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Bartleby the Scrivener

In 1853, Herman Melville first published one of his best-known works “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” A scrivener was a scribe who could write letters, usually for legal proceedings. The story is narrated by a wealthy, elderly New York attorney, who decides to tell the story of the strangest man he had ever known.

Bartleby the Scrivener

Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener

The lawyer employs two scrivener, but is forced to hire a third in order to meet demand. The main characters other than Bartleby include:

  1. Turkey, who produces excellent work in the morning but is drunk by afternoon
  2. Nippers, whose stomach ailments prevent him from producing any quality work until the afternoon.
  3. There is also the office errand-boy, nicknamed Ginger Nut for the ginger nut cakes he is sent for.

Bartleby is hired, and at first produces a huge volume of work. Eventually, however, when asked to help with a task, Bartleby replies, “I would prefer not to.” This phrase becomes his most frequent utterance, and although always polite, he refuses to eventually do any work, and takes to living in the office as well. Rather than confronting Bartleby, the narrator simply moves his entire office to a new location. Eventually, Bartleby is thrown in prison, where he dies by refusing to eat.

After learning of Bartleby’s death, the narrator learns that he had worked in a dead letter office, where the post office sent undeliverable letters.

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