Bartleby, The Scrivener

Bartleby, the Scrivener is the cause of much debate amongst scholars about its interpretation. With that being said, much like many other novels written in the mid 1800's (by some dude with a huge "Galifinakis" beard), the story is complicated.

Seriously though. It's retarded.

The children's rewrite released shortly after the book was banned.

Just The Facts

  1. Bartleby would "prefer not to."
  2. A scrivener was an employee of a lawyer that copied and reviewed legal documents.
  3. Some believe Melville wrote the character due to his lack of success with his novel "Moby Dick."
  4. Stop giggling about the word "dick" before you move on.

The Characters

The Lawyer:

As previously mentioned, Bartleby, The Scrivener is an extremely intricate story with thousands of interpretations. Half of the reason why is the very short cast within the story. It is narrated by the lawyer (he will henceforth be known as "The Lawyer") , who opens by explaining his own title and then speaking about the employees he has had the pleasure of "working with." The lawyer does this the way any other lawyer of the time would: by regaling us with tales of the scriveners hired on staff, speaking of them as though they were nothing more than a strange and bizarre collection of acquaintances rather than his friends. He is the second most important person in the story, and has an air of arrogance in his voice as he speaks about other scriveners...but hey, he is sixty. He's going to die soon anyway. Right guys?


Turkey is nicknamed such for no apparent reason. He is a strong, older veteran of the group who has seen his miles and is an amazing the morning, that is. After lunch, Turkey becomes more careless (and more likely to spill an ink well on his documents...or himself). For this reason, The Lawyer has developed an agreement with Turkey to only work in the mornings, so he won't get flustered by inattention.


Nippers is the underwear-over-the-tights-sporting sidekick of Turkey, in a sense. He is the Yin to Turkey's Yang, and without the other, neither character would be complete. Nippers is your average young colonial citizen of the era. He is a smooth, young man hot off the Law School blocks, but he has one fatal flaw. He can't work in the morning. This renders him useless to every single other law firm in the country until he finds the cozy little coincidence that is the law office employing Turkey, who can't work afternoons.

Ginger Nut:

Ginger Nut is the least important of all the characters. In fact, his only purpose throughout the story is to get ginger nut cakes for Turkey, Nippers, Bartleby, and The Lawyer.


In case the title didn't give it away, Bartleby is your main character-and a damn lazy one at that. Bartleby is a solid young scrivener with a world of potential. He seeks out the lawyer for employment after reading an advertisement in the paper. He is hired, but eventually begins not completing his work in favor of staring at a wall. (Seriously?) I know you're asking yourself now how you got your Cracked Topic mixed up with Rainman 2: Making it Rain in Law School-this poor man surely had some sort of problem! Nope. He "passively protested" his own employer after a few short weeks of employment simply because he would "prefer not to" do his work. (These lines will come to haunt you for the rest of the story.)

The Short Version

The story continues as The Lawyer begins to ask more work of Bartleby. Bartleby's only response is the same over and over: "I would prefer not to" becomes a motto by which Bartleby lives. The employer finds himself troubled to get angry Bartleby because of the way Bartleby is reacting. By the end of the story The Lawyer discovers that Bartleby is living inside the office at night. The Lawyer informs Bartleby that he neither pays rent nor even works there anymore (The Lawyer finally got the balls to sack the lazy bum) so he should leave. Anybody reading this who has never heard of the story could guess what his response is, but for some of our readers with sub-par intelligence (sorry Geico users) he responds solely by saying, "I would prefer not to." Confused (and, by this time, slightly out of his mind) The Lawyer goes to the extreme and moves his law office next door, hoping that Bartleby would move out then. When new tenants move in and Bartleby still hasn't moved out, the old Lawyer receives a visit from the new tenant. The new tenant informs him that Bartleby will not leave the banister of the building. In true Good Samaritan form, The Lawyer ventures to see Bartleby and begs him to leave, and even offering his own house as proper boarding. Bartleby refuses to move and is arrested. The story then climaxes like that kid from those American Pie movies and blows its load all over the next 4 paragraphs, finally ending with Bartleby "preferring not to" eat his prison food and dying an exciting, heroic death by...falling asleep under a tree (no, seriously).

The "Moby Dick" Theory

The "Moby Dick" theory has been passed around amongst Bartleby research for years. It is an interpretation that is not only widely believed, but also widely discredited thanks to the internet. Bartleby was originally written and published in 1853 in Putnam Magazine under an anonymous author. This was a short time after Melville's most well known masterpiece, Moby Dick, was written. Moby Dick, at this time, sold only about thirty copies despite being the very same work as today. In its time it just wasn't recognized fully because its target audience lacked the ability to comprehend Melville's excruciatingly long, scenic way of unfolding plotlines. Bartleby is suspected to represent Melville himself, who was in an awful mood because of his failure. The theory also states that Melville knew his old writing style would be more profitable at that time, but he just simply "preferred not to" deal with that style. This interpretation would make The Lawyer symbolic of the average reader who just wants him to copy his old writing styles. Melville, however, shuns this idea until he simply stops writing.