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“Bartleby, The Scrivener” by Herman Melville Essay

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2020

Bartleby, The Scrivener is written from the perspective of an unnamed lawyer, who describes his relationship with a scrivener Bartleby. Except for Bartleby and the Lawyer, the story also features three other characters: Turkey, Nipper, and Ginger Nut. The major part of the action takes place at the Lawyer’s firm, where all the mentioned characters work.


Turkey is a scrivener working in the firm. The Lawyer praises Turkey’s work and ethic: “he was in many ways a most valuable person to me, […] accomplishing a great deal of work in a style not easy to be matched” (Melville 3). However, the narrator also outlines the issues that affect Turkey’s work: for instance, in the afternoon he becomes ill-tempered and clumsy in writing, dropping ink on the reports, which is why the Lawyer moved to give him less important tasks at that time. Turkey is a stock character, which does not have a significant role in the story. The narrator portrays him as a stereotypical old clerk, whose work is still valuable, yet he is somewhat eccentric, which is a quality attributed to his age: for example, when the Lawyer confronts Turkey about the issues in his work, Turkey replies, “I am getting old. Surely, sir, a blot or two of a warm afternoon is not to be severely urged against gray hairs” (Melville 3).


Nippers is another stock character. Contrary to Turkey, however, he is a stereotypical portrait of a young, energetic clerk with strong ambitions. The Lawyer, it seems, aims to explain Nippers’ behavior in terms of the stereotypical problems of the younger generation. For instance, the narrator describes Nippers’ struggle to adjust the height of his desk to suit him, showing his “continual discontent” (Melville 4). The root of the issue, in the author’s view, lies in the fact that “Nippers knew not what he wanted” (Melville 4) – a problem that many older people attribute to the younger generation. Nippers and Turkey are also used by the author to represent the clash of two generations. They don’t play any significant role in the story and only talk when the Lawyer asks for their opinion. In these cases, their opinions are always polar: when Nippers’ advice is to throw Bartleby out of the office, Turkey merely states that the Lawyer’s indignation is justified; on the opposite, when Turkey admits he wants to beat Bartleby, Nippers remains reserved and thoughtful.

Ginger Nut

The third stock character is Ginger Nut, who is a stereotypical young office boy who helps the Lawyer with various tasks at the firm, such as cleaning and bringing food. Employing a small boy for minor duties was a common practice in the past. Similar to Turkey and Nippers, Ginger Nut is not involved in the story’s plot.


Bartleby’s character is very ambiguous and unclear. Right from the start, the Lawyer admits that “Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources” (Melville 1), yet he is also the character who is central to the plot and the entire story. At first, Bartleby is described as an efficient worker, who stays at the firm day and night (Melville 6). However, over time, he starts to refuse to do the work demanded by the Lawyer, which puzzles the rest of the characters and confuses the narrator. Bartleby’s character is not active but rather flat; he does not communicate with other characters freely and the only actions he does are either casual acts of sleeping, eating, and working, or the acts of refusal, where the character refuses every offer, demand, or suggestion that is addressed to him.

The Lawyer

The Lawyer is the most developed and rounded characters of the story. His interest in Bartleby is the main force driving the story forward. However, throughout the story, we also see some major changes in his character, or at least in the representation that he provides. For example, at first, the Lawyer refers to himself as a very calm man who does not get angry or excited easily: “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” (Melville 1). However, as the story moves forward, we see that this is not true, as when Bartleby refuses to do the assigned work, the Lawyer becomes indignant: “just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion” (Melville 14). Moreover, despite being represented as an authoritative figure from the very beginning of the story, the Lawyer loses his resolve by the end of the work. His confusion is echoed in repetitive questions, such as ‘What could I say?’, ‘What shall I do?’, and so on.

Overall, the story has all kinds of characters in it, but only one character is trong enough to play a substantial part in the plot. The narrator spends considerable time on developing the portraits of the characters, yet leaves the majority of the characters either flat or shock. Such portrait is both intriguing and confusing; nevertheless, it allows the author to use such a short work to explore deeper themes, such as the opposition of generations and the uncertainty of judgment.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. . N.p., 1856, Web.

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