In many ways, "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is a rather strange and enigmatic story. It does not follow a natural line, it is more of a character-based story, full of the strangest characters. However, if we will take a closer look at it, we may be able to discover the hidden meanings that Herman Melville has laid out for us. From the very beginning we must identify what a scrivener is, as this story revolves around their lives and habits. Thus, a scrivener is an old use for a clerk and is a person who used to write letters for illiterate people. In our context, we can identify a scrivener as being a person that copied and drafted documents in a law office.
The story starts with the short description, in the first person, of the main character, the I of the storytelling, a simple lawyer on Wall Street and his cabinet of law. The character is a rather dull, not involved lawyer, who has spent most of his life trying to find the easiest way of achieving things. Indeed, his moment of glory seems to have been when he was appointed Master in Chancery, which was a very unfulfilling and relaxing job, yet very well paid. This position, however, did not last forever, as he had expected, and he was forced to start his own business. Despite this, his concern of not being annoyed or irritated by life matters seems to have remained his main worry.
His law office gathered, until Bartleby's arrival, three different characters, each unique in their own way. First, there was Turkey, who was a copyist and about the lawyer's age. An Englishman of around sixty, whose main interest seemed to be food and drink. Indeed, his main occupations of the day revolved around dinner time, for he did his best work in the morning and was of no use later in the afternoon, when he usually ruined everything all the work he had done in the morning. However, he refuses his employer's suggestion of going home in the afternoons and resting until teatime, because he believes in his acute usefulness to his master. He is badly dressed and seems to spend all his money on food and drink. He really has no intention of promotion, but rather seems content with his place as a scrivener.
The second character in the lawyer's office was Nippers, a young man of about 25 years old. Nippers seems to be the exact opposite of Turkey and indeed was probably thus created. His main problems are indigestion and ambition. Remember that Turkey was a rather passive, reluctant old man, with no interest in advancing within the office, and who took an extreme pleasure in eating. Well, Nippers suffers from indigestion and is totally ambitious. Even more notably in this complementary cast of the characters (complementary in the sense that, even if they are opposites, they seem to rather complete each other in the story), his best work is done in the afternoon, as in the morning he was generally irritable and upset. As the writer mentions, he seemed to have been born with certain irritability. Additionally proving my point that Nippers is a mirror image of Turkey is the fact that he never drinks and, in clear opposition, is always well dressed.
Ginger Nut was the third character, a boy of around 12 years old, who had been sent as a student and office boy by his father, who wanted to see him a lawyer. He is being used as a boy good for everything in the office, sweeping, cleaning, but, mainly, it seems his most important obligation within the firm is to go out and buy cakes for Turkey and Nippers, this being where he got his nickname from. He is rather a second rate character and does not appear much within the story.
Enter Bartleby. Now, it is strange how among all these weird characters, Bartleby appears form the very beginning to be even more so than the rest. His aspect is, as the writer puts it, "sedate." This gives us an idea about the reasons for him being hired, as sedate means calm and grave. The author mentions that Bartleby had been hired because he could have been a good middle way between the two complementary, yet so different characters of Turkey and Nippers. If we look a little bit at the way the writer has described his characters, we will see that Bartleby certainly fit in his landscape and we would probably be a little surprised to later discover that he could not be integrated within this small group of persons. I am saying this because, until now, the writer seems to have left a place just fit for him, that of a counterweight within the company. And his choice seems to have been a proper one in the beginning, as Bartleby works very well as a copyist and does a large amount of work in the office.
However, soon after start the strange things that will drive Bartleby out of his employer's heart and also from the reader's. Bartleby begins to behave in a strange an upsetting manner. First, he simply refuses to do things that his employer asks him to do; simple things as checking papers, he simply answers with "I prefer not to!." Notice how strange this answer is: it is not a No or a Yes, but relates itself to a personal preference. As if he is in the middle of everything, he relates his answer to a preference that he may or may not have. It is also a strange answer because it is unexpected: usually, when we don't want to do something, we simply answer with No and sometimes we decide to give a reason. However, there is something very weird about this, as he never does give a reason.
Additionally, he never goes to dinner and never seems to be eating anything but ginger nuts that the office boy buys for him. If we remember the end of the story, when Bartleby starves himself to death, this seems to be an emphasis on his eating habits, or rather disorder: from the middle of the story, we are informed that there is something strange even about this person's eating habits.
If the story has evolved in a rather peaceful way until now, in the middle of it something of gravity happens that awakens the reader: Bartleby stops working and refuses to return to copying. Now, this is again very strange, as we have seen before that Bartleby takes a keen interest in his work and we find it rather unusual that he would renounce the one thing that seems to interest him in life. However, the author seems determined to transform Bartleby into a vegetable with no real connection with humanity and life, so that he can wipe the character for good in the end. Even more so, we find out that Bartleby lives in the office even on Sunday, not necessarily because he cannot afford another place to stay (we are assured that his wages are enough), but because we begin to discover that there is probably something more profoundly wrong with him. The author shows us Bartleby in his whole, terrible solitude. Worryingly enough, it is not necessarily a solitude involving separation from fellow mankind, but now a deeper and more profound one: separation because of madness.
The lawyer finds no possible way to get rid of Bartleby and finally changes his office building. Bartleby find his end in the madness, starving himself to death. The lawyer seems in the end to be rather undecided in feeling guilty for abandoning the scrivener or relieved that he has finally got rid of him.
Let us have a closer look at the meaning and symbols that may appear within the story. We have agreed from the very beginning that this is a strange story and that no straightforward meaning can be thought of., because we can find no real explanation for Bartleby's sudden lack of motivation for his work or for the fact that his lawyer puts up with him. As a first observation, much of the story seems to revolve around food. Indeed, the two scriveners and the office boy have food names (or rather nicknames) and a day's schedule revolves around dinnertime. Even for the employer, dinner is sacred: he leaves in the middle of a discussion with Bartleby because it was dinnertime. Their characters also seem to be determined by food and drink: Turkey does good work in the morning, but lousy work after dinner, while Nipper does exactly the opposite and, additionally, he is irritable and moody, mainly because of his indigestion. In contrast with all these characters comes Bartleby, who seems not to it. Now, we can see from this that he is already isolated from the rest of the characters as, not only that his life is not governed by it,…