Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins

The Mystery of a Man's Life

Bartleby, the Scrivener

Herman Melville, "Bartleby, The Scrivener" in Jay Wishingrad (ed.), Legal Fictions Short Stories About Lawyers and the Law 224-258 (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1992) [course text]  


Online texts: | Bartleby the Scrivener | Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street | Bartleby, the Scrivener: Study Webtext | Ebook & Kindle versions Online Audio version: AudioFileArchive [1 hr., 30:33 mins.]

Class Presentation: Bartleby the Scrivener (A Story of Wall Street) by Herman Melville, Existentialist [audiobook] [class presentation at 3:08 mins.]

The lawyer narrator describes himself as an eminently safe man.

What does it mean to live a safe life?

Is the narrator's attempt to lead a safe life illusory?

How does the narrator's view of his professional life affect your reaction to him, and your reading of the story?

Before the arrival of Bartleby, the narrator has managed to shut out the outside world. "According to my humor, I threw open these doors, or closed them." How does this capacity affect your understanding of the narrator's character?

What kind of person is the narrator? The narrator describes himself as an elderly man. "I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easy way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but, in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds, and mortgages, and title deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man." [224-225]. We are told that the narrator was viewed by one of his patrons, John Jacob Astor, as a man of "prudence" and "method." [225] And later, the narrator explains that in his new position as Master of Chancery, "I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages. . . ." [225]

During the turmoil with Bartleby, the narrator remarks that "for the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me." What does this tell us about the narrator?

How does the narrator's life change as a result of his encounter with Bartleby?

How does the narrator's profession affect your reading of the story? How does the fact that the narrator is a lawyer affect his relationship with Bartleby?

How do you explain the narrator's relation to Bartleby?

How do you explain the narrator's new found compassion (and responsibility) for an employee who not only will not work but will not leave the premises when asked to do so?

Of what symbolic significance is Bartleby's physical location in the office?

What is your reaction to the narrator's resolution to terminate Bartleby's employment because of fear that he will be viewed badly by others?

Why doesn't the narrator simply take the necessary means to evict Bartleby?

What part do Bartleby's fellow employees at the law office play in the story?

How does the narrator's vivid imagery in his description of his employees give life to these characters?

Bartleby's co-workers don't share the narrator's puzzlement and compassion for Bartleby. How do you account for their indifference to Bartleby?

How is the reader to understand Bartleby's odd behavior?

Of what significance is the phrase which Bartleby adopts: "I'd prefer not to"?

What is wrong with Bartleby?

How are we to interpret Bartleby's refusal to work when requested to do so by his employer?

How does Bartleby teach the narrator something he needs to know?

Of what significance is it that Bartleby refuses to reveal anything about himself?

How is a reader to respond to Bartleby?

Some questions about the story:

Is the central theme of the story the narrator's "test"?

[One commentator has suggested that Bartleby is a test by God to see how the lawyer will react. Harold Schechter, Bartleby the Chronometer, 19 (4) Stud. in Short Fiction 359 (1982)]

What factor does the "loneliness" of the characters play in the story?

Is the narrator's social class a factor in the story? In what sense does becoming a lawyer leave you with the sense that you are moving to "a higher social plateau"?

Would you recommend this story to fellow law students? If so, how would you justify that recommendation?


 "Bartleby, the Scrivener" was published serially and anonymously, in consecutive issues of Putnam's Monthly magazine in November and December 1853. Digital facsimile of " Bartleby, the Scrivener," Putnam's Monthly text is available online: [Part I] [Part II]. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" was republished in 1856 as one of The Piazza Tales, under Melville's name, with the abbreviated title "Bartleby."

 "Bartleby, the Scrivner" has been the subject of a substantial body of scholarly commentary. See e.g.: Daniel Stempel & Bruce M. Stillians, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Parable of Pessimism, 27 (3) Nineteenth-Century Fiction 268 (1972); Johannes Dietrich Bergmann, "Bartleby" and The Lawyer's Story, 47 Amer. Lit. 432 (1975); Steven Doloff, The Prudent Samaritan: Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" as Parody of Christ's Parable to the Lawyer, 34 (3) Stud. Short Fiction 357 (1997); Richard R. John, The Lost World of Bartleby, the Ex-Officeholder: Variations on a Venerable Literary Form, 70 New England Quart. 631 (1997); Andre Furlani, Bartleby the Socratic, 34 (3) Studies in Short Fiction 335-355 (1997); Thomas Dilworth, Narrator of "Bartleby": The Christian-Humanist Acquaintance of John Jacob Astor, 38 (1) Papers on Language & Literature 49 (2002).

For a collection of essays on the novella, see: M Thomas Inge (ed.), Bartleby the Inscrutable: A Collection of Commentary on Herman Melville's Tale "Bartleby the Scrivener" (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1979).

For a socio-political reading of "Bartleby" by a legal scholar, see Robin West, Invisible Victims: A Comparison of Susan Glaspell's Jury of Her Peers and Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, 8 Cardozo Stud. in L. & Lit. 203 (1996) [online text] [See also, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, The Sense and Sensibilities of Lawyers: Lawyering in Literature, Narratives, Film and Television, and Ethical Choices Regarding Career and Craft, 31 McGeorge L. Rev. 1, 7-11 (1999)]

 "I'm not saying . . . the story solves anything. Great literature, I think, does not offer solutions or answers, though it may yield considerable illumination of our problems; it is like art which Picasso had in mind when he once said that art is a lie that tells the truth." [Merton M. Sealts, Herman Melville's "Bartleby" 15 (Madison: Wisconsin Humanities Committee, 1982)] Compare the Sealts comment with the commentary in a letter from the Wisconsin Humanities Committee which sponsored, in 1982, a seminar on Bartleby attended by 100 lawyers from around Wisconsin. Patricia C. Anderson, on behalf of the Committee, offered the following description of the day's discussion: "Among the recurring topics were questions about how lawyers perceive and act on their responsibilities as professionals and as human beings to provide care; the limitations of the legal system--or any system imposed upon human nature; what happens when a lawyer is dealing with a client who cannot or will not make what are called 'rational decisions'; how a lawyer can balance the demands of professional standards with the 'demands of the spirit' . . . . " [Letter to interested persons, from Patricia C. Anderson, Wisconsin Humanities Committee, October, 1982]

 Bartleby has been adapted to film, "Bartleby" (2001)(directed by Jonathan Parker).

 Finally, we might note that still another Melville story, Billy Budd, has established itself as a "law and literature" classic. [Billy Budd--an interactive edition] [Billy Budd--the film] [Billy Budd--Wikipedia]

Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener
Hans Bergmann, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences & Professor of English,
Quinnipiac University; audio of his commentary

Reading "Bartleby"
Lea Bertani Voza Newman, A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville (1986)

Bartleby the Scrivener Occupies Wall Street
Roberta Bienvenu, Shenandoah

Bartleby the Scrivener

Essays & Scholarly Articles

Being as Refusal: Melville’s Bartleby as Anti-Hero
Louise Sundararajan, Janus Head

A Panorama of “Bartleby, the Scrivener”
Jason Novak, The Paris Review, March 29, 2012

Refusal in “Bartleby, the Scrivener”: Narrative Ethics and Conscientious Objection
Alvan A. Ikoku, AMA Journal of Ethics

Bartleby, Labor and Law
Jack Getman, University Pennsylvania Journal of Business & Employment Law

Invisible Victims: A Comparison of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener and Glaspell's a Jury of Her Peers
Robin L. West, Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature

The Learned-Helpless Lawyer: Clinical Legal Education and Therapeutic
Jurisprudence as Antidotes to Bartleby Syndrome
Amy D. Ronner, Touro Law Review

From Scriveners to Typewriters: Document Production in the Nineteenth-Century Law Office
M.H. Hoeflich, Green Bag 2d

The Specter of Wall Street: "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and the Language of Commodities
Naomie C. Reed, American Literature

From Wall Street to Astor Place: Historicizing Melville's "Bartleby"
Barbara Foley, American Literature

Bartleby or a Loose Existence: Melville with Jonathan Edwards
Branka Arsic, Janus Head

Bartleby' or The Formula
Gilles Deleuz, Essays Critical and Clinical (Daneil W. Smith & Michael A. Greco trans.)


[27:41 mins.]

Bartleby, the Subversive
[3:28 mins.]

A Discussion of "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
[45:21 mins. :: Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass & Diana Schaub converse with host Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee--Chattanooga) about "Bartleby, the Scrivener"]

Professor Bernstein talks about "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
[9:34 mins.]

Ralph Stevens talks about "Bartleby, the Scrivener"
[28:30 mins.]

Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" (Analysis & Interpretation)
[18:19 mins.]

Herman Melville

Herman Melville
Academy of American Poets

Herman Melville

The Confidence Man: His Masquerade
Scott Atkins



Lawyers and Literature Home Page