compassion, the narrator concludes that firing Bartleby would expose him to rough treatment for his involuntary eccentricities, and so he congratulates himself for opting to be charitable. However, the narrator's generous frame of mind gives way to vexation sometime later after Bartleby again refuses to compare copies. The narrator subdues a belligerent Turkey, who would "black his [Bartleby's] eyes," and asks Bartleby to run an errand to the post office, a three-minute walk. Bartleby again refuses the request and refuses, as well, to summon Nippers to go on the errand. The narrator, unable to cope, leaves for dinner.
In the coming days, Bartleby remains honest and industrious, except for singular pauses to stand in revery and intermittent occasions when he prefers not to work. One Sunday morning, as the narrator walks toward Trinity Church, he stops at his office and discovers that Bartleby is locked inside. After walking around the block several times, the narrator summons sympathy for his employee, whom he considers a fellow mortal, and returns to the now-vacated office to investigate Bartleby's solitary existence. He finds Bartleby's savings knotted in a bandanna and thrust into a recess of his desk and concludes that Bartleby has been living in the office at night.
Thinking over Bartleby's general behavior, the lawyer concludes that the man does not converse, read, drink beer, or dine out. He does not even indulge in tea or coffee. The lawyer's contemplation of the copyist's "morbid moodiness" moves from sadness and pity to fear and repulsion. He concludes that the disorder is "innate and incurable" and that Bartleby's suffering soul lies beyond his ability to render aid. Deciding to question the man, the lawyer proposes to fire him if he elects not to respond.
On Monday morning, while asking Bartleby about his background, he receives the same answer to all his questions: "I would prefer not to [tell you]." The lawyer loses control of the situation. Embarrassed that Bartleby is defying him, his superior, he also perceives that the demented man's "prefers" are beginning to permeate conversations throughout the office. Still, the lawyer delays taking action.
The next day, Bartleby reveals that his vision is impaired. Touched by the vocational hazard of eyestrain, the lawyer urges him to get some fresh air by taking letters to the post office. Bartleby, as usual, declines . . . preferring "not to." The lawyer performs the errand himself. Days later, Bartleby reveals that he has decided to give up copying. The lawyer knows that Bartleby is alone in the world, but nonetheless, he gives him six days to leave his employ.
Surrounded by functionary stereotypes, the lawyer, a round character, considers himself a "safe" man. As such, he is conservative, rational, and ostensibly a charitable, approachable, but WASPish citizen. In performance of duties, he lacks control over details, as indicated by his loss of the fourth key to his office. Accustomed to an unvarying predictability on Wall Street, he is utterly perplexed at discovering Bartleby only partially dressed and living in the office. The lawyer's weak response to the copyist's challenge of authority leads him to berate himself for "[permitting] his hired clerk to dictate to him."
When confronted by such irrational behavior, the narrator rejects violence and vituperation. Instead, he resorts to the parlance and behavior of his profession, debating the situation as though it were a court matter, or else withdrawing from the scene or into the complexities of work as a means of quelling an inner compulsion to strike out at his mulish copyist. The contretemps that exists between the two men is the equivalent of a modern-day professional person trying to coax work from a recalcitrant machine, for the narrator considers Bartleby a "valuable acquisition," similar in modern times to a photocopier, computer printer, or fax machine.
Byron (1788-1824) a poet and key figure in the English romantic movement. The implication is that anyone with imagination would have detested Bartleby's job.
Cicero (106-43 B.C.) consul and orator of the Roman Republic who established a reputation for composed rationality.
High Court of Chancery a court which hears lawsuits and cases involving fair distribution of goods.
pillar of salt In Genesis 19:26, Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she disobeyed God by looking back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
vouchsafed condescended to reply.
hermitage solitary abode.
Windsor soap brown or white scented soap.
Trinity Church New York's first Episcopalian church, chartered in 1697.
deshabille a polite French euphemism for "partially clothed."
the proprieties of the day improper behavior for a Sunday.
Petra ancient Roman city in the Jordanian desert.
Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage Roman general (157-86 B.C.) who achieved fame by bringing Rome's war with Numidia to a swift conclusion.
sons of Adam figuratively, members of the human race.
chimeras outlandish thoughts.
millstone a weighty burden.