First Section (pp 3-14)
The elderly narrator promises to relate what he knows about a peculiar man, one Bartleby, a scrivener (copying clerk) who worked for him some time ago. Before he gets into Bartleby's story, he introduces himself and the other employees of his office. Of himself, he says that he is a man always convinced that the easiest path is best. Though a lawyer, he never goes before juries or judges: he runs a business dealing with rich men's bonds, mortgages, and title deeds. He takes no risks: ""All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man" (4). A short time before the central story begins, the narrator had been appointed Master in Chancery, a position that has since been eliminated. In an aside, the narrator says that he considers the elimination of the post a premature act, particularly since he'd counted on the lifelong security guaranteed by the job.
The offices of our story are on Wall Street. On one side, the windows look on the interior of a light shaft. On the other side, the view is of a brick wall. Two copyists and an office boy work for the narrator at the time before Bartleby's arrival. The first copyist is Turkey. Turkey is productive in the mornings, but he's drunk by noon. From that point on, he is less than productive, but the narrator's attempts to send him home early have never met with success. When drunk, he's brash and over-enthusiastic. Nippers, the second copyist, is "the victim of two evil powers ambition and indigestion" (9). Though not a drinker, young Nippers' natural temperament is so irritable that it hardly matters. But because his irritation is caused by indigestion, his irritability wanes as the day goes on. Thus Turkey is productive while Nippers is foul-tempered, and Nippers is productive while Turkey is drunk. Ginger Nut, the office boy, is a lad of twelve whose nickname comes from the ginger nut cakes he fetches for the men.
Bartleboy responds to an ad the narrator put in the paper. He is a pale and miserable-looking man: "I can see that figure now pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn" (11). He also describes Bartleby as "motionless." The narrator hopes Bartleby's quietness will calm the hot tempers of the other two copyists.
The office is divided into two rooms, one occupied by Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut, and the other occupied by the narrator. Behind the narrator's desk is a bust of Cicero, the great Roman writer and orator. The narrator installs Bartleby in his own room, putting him at a desk by a window that looks out onto a wall. Bartleby's workstation is separated from the narrator's by a folding screen.
Part of a scrivener's job is the tedious work of double-checking a copy's faithfulness to the original. One man reads from the copy, while the other looks at the original. One day, when the narrator calls Bartleby to assist him, Bartleby answers simply, "I would prefer not to" (13). Though the narrator is initially angry, Bartleby's refusal is so listless, so utterly without violence or ill will, that the narrator lets it go. He proofreads with another employee.
The narrator's initial self-characterization is important to the story. He is a "safe" man, one who takes few risks and tries above all to conform. The most pragmatic concerns of financial security and ease of life are his priorities. He has made himself perfectly at home in the modern economy: he works as a lawyer dealing with rich men's legal documents. He is therefore an opposite or complement to Bartleby in many ways. He is also ill suited to be entrusted with the salvation of another.
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is one of the first great stories of corporate discontent. The emptiness of modern business life is an important theme. The description of the office is incredibly bleak: on one side, the windows open onto a light shaft, and on the other, the windows look out onto a brick wall. The landscape of Wall Street is completely unnatural, and one is cut off from nature and almost all living things. At night, this isolation also includes the absence of people. The work environment is sterile and cheerless. Yet most adapt to it, with varying degrees of success. Though the narrator is a successful man, he is a victim, in some ways, of progress. He has lost the post he occupied during the central events of the story, as the position was deemed redundant and eliminated. The modern economy includes constant and unfeeling change, which comes at a cost.
Doubling is a recurring theme in "Bartleby." Bartleby is a phantom double of our narrator, and the parallels between them will be further explored later. Nippers and Turkey are doubles of each other. Nippers is useless in the morning and productive in the afternoon, while Turkey is drunk in the afternoon and productive in the morning. Nippers' ambition mirrors Turkey's resignation to his place and the sad uneventfulness of his career, the difference coming about because of their respective ages. Nippers cherishes ambitions of being more than a mere scrivener, while the elderly Turkey must plead with the narrator to consider his age when evaluating his productivity. Their vices are also parallel, in terms of being appropriate vices for each man's respective age. Alcoholism is a vice that develops with time. Ambition arguably is most volatile in a man's youth. These two characters are obviously not fleshed out; they are caricatures of different personalities found in the business world, and their silliness is stretched beyond the point of believable realism. They provide valuable comic relief in what is otherwise a somber and upsetting tale.
From the beginning, the description of Bartleby is striking. He is a person who seems already dead: he is described alternately as one would describe a corpse or as one would describe a ghost. Pale from indoors work, motionless, without any expression or evidence of human passion in him at all, he is a man already beaten.
Even his famous statement of non-compliance, "I would prefer not to," is an act of exhaustion rather than active defiance. His success at getting away with his uncooperativeness comes from his very passivity, which seems to cast a spell over the narrator. It is not "I will not" but "I would prefer not," emphasizing that Bartleby is acting out of emotional response rather than some philosophical or ethical choice. Bartleby will detach from the world in stages, beginning with this first statement. With each time he reiterates the statement, he is renouncing one more piece of the world and its duties. The final renunciation will be of living itself, characteristically arrived at indirectly by the preference not to eat.