Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener Summary and Analysis of Pages 14-25

Second Section (pp. 14-25)


A few days later, the narrator needs to proofread four quadruplicates of an important document. He calls in all of his employees to sit and proofread while he reads aloud from the original, and all of them come except for Bartleby. When called on specifically, Bartleby answers as before, "I would prefer not to." When the narrator tries to reason with him, Bartleby simply repeats, "I would prefer not to." The narrator becomes agitated, and is so taken aback by Bartleby's refusals that he looks to his employees for support. Because it is morning, Turkey is calm and measured and Nippers is angry. Ginger Nut replies, smiling, that he thinks Bartleby is not quite right in the head. But the narrator lets it pass, and, as Bartleby won't budge, the men get on with their work.

Over the next few days, the narrator observes that Bartleby never leaves his desk. He seems to live entirely on the ginger nut cakes brought to him by the office boy. For some reason, something about Bartleby touches the narrator. He's concerned that if dismissed, Bartleby will be vulnerable to other employers who will be less forgiving of his eccentricities. He resolves to help Bartleby if he can. But sometimes Bartleby's refusals anger him. One afternoon, he loses his temper. When he goes to his employees to ask their opinion, Nippers is mild and Turkey wants to punch Bartleby's lights out (it being afternoon). The narrator calms Turkey down and returns to his office, closing the doors. He makes a series of requests to Bartleby, but the answer is always the same. At one point, he roars Bartleby's name until Bartleby appears from behind his screen: "Like a very ghost, agreeably to the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage" (19). Although the narrator considers some kind of drastic action, at the end of the day he simply goes home.

Days pass. Bartleby's good qualities reconcile him to the narrator: he is constant, almost always industrious if he isn't in one of his reveries, and is always there. He is at the office first in the morning, and is the last to leave. One Sunday, when the narrator is on his way to Trinity Church to hear a famous preacher, he decides to stop in at the office. When he tries to get through the door, he finds resistance from inside. Bartleby is there, in a state of undress, and he says that he would prefer not to admit the narrator. He suggests the narrator go for a walk.

When the narrator returns after a short walk, Bartleby is gone. But the narrator finds evidence that Bartleby has been living at the office. He sleeps on a sofa in the corner, and there is a razor and a ratty old towel. This revelation moves the narrator. Wall Street is completely empty when not in business. He searches Bartleby's desk, and finds Bartleby's money wrapped in a little handkerchief. He reflects on Bartleby's situation. Although he feels pity for Bartleby, the man also repulses him. The passage is worth quoting at length:

My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible, too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. (pp. 24-25)

The narrator doesn't make it to Trinity Church that day. He resolves to ask Bartleby some questions about his past. If Bartleby does not answer, the narrator will dismiss him, although he will try to help him with expenses if Bartleby should wish to return to his place of origin.


The scenes in which the narrator asks the advice of his employees are always comical in tone. Each man reacts according to the dictates of the time of day: if it is morning, Nippers is fiery and Turkey benign, and if it is afternoon, Turkey is belligerent and Nippers calm. Their predictable reactions underscore their status as symbols or types rather than realistic characters. They also serve as the clowns of the story.

Bartleby and the narrator are more real, but both of them also have powerful allegorical roles. Note that these two share an office room, just as Nippers and Turkey do. Increasingly, Bartleby is described in ghostly terms, and a perceptive reader will soon realize that the ghost is in some ways the narrator's phantom double. Note how often we see Bartleby as phantom, as when the narrator roars his name until he appears: "Like a very ghost, agreeably to the the laws of magical invocation, at the third summons, he appeared at the entrance of his hermitage" (19). Later, we learn that Bartleby haunts the building. Like a ghost, he lives in the office when no one else is there, when Wall Street is a desert, a landscape both completely unnatural and forlornly empty.

The narrator senses that there are parallels between himself and the scrivener, and Bartleby's gloom infects him: "Before, I had never experienced aught but a not unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam" (23). Bartleby's plight draws the narrator into depths of feeling that he did not know he was capable of. Part of Bartleby's power over the narrator is that he somehow sees Bartleby as a part of himself. He, too, has been forced to adapt to the business world. But while he has adapted and gone through the consequent numbing (previous unable to feel more than a "not unpleasing sadness"), Bartleby has been bludgeoned to exhaustion. Nothing pleases him about this world. The narrator, at different times, wants to help Bartleby.

But we have been warned that the narrator is a safe man who thinks the easiest path is also the best. His pity for Bartleby turns to revulsion (see the passage from pp. 24-25, above). The narrator's plight works through the themes of responsibility and compassion. His obligations, in one sense, are nothing. But as far as Bartleby is a living, suffering being, and that both men are "sons of Adam," the narrator arguably should do all that he can. To what extent is the narrator supposed to help the melancholic scrivener? Has he failed as a human being if he has done any less than all he can?

After asserting that after a certain point, pity becomes revulsion, he defends the transformation: "They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill" (24-25). Yet the narrator goes on to describe the transformation as defensive. Although he denies the charge that the pity-to-revulsion change is due to selfishness, his explanation of the motives behind it seem like little more than a selfishness that is philosophically justified. At work here is what Toni Morrison (an admirer of Melville) would call a shortage of love. Ironically, on the day his pity turns to revulsion, the narrator was on his way to Church. The narrator never does make it to Church that day, and the symbolism is obvious. Though he was on his way to see a celebrity preacher, religion's highest ideals do not win a place in the narrator's heart: Melville, as he does in many of his works, is taking a small jab at religion and its inability to change men meaningfully for the better. The narrator will try to help Bartleby return home, but we will see that there are limits to what he feels he can do.