Bartleby the Scrivener

Describe Bartleby, the narrator and discuss how their relationship change over the course of the story.

From the story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

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The Narrator

An elderly man, and an "eminently safe" one. He makes his living helping rich men deal with their legal documents, and he is convinced that the easiest path is always the best one. Bartleby exerts a strange power over him: the narrator is simultaneously repulsed and moved to pity, and he is powerless to compel Bartleby to do anything. Through Bartleby, the narrator sees his world and the human condition in a new and unsettling way.


The pale and forlorn scrivener, or legal copyist. Bartleby is incredibly passive, quiet, never becoming angry. But he is also unyielding. Life itself is pointless to him, and he cannot pretend enthusiasm for it. His trademark sentence, "I would prefer not to," marks his continuing disengagement from the world. Each time Bartleby utters it, he is refusing not only a task, but one of the rituals that make up a normal life. He ends by "preferring not to" eat, which kills him.


Bartleby and the narrator have a working relationship, a relationship that deteriorates as Bartleby withdraws and refuses to participate in life. For a while, the narrator feels responsible for Bartleby, but eventually those feeling become feelings of repulsion. The narrator tries his best to be compassionate and help Bartleby, but Bartleby seems not to care..... he has chosen his path and sticks to it. The compassion of others is not embraced.

How do their relationship change throughout the story?