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The Narrator kicks off this short story by introducing himself and his situation. He immediately informs us that Bartleby the scrivener will be the main point of the story, but doesn't get to him quite yet.
We learn that the Narrator is a well-to-do lawyer, who made a comfortable living for himself by being dependable, rather than brilliant. He name-drops John Jacob Astor (a famous businessman of the day), showing us early on that he's something of a vain man, contrary to his denial of that.
The Narrator is appointed to a rather dignified position (Master in Chancery) by the state, and establishes a respectable office on Wall Street. The office itself isn't too exciting – most of its views look out at the walls of other buildings.
The office employs three clerks: Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut (nicknames, not real ones!).
Turkey is jokingly named for the color of his face – like a turkey, he's got a bright red wattle. Turkey's face is particularly red after lunchtime; though the Narrator never comes right out and says it, Turkey is obviously a raging alcoholic. Every day after lunch, Turkey returns to the office with a red face, a belly full of beer, and a wild, reckless disposition.
Despite the fact that Turkey is useless after lunch, the Narrator keeps him on; apparently, he's as useful as can be before noon.
The Narrator tries to politely send Turkey home earlier in the day, but the drunkard won't have it; he's proud of the messy, exuberant work he does in the afternoon. The Narrator does the best he can, and just doesn't give Turkey very important work after lunch.
The second clerk, Nippers, is a young, ambitious, and discontented man. His general unhappiness exhibits itself in constant rearranging of his desk; no matter what he does to it, he's never comfortable.
Nippers apparently also runs some secret business of his own, and often has some rather sketchy "clients" stop by the office at times.
Despite Nippers' various difficulties, he's also useful to the Narrator; what's more, he takes care of himself and looks like a "gentleman."
Turkey, on the other hand, is always a mess and never looks like a respectable employee. The Narrator even gave Turkey one of his old coats once – but instead of making him better, it just made him arrogant.
Though Nippers is no drunk, he's also a force to be reckoned with at work. He is, to put it mildly, not a morning person; he's irritable and generally difficult until noon. This means, fortunately, that these two oddball coworkers are never in a bad mood at the same time – Nippers is in bad form in the morning, and Turkey in the afternoon.
The third member of this little office family is Ginger Nut. At only twelve years old, he's already a "student of law," which mostly means that he's in charge of running errands for the other guys. He's named after one of these errands – he's frequently sent out to purchase snacks for Turkey and Nippers, including their favorite thing, ginger nut cakes (something along the lines of a ginger snap cookie).
These three clerks aren't enough, and the Narrator is forced to look for someone else – thus, enter Bartleby. The new guy isn't very prepossessing; he's pale, sad, and a little too respectable.
The Narrator immediately hires Bartleby, in the hopes that his calmness will influence Nippers and Turkey.
The Narrator sets Bartleby up behind a screen in a corner of his office, where the new clerk can always be accessible. Bartleby's little nook has a window…but unfortunately, the window just looks out at a wall.
At first, Bartleby is a great, albeit depressing, worker – like Turkey and Nippers, he's a copyist, or "scrivener," which means that he makes handwritten copies of important legal documents (though we may not realize it, there was a time before photocopying). He gets a ton of copying done, and doesn't ever seem to rest. There's something a little creepy about the inhuman nature of his work habits, but otherwise, he's a dependable member of the office.
Another aspect of the copyist's (or "scrivener's") job is to check the work he's done, and cooperate with the other scriveners in an office to check each others' work. Bartleby, however, is no normal scrivener; he refuses to complete this job when asked. Instead, he simply replies, "I would prefer not to."
The Narrator, dumbstruck, repeats his request. Bartleby repeats his answer. There's nothing sassy in this reply – this is certainly not an "Oh no he didn't!" kind of moment. Rather, Bartleby is calm and totally level; apparently, he really just prefers not to.
Understandably, the Narrator can't really come up with a comeback to that, so he just asks Nippers to do the job instead.
A few days later, Bartleby finishes a huge copying job, which then has to be checked for accuracy. Again, he doesn't come when called, and again, responds to the demand by saying that he prefers not to.
Shocked, the Narrator doesn't get angry, but instead attempts to reason with his stubborn employee, saying that everyone else has to check the copies (Nippers, Turkey, and Ginger Nut are all waiting to start), and so should he.
Bartleby is unfazed. On the other hand, the Narrator, the other clerks, and we are all definitely fazed.
The Narrator is totally taken aback, and asks the other guys to back him up. Turkey, who's in a good mood, says he agrees with the Narrator; Nippers, who's in a bad mood, irritably says that Bartleby should be kicked out of the office. Ginger Nut, bless his little heart, comes right out and says that Bartleby is "a little luny" (30).
Again asked to come and do his job, Bartleby just doesn't respond. As everyone else unhappily (or anxiously, on Nippers' part) checks the document, he just sits behind his screen, silent and unseen.
Days later, the Narrator notices something odd: Bartleby doesn't ever seem to leave the office. He doesn't even seem to eat anything but ginger nuts, the cakes that Ginger Nut himself delivers to the clerks.
The Narrator comments on the oddness of this culinary choice, noting that, while ginger nuts are spicy, they seem to have no effect at all upon the markedly un-spicy Bartleby.
The Narrator, who, we have observed by now, is a pretty non-confrontational guy, is irritated by Bartleby's passivity, but still sympathetic to him. It's pretty obvious that Bartleby deserves to be fired, but the Narrator decides that the odd scrivener is better off in his office with a sympathetic employer than working for someone else, who might throw him out into the streets.
The Narrator decides to attempt the impossible: to befriend Bartleby. However, at times, this angelic impulse loses to his natural irritation.
One day, the Narrator asks Bartleby to compare papers again. Unsurprisingly, Bartleby prefers not to.
In response to this, Turkey (who's drunk and ready to cause trouble) threatens to beat Bartleby up. Nippers, on the other hand, is feeling indulgent, and says that it might just be a whim.
The Narrator tells Turkey to cool his boots, then tries to think of how else he might rile Bartleby up.
The Narrator, remembering that Bartleby never leaves, asks him to go to the Post Office and pick up the mail.
Bartleby prefers not to.
Aggravated, the Narrator asks Bartleby simply to go to the other room and fetch Nippers.
Bartleby prefers not to.
At this point, we, like the Narrator, are just thinking one thing: What the heck?!
Thoroughly confused, the Narrator gives up and heads home for the day. He can't stop thinking about Bartleby – the weirdness of the situation is apparent.
Time passes, and the Narrator, as he usually does, just gets used to the oddness of Bartleby, just as he's used to Turkey's drunkenness and Nippers's foul temper. He reasons out his decision to keep Bartleby, noting that the guy is a really good worker, and he's much more reliable than the other copyists. He even gets used to Bartleby's irritating standard reply ("I would prefer not to").
A side note pops up here, in which the Narrator tells us that there are four keys to the office; the Narrator, the cleaning lady, and Turkey all have one, but the fourth is missing.
Before church one Sunday, the Narrator decides to stop by the office on his way home. However, once he gets there, he discovers someone else there – Bartleby!
Many things are not right about this. First of all, it's Sunday. Secondly, Bartleby isn't even fully dressed (so, so awkward). Finally, Bartleby has the gall to send the Narrator away, saying that he isn't quite ready to leave yet.
The Narrator is totally bewildered. We are totally bewildered. Again we're forced to ask an unanswerable question: what is up with this guy?
The Narrator can't figure out what Bartleby could possibly be doing. He returns to the office a little while later, and determines that Bartleby must live there full-time.
Again, instead of being angry, the Narrator is oddly sympathetic; he thinks about how lonely Bartleby must be.
The Narrator is seized with pity, thinking about how inhuman and depressing Bartleby's lonely life is, and pondering how sad and pathetic Bartleby's death – alone and uncared for – would be.
Bartleby, for whatever reason, has left his desk unlocked. The Narrator looks in, curious about any clues that might emerge about his strange employee's solitary life. It appears that Bartleby is saving all of his earnings, but we're not sure for what purpose.
The Narrator reflects upon Bartleby's behavior in the office. Most of the time, he's totally silent, and only speaks to answer questions. The rest of the time, he just looks out the window at the brick wall outside, pondering who knows what. Apparently, he never does anything else, and doesn't seem to have any kind of life outside work.
The conflicting emotions of the Narrator move from sympathy to melancholy to fear – he wants to help Bartleby, but recognizes that he can't.
The Narrator resolves to dismiss Bartleby the next day, give him some money, and try to help him get home, wherever that may be.
The next morning comes, and the Narrator tries to go through with his plan. However, when asked, Bartleby prefers not to say anything about himself or his past. The Narrator tries to be as nice as possible, but it doesn't matter – Bartleby won't speak.
Leaving that tactic behind, the Narrator entreats Bartleby to be even just a little reasonable. Again, Bartleby prefers not to.
It's the morning, so Nippers is in his usual bad mood. He busts into the office, irritably going on about Bartleby's preferences.
The Narrator unintentionally mimics Bartleby, and says that he would "prefer" if Nippers left his office. He notices his own verbal slip, and wonders how much of an impact Bartleby has made upon him.
At this point, Turkey enters and gives his opinion: if Bartleby would simply "prefer" to have a beer every day, it might help him out.
The Narrator notices that Turkey has also started using "prefer" – it seems like Bartleby has affected everyone.
Bartleby peevishly comments that he would prefer to be alone; everyone else seems to be impinging upon his privacy.
The word "prefer" has taken over the whole office – nobody can stop using it.
The next day, Bartleby is even weirder than usual. He has stopped copying, and instead of doing any work, simply stands at the window, looking out at the brick wall.
When asked why, Bartleby says that he has decided not to write anymore.
The Narrator, ever the optimist, assumes that this is because Bartleby's eyes are tired from doing so much work in the past few weeks. He sympathizes with Bartleby, and advises him to get some exercise.
However, days pass, and Bartleby doesn't start writing again. He informs his employer that he's given up copying for good.
Though the Narrator is still sympathetic to Bartleby, he's at his wit's end – finally, he has to ask Bartleby to leave the office for good, and gives the inactive scrivener six days to vacate.
Six days later, surprise surprise – Bartleby is still there!
The Narrator attempts feebly to put his foot down; he tries to give Bartleby money to make him leave, but Bartleby, of course, prefers not to.
On his way home for the day, the Narrator prides himself on his handling of the Bartleby situation. However, his triumph is short-lived.
The next day, the Narrator walks to work, wondering whether or not Bartleby has left the premises. He comes upon a crowd placing bets in the street, and instinctively reacts, thinking they're all betting on whether or not Bartleby will leave (they're actually betting on an election).
The Narrator ends up getting to work early, and assumes that Bartleby is gone. However, when he accidentally knocks on the door, a familiar voice answers from inside, saying that Bartleby isn't ready to receive visitors yet.
Shock! Horror! The Narrator, flummoxed, takes a walk around the block, trying to figure out what on earth to do.
The Narrator decides to try and talk to Bartleby again (we know how well that usually goes).
The Narrator confronts the ex-scrivener, asking what right he has to stay in the office, if he refuses to do work. Bartleby simply says that he prefers not to leave, and refuses to answer any more questions. He goes back behind his screen.
Thinking nervously of a famous murder that took place in an office (the Colt-Adams murder of 1842), the Narrator notices that he and Bartleby are alone. He calms himself down, as to avoid potential violence.
The day goes on, and the Narrator starts to feel benevolent towards Bartleby again. After all, he reasons, the poor guy hasn't got anything else! Business goes on as usual as Bartleby just stands at the window, staring at the wall.
Days pass, and the Narrator decides to keep Bartleby there, since he isn't doing any harm.
The Narrator's office becomes infamous for the "strange creature" (97) that lives there; professional acquaintances are totally confused by Bartleby's presence.
The embarrassment of this quandary starts to get to the Narrator. He again asks Bartleby to leave for good; this time, Bartleby thinks about it for a few days, and politely declines.
The Narrator is now determined to be rid of Bartleby, but can't think of how to do it. He doesn't want to throw Bartleby out on the streets, nor does he want to put the poor guy in jail – so instead, he chooses a rather unconventional, desperate solution: he moves his legal practice to another building, thus leaving the office and Bartleby behind.
As the practice packs up to leave, the Narrator says goodbye to Bartleby.
When everyone's set up in the new office, the Narrator is still anxious that Bartleby might come and find him – but he never does.
Everything seems to be just peachy, until a stranger visits one day, asking about the old office on Wall Street.
The stranger, who turns out to be another lawyer who's moved into the old space, is there to complain about Bartleby. Apparently, the scrivener is still up to his old tricks, and refuses to leave.
The Narrator informs the new guy that Bartleby isn't his responsibility, and the other lawyer leaves, pledging to "settle" Bartleby. The Narrator feels a little bad, but decides that there's nothing he can do about it.
A few days later, a number of people are waiting for the Narrator at his new digs, including the old building's landlord. Bartleby, upon being removed from the original office, is now just hanging around in the building, and all of its occupants are up in arms about it.
The Narrator, horrified, returns to his old building to talk to Bartleby and try to get him to leave.
Bartleby doesn't seem to have changed at all. The Narrator gently talks to him, suggesting a few different things that Bartleby might like to do – but, of course, Bartleby prefers not to do any of them. He claims that he's "not particular," which is rather odd, considering how very particular he is about everything.
The exasperated Narrator finally just gives up and threatens to leave Bartleby to his fate – but before he goes, he offers kindly to let Bartleby come home with him. However, Bartleby prefers not to.
Frustrated, the Narrator flees, leaving Bartleby to the unhappy tenants of the building. He goes so far as to escape the entire city for a few days, leaving Nippers in charge of the business.
When the Narrator returns from his hideout in New Jersey, he discovers that the landlord has had Bartleby arrested and taken to the Tombs (a prison). Though this seems merciless, he initially agrees that it's all that could be done.
Rumor has it that Bartleby didn't even put up a fight, and allowed himself to silently be taken to jail, followed by a quietly curious crowd.
The same day, the Narrator goes to visit Bartleby in prison. Since he's harmless, the guards let him wander freely around the prison yard. As usual, the Narrator finds him staring silently at a wall.
Bartleby has nothing to say to the Narrator – it seems like he might blame his former employer for what's happened.
The Narrator tries feebly to cheer Bartleby up (but how do you really cheer up a dude in prison?).
Bartleby, as usual, doesn't feel like chatting. He's aware of his situation, but doesn't want to say anything about it.
On his way out, the Narrator chats with the prison cook; he gives the "grubman" some extra money to make sure Bartleby is taken care of and well-fed.
The Narrator introduces Bartleby and the cook; Bartleby only says that he prefers not to have dinner at all.
The cook and the Narrator discuss Bartleby's mental state, agreeing that he hasn't quite got all his marbles.
A few days later, the Narrator returns to the Tombs. Nobody's sure where Bartleby is, so he goes to seek him out.
The Narrator finds poor Bartleby curled up on the ground in the prison yard, dead.
The grubman comes up to tell the Narrator that Bartleby's dinner is ready, then asks if he's asleep.
The Narrator answers that Bartleby is sleeping – the Big Sleep, that is.
The final section of the story is kind of a footnote; the Narrator informs us that he heard a rumor about Bartleby's history a little while after his death.
Apparently, Bartleby had been employed as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, a government agency that disposes of undeliverable letters (usually sent to deceased recipients).
The idea of dead letters profoundly disturbs the Narrator – the thought of all these letters traveling to people they'll never reach upsets him. This job seems perfectly (and depressingly) appropriate to Bartleby's character.
The story ends with the dramatic cry, "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"