Herman Melville: “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall-street”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

There are few tales as prescient as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall-street.”

In writing about the reality of mind-numbing office work in a Wall Street law office in the 1850s, Melville was also anticipating life in “Cubeville” in the 21st century. Bartleby, the human copy machine, even sits behind a folding screen, a dead ringer for today’s cubicle.

Melville takes great care to describe the setting, emphasizing how walled in the law office is. The office “look[s] upon the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft,” and at the other end, “command[s] an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall.” Bartleby’s desk – tucked behind a high green folding screen – is situated next to a window, but “[w]ithin three feet of the panes [is] a wall.” And of course, the story takes place on Wall Street, famously known for its cavern-like appearance.

But what is most compelling and maddening to the unnamed narrator, the lawyer who owns and runs the law office, is Bartleby’s habit of drifting into “dead-wall” reveries.

After the lawyer hires Bartleby to copy his legal papers, Bartleby is at first extremely productive. But soon he begins to tell the lawyer “I would prefer not to” when asked to copy a document. Bartleby repeats the sentence “I would prefer not to” frequently throughout the story – classic passive-aggressive personality!

The tale goes on to relate how the lawyer fires Bartleby and tries, unsuccessfully, to escape him. The story is as much about Bartleby’s strange temperament as it is about the lawyer’s own fraught relationship with Bartleby. Read the story for the first time, and you will likely be drawn in by the peculiar Bartleby. But if you read the story again, pay attention to the lawyer and what he unwittingly reveals about himself. He’s every bit as intriguing a character as Bartleby.

Curious about Bartleby’s ultimate fate? You’ll have to read the full story. (Appropriately enough, the text can be found on Bartleby.com, a treasure trove of stories, novels, and other books that are in the public domain. Bartleby.com is named after Melville’s famous scrivener.)

And if you want to read more of Melville’s short stories, consider purchasing one of several collections of Melville’s short fiction: Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales; Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories; or Great Short Works of Herman Melville. If you want an especially fine volume to add to your collection, consider investing in the Library of America edition of Melville’s Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, The Piazza Tales.

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Image credit: This image is in the public domain.


  1. I really enjoyed the Mehlville post. Bartleby had a boring job, it must have taken a lot of nerve to tell his boss “no.” His boss was not used to being told “no” and it must have been a shock to hear this.

    What an interesting variety of reading you give us. Thanks for the reads, I look forward to them.

  2. I think Bartleby was pissed off about the stupid screen as demeaning. Bartleby decided the job wasn’t worth keeping, so he is putting his foot down in response. Now Bartleby has his boss by the short hairs. I’m a bit like Bartleby, in that respect. H

  3. great new site linda.

    is saying “i would prefer not to” generally passive aggressive – or only when its your job?!

  4. That’s a great question, Dana! Bartleby’s persistent repetition of “I would prefer not to” certainly makes it seem passive-aggressive (at least to me). Maybe the first time it wouldn’t seem so problematic (though his boss IS a little taken aback even the first time). But his persistence in replying this way, “politely” refusing to do his work is a shocker. I do wonder about whether “I would prefer not to” would be considered passive-aggressive in non-work settings. What do the rest of you think?

    • In your lovely reading, I notice how the boss not only arranges the office to his liking, but how very pleased he is with his arrangement and his own preferences. Melville captures this sense of personal importance just perfectly.

  5. Thanks for your insight, Paul. Yes, Melville does capture that sense of personal importance perfectly. So Wall Street!

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