Although Melville's story of the scrivener would ostensibly seem to be about the mysterious stranger named Bartleby, it can more accurately be described as a story about the effect that Bartleby had on those around him, and particularly upon the anonymous lawyer narrating the story.
The narrator presents himself as an unremarkable gentleman, a lawyer and employer who, in retrospection of his sixty years of life describes himself as one who has been "filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best" (3). In keeping with this philosophy, he is a lawyer who is more comfortable with paperwork than with dealing with people, or certainly, with handling confrontations of any magnitude. He is, therefore, more at ease with handling dead paper than living persons.
Throughout the story he repeatedly avoids confrontation in every possible way, but is eventually forced by Bartleby's silence to confront is own inner emotions and imperfections. In doing this, his focus gradually moves away from mundane matters and trivial vanities into the powerful advent of being filled with genuine compassion for the man who remained, even in death, a stranger.
The lawyer, by way of his narrative, comes across as a man of rather keen and humorous observations, and tolerates those he employs - two copyists and a 12-year-old office-boy cum apple-runner - despite the imperfections that he perceives in them. His tolerance is not extended due to his being a charitable fellow, however, but is due more to his personal sense of inadequacy, his fears and his complete avoidance of confrontation. While he is capable of observing the imperfections in others, he remains oblivious to his own imperfections, and to the havoc they wreak upon his life.
Turkey, one of the copyists, was apparently afflicted with a passion for the bottle although this is not clearly stated - merely suggested. His passion is one that he presumably satisfied at high noon each day, thus causing his face to turn so red "it blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals" (6). The affects of his noon lunch then rendered him somewhat useless if not problematically clumsy for the remaining workday, during which he frequently spilled ink and made a mess of the papers on which he was working. The lawyer, however, accepted this as a given part of Turkey's nature. He justified this acceptance by noting that Turkey's services in the mornings were quite adequate.
His other scrivener is Nippers. Although Nippers might have also been suffering from the aftermaths of nightly bouts with the bottle, he was on an opposite time schedule. Plagued by indigestion, irritability, various pains and nervousness in the mornings, Nippers' services primarily came forth in the afternoons.
Thus, it can be seen that because of his avoidance of confrontation, the lawyer had two scriveners employed in his office but between Nippers' morning sickness and Turkey's afternoon nipping, the combined efforts of the two men who were each only capable of a half-day's work, only managed to accomplish the work of one man. As a result, when an increase in the workload occurred, it was necessary for the lawyer to then hire yet another scrivener. The third scrivener happened to be Bartleby.
With something strongly suggesting divine providence, Bartleby, after being hired, presented his own form of quiet rebelliousness in such a way that it not only further disrupted the already disrupted office, but it presented a bewildering situation to the lawyer. Upon being asked to do certain tasks, Bartleby eventually respond by saying, "I would prefer not to" (21, 24, 31, 34, 37, 55, 70, etc.). This was not a clear and open refusal on his part. It was a statement of personal preferences that was interpreted as refusal by those around him.
The lawyer, still unwilling to face confrontation and stand up for himself, then displayed another facet of his character. He apparently had a preference to rely upon the opinions of others rather than listen to his own opinions.
First, he approached Nippers and Turkey and asked them what they thought of the situation that Bartleby was creating. He also asked their opinions regarding their suggested course of action should be in order to handle the situation. He was apparently not satisfied with their answers. Still unsure of himself and his own opinion that Bartleby was not right in declining suggested tasks, the lawyer then even approached the 12-year-old boy, Ginger Nut, and solicited his opinions and suggestions to the dilemma.
Finding no easy way out of this situation, the lawyer then attempted to work around Bartleby by giving the tasks that Bartleby had stated he "would prefer not to," to his other scriveners. At times, he even took on the tasks on himself despite the growing inconvenience this presented. If Bartleby "would prefer not to" go to the post office, the lawyer would make the trip, himself.
Bartleby, however, was persistent in his mission, and clearly had no intention of permitting the lawyer to merely work around him. As the lawyer found one way after another to work around him rather than confront his own imperfections and address the situation, Bartleby responded with his "I would prefer not to" to more and more tasks until, at last, he was merely occupying space in the office and doing nothing whatsoever regarding the law work at hand. Although he was no longer doing the legal work of handling papers, he was, however, working rather powerfully on the conscience of the lawyer. He was dealing with people.
Bewildered and perplexed, still unsure what to do with the stranger now occupying his office and staring off into space, the lawyer eventually packed up and moved from the building into another office, hoping that in this way he might wash his hands of Bartleby in the easiest way possible.
In handling the situation by avoiding it and attempting to escape from it, the narrator can thus be seen as being quite reliable or predictable in his actions, and paradoxically, at the same time it is this very predictability that reveals his imperfections as a man and as a lawyer. His imperfections, therefore - his inability to handle situations that even a child instinctively knew how to handle, his inability to run his office, his inability to even keep track of the four keys to the doors of his office or to refer to his staff by true names instead of nicknames - all reveal the lawyer's character as being reliably unreliable.
It is almost impossible for the reader to avoid drawing parallels between the gentle figure of Bartleby, and that of another gentle rebel who also addressed and confronted the imperfections and unreliability of human beings - Christ. While Melville changed the setting to Wall Street, the suggested parallels between the two stories are clearly discernable and are also evidenced by Melville's deliberate choice of words that were apparently selected with the intention of inferring or conveying a sense of heavenly presence about the mysterious stranger. The sense is powerful enough to evoke in the reader a sense of relief that the lawyer and narrator treated Bartleby with growing and sincere kindness.
The fact that the narrator's religion was Christianity was established when he stated that he had decided to attend the Trinity Church on a Sunday morning in order to hear a celebrated preacher talk (86). This simple sentence reveals more than a mere religious persuasion, however. It also reveals more about the character of the lawyer.
In addition to quickly establishing that the lawyer as a Christian, the sentence also suggests that he apparently did not attend services regularly. In addition to this, it also establishes the fact that he is a man of letters, laws and words rather than of true devotion. His reason for attending a church service is not because of suggested reverence or piousness - or even because of a sense of moral obligation or duty. Instead, the narrator is attending church on this particular morning because he desires to hear a "celebrated" preacher speak. This seems to be more a matter of entertainment than devotion to him.
The irony is that while the lawyer is planning to attend church in order to listen to a "celebrated" man's words, Bartleby is, with his silence, in the process of teaching the lawyer a profound lesson through his silence and quiet actions. It is, in fact, the silent presence of Bartleby that proves to be the most powerful, persuasive and motivating force found in the story, adding to the hint of the presence of a divine emissary in the character of Bartleby, rather than an insane vagabond as he is presumed to be by those occupying offices on Wall Street. His actions were perplexing and disturbing to those working in the hub of a capitalistic society, but the people of Wall Street were unaware of the changes being brought about in the character and spirit of the lawyer trying to…