Study Guide

Bartleby the Scrivener Plot Analysis

By Herman Melville

Plot Analysis

Initial Situation

Bartleby arrives at the Narrator's law practice, seeking employment.

Initially, everything seems normal; Bartleby, the new guy, shows up at an already-established office, and immediately gets to work. Nothing too weird exhibits itself, and though Bartleby is oddly quiet, the Narrator finds this a relief, compared to the eccentricities of Nippers and Turkey. We're not sure what can possibly occasion the Narrator's story, since business seems to go on as usual after Bartleby's arrival on the scene…for a little while, at least.


Bartleby "prefers not to" examine a paper with the Narrator.

Huh. This is our first taste of the truly bizarre nature of this story – Bartleby, who has been a solid employee up to this point, refuses point-blank to obey a simple order. Everyone is mystified (except Bartleby, that is). He continues to "prefer not to" do anything but copy documents, even when the smallest favors are asked of him. We're not sure what to make of this refusal, and neither is the Narrator.


Bartleby "gives up" work and is fired…sort of.

Eventually, Bartleby just stops working at all. This gives the Narrator reason to fire him, which he attempts to do. However, Bartleby prefers not to leave the building, and continues to live there, which understandably creeps out clients and visitors. Again, Bartleby's motives are totally obscure. Why does he prefer to stay in such an uncomfortable environment? We honestly have no idea.


Unable to get rid of Bartleby, the Narrator moves to another building.

Bartleby ultimately wins in the odd, rather one-sided struggle between him and the Narrator. When the scrivener just won't leave, the Narrator picks up and moves his whole practice to another building, just to get away from Bartleby. This is, admittedly, a pretty wussy and really impractical way to "resolve" the problem.


Bartleby continues to haunt the Narrator's old office.

The suspense and confusion builds as we learn that Bartleby remains at the office, even when its occupants leave. Apparently, he continues his wall-staring, resistant behavior even when a new law practice moves in; we have to wonder, rather anxiously, how long he can keep this up, against the opposition of an increasingly large crowd of enemies.


Bartleby is taken to prison.

The conventional problem in the text is resolved when Bartleby is simply removed from the building; he doesn't even put up a fight when the police take him to prison. While this looks kind of like the end of the story, it's really not. This "denouement" is a false one, and while things seem to have been cleared up, the central problem of Bartleby has simply been pushed aside, but not resolved.


Bartleby dies.

In a final act of protest, Bartleby refuses to eat, and subsequently starves to death in prison. By just preferring not to live any longer, Bartleby announces his individuality in an ultimately fatal, dramatic fashion: if he cannot live as he "prefers" to, he apparently doesn't want to live at all. In the end, we don't know what it was that Bartleby "preferred," and we are left to ponder the mystery of his death.

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