Summary of The Arrival of Bartleby and his Performance in the Office
The lawyer hires Bartleby because he looks “sedate” and he hopes he will be a good influence on the other scriveners (p. 1956). The office is divided into two parts, separated by a glass door, which can be either open or closed. The clerks are on one side, the boss on the other. Bartleby’s desk, however, is put on the lawyer’s side of the office, but separated by a screen, “entirely isolat[ing] Bartleby from [his] sight” (p. 1956). Bartleby’s desk faces a window with no view but a brick wall.
At first, Bartleby tackles an immense number of documents, “As if long famishing for something to copy” (p. 1956). He copies either by sunlight or candlelight. The lawyer wishes he could have been of a cheerful disposition, but “he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (p. 1956).
Part of the scrivener’s job is to verify the accuracy of his document by comparing his version with the original, read by another clerk. They must go word by word, for in the legal business, it is important though dull work. The lawyer has put Bartleby close by for quick help, and wanting to verify a document, calls to him. He is surprised when Bartleby does not jump to his command. Instead, he calmly says from behind his screen, “I would prefer not to” (p. 1957).
The lawyer is thunderstruck at the refusal and asks again. He receives the same mild reply. Busy, he runs to the other clerks to finish his business. A few days later, after Bartleby has finished four copies of an important document, the lawyer calls in all his clerks to verify the copies. He will read from the original, and they will each read one. Bartleby again says, “I would prefer not to.”
Questioning Bartleby why he refuses, he again replies, “I would prefer not to.” With anyone else, the narrator would have fired him on the spot. “But there was something about Bartleby” that “disarmed” him, “disconcerted” him (p. 1957). So he reasons with him. He explains he is only asking what is the common procedure. Bartleby continues with the same answer of refusal. The narrator then asks the other clerks what he should do. Turkey says the boss is right. Nippers says he would kick him out of the office. Ginger Nut says he thinks Bartleby is “luny” (p. 1958). Bartleby stays hidden behind his screen in “his hermitage” (p. 1958).
The lawyer now begins to observe Bartleby. He never goes to dinner, and he never leaves. He is “a perpetual sentry” (p. 1958). He appears to live on a few ginger-nuts. The lawyer is clearly upset with Bartleby’s “passive resistance” (p. 1959), but he concludes, “he means no mischief” and “He is useful to me” (p. 1959). He will be charitable to the fellow and let him stay.
On the other hand, he feels like goading him into opposition, asking him to do different tasks. In every case, Bartleby “prefers not to.” If the lawyer asks the opinion of Turkey or Nippers, their response depends upon the time of day and whether they are in their fits. Next, the narrator tries to get Bartleby to do an errand out of the office, and that also fails. He feels Bartleby is a bad example, and he is considerably distressed by the situation, and yet he decides to be “reconciled” because of Bartleby’s “great stillness” (p. 1960). He gives him unheard of “exemptions” and “privileges” (p. 1961).
Commentary on The Arrival of Bartleby and his Performance in the Office
Bartleby is completely isolated from everyone, behind the screen, looking at a wall out his window. He copies documents day and night. At first, his industry and evenness contrast to the other quirky and unproductive clerks. Bartleby actually “devours” documents.
The narrator admits the work of a scrivener is boring and tedious and that a “Byron” would not have stood for it. Byron was an English Romantic poet, the very archetype of rebellion. It is significant that he is evoked right before Bartleby’s first refusal. Bartleby is a rebel, but not of the Byronic sort, for he is mild and uncommunicative, and hence, the confusion for the narrator. Bartleby acts like a non-entity, but he rebels, or rather, passively resists being told what to do.
The lawyer and the other scriveners have their game worked out. Turkey and Nippers play their irregularities to the hilt, but they know where the line is. They perform their duty and are “useful” in the office. The lawyer puts up with them. He understands why Turkey and Nippers act the way they do and when he can count on them. Bartleby is totally reliable and always there, yet non-compliant with the boss’s will.
The lawyer’s first effort at compromise is for the purpose of making himself feel better. He will “purchase a delicious self-approval” by humoring Bartleby (p. 1959). He can feel charitable, as with Nippers and Turkey. But then he feels goaded into testing Bartleby, trying out different orders to see his response. When he asks Nippers or Turkey their opinions of Bartleby, they are entirely predictable, depending on the time of day and their mood. Bartleby does not vary in his response, however. His integrity is inviolable, and he is not predictable because he acts as he chooses.
What does it mean that he “prefers not”? The lawyer asks him, “You will not?” Bartleby answers, “I prefer not.” If Bartleby had engaged in simple opposition by willing something against the lawyer, the narrator would know what to do. He could fire him. But “preferring not” is passive resistance. The lawyer’s counter move would seem violent and unjustified. He is stymied. Bartleby is so calm and self-possessed, as though convinced of his own right to have a preference. This intrigues and confuses the lawyer, who is used to the fine points of “rights.” What right could Bartleby talking about? An employee does not have a right to resist, as far as the employer is concerned. He is paid to agree and take orders.
Bartleby’s “no” is a tactic like Henry David Thoreau’s passive resistance ( in “On Civil Disobedience”) to an unjust government, or to Mahatma Gandhi’s passive resistance to gain India’s independence from the British. This kind of resistance is passive in that it does not confront; it simply does not comply. Bartleby asserts his right of preference, but he takes no specific action against anyone. He does not question the lawyer’s right to give the command, but as an independent person, he can say whether or not he will comply. He is “self-sustained” “refusing all right and wrong except the determinations of the private spirit” as Ralph Waldo Emerson says in The Transcendentalist, an essay that influenced Melville’s portrayal of Bartleby.
In light of that essay, the story would be an argument pitting the materialist, or the one who runs his life from experience and expedience (the lawyer), against the idealist, the man of absolute self-reliance (Bartleby). Emerson comments, “As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness.” Emerson predicts it is impossible to be the perfect idealist, to totally rely on oneself without reference to the world, and Bartleby demonstrates the tragic truth of this premise. And yet Bartleby is an example to be reckoned with. Whereas it seems that Melville’s own philosophy as a conservative would be on the side of the narrator, he creates a complex and interesting dialogue between the two points of view.
The narrator has no power over the scrivener, and even Bartleby’s Wall Street prison is not a prison to his thought. The lawyer is irritated at Bartleby’s “dead-wall reveries” where he stares out his window at the neighboring wall, in his own world, ignoring the world around him. The narrator next tries to crack Bartleby’s mystery, so he can get rid of him, one way or another, without disturbing his own conscience.