Bartleby, the Scrivener

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Bartleby Character Analysis

Bartleby’s actions throughout the story come to embody the idea of passive resistance. By the story’s end, Bartleby therefore becomes an antagonist to The Lawyer’s goal of getting the most productivity out of his workers. While Bartleby begins as an exemplary employee, he soon says he “would prefer not to” do any of the tasks The Lawyer asks of him other than write. Bartleby is also a testament to the inherent failure present in language: it is revealed that Bartleby previously worked at the Dead Letter Office, where his task was to destroy lost or undelivered letters. Further, Bartleby rebuffs any of The Lawyer’s attempts to learn about Bartleby by talking with him, revealing nothing to The Lawyer about his beliefs, his family, his relationships, or his personal history. Eventually, Bartleby’s passive resistance becomes more extreme and he refuses to do even the basic requirements of his copying job, The Lawyer tries to fire Bartleby, who prefers not to vacate The Lawyer’s office, even after The Lawyer changes offices and leaves Bartleby behind. At this point, Bartleby becomes a testament to the limits of charity (and the inherent self-annihilating flaw of extreme passive resistance), as when The Lawyer returns to his office to offer Bartleby his old job back, or to get him a new job, or to take Bartleby into his own home until they can determine a better solution, Bartleby resists all of these efforts. Further, when Bartleby winds up in prison and The Lawyer returns to Bartleby to offer him good food to eat to keep him alive, again Bartleby resists, preferring not to eat until he, presumably, dies. Whether Bartleby has the right to kill himself through passive resistance—and whether The Lawyer should have endeavored to help him further—is up to the reader to determine.

Bartleby Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener

The Bartleby, the Scrivener quotes below are all either spoken by Bartleby or refer to Bartleby. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Passive Resistance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Bartleby, the Scrivener published in 2016.
Bartleby, the Scrivener Quotes

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Bartleby has repeatedly stated that he “prefers not to” correct the copies he has worked on, and also “prefers not to” do any of a scrivener’s job requirements other than write. It is one of the only points in the narrative where The Lawyer overtly explains why he allows Bartleby’s behavior to spiral to the point that Bartleby is more in control of his working habits than his boss is: The Lawyer considers himself a man of “not inhumane temper,” and he also considers Bartleby’s statement of his preferences “perfectly harmless in his passivity.” So, The Lawyer “charitably” decides to consider Bartleby’s peculiar habits not as insolence, nor as disobedience, but simply an acceptable condition of his personality. The result of this is that Bartleby is allowed to work in the manner that he wants to, and The Lawyer, though it aggravates him, is able to feel he is being charitable.

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To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. But this mood was not invariable with me. The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition… I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of Windsor soap.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated in the narrative after Bartleby has passively resisted correcting his own copies, but is still a useful employee in the amount of writing he is able to get done. Here, The Lawyer internally reasons with himself that to keep Bartleby on and accept his flaws and peculiarities would be a charitable gesture, but not one that requires much sacrifice on The Lawyer’s part, as he thinks it will cost him “little or nothing.” This fulfills The Lawyer’s self-proclaimed idea that he believes the “easiest way of life” to be the best, and it also fulfills his self-image as a charitable Christian man.

However, despite The Lawyer’s alleged inclination to do both what is easiest and what is charitable, he still allows Bartleby’s passive habits to bother him, and thus he breaks his vow of leaving Bartleby alone and instead decides to try to get him to correct copies of papers once more. The Lawyer’s attempt to get Bartleby to do anything outside of his preferences fails, of course, and rather than getting Bartleby to change his habits or bringing The Lawyer closer to his employee, this attempt results in The Lawyer becoming less likely to ask Bartleby to do anything that he might resist in the future. Thus, Bartleby’s passive resistance trumps The Lawyer’s urge to break Bartleby’s habit, as he realizes that his attempts to reason with Bartleby through language haven’t brought them any closer together, nor have they changed Bartleby’s mind about what tasks he will or won’t do.

… Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay, but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has stopped by his office on a Sunday, on his way to church. He has just discovered that Bartleby has been secretly living in the office, and so must be homeless and totally isolated, without family or friends. Thus, The Lawyer, and the other employees at his office, could perhaps be the people Bartleby is closest to in the world, and yet none of them know anything about him. Although Bartleby literally lives in the office, The Lawyer learns more about him from searching his desk than he’s learned from talking with Bartleby in the weeks and weeks he’s been working there.

This quote directly states that happiness is easy to see, as happy people are willing to share their sunny disposition readily, whereas miserable or depressed people often hide their suffering beneath the surface. So, language is as ineffective a tool for spotting misery as sight is, for it is easy for someone to lie and say they’re doing well even when they’re not, just as it is easy for Bartleby to say he would “prefer not to” discuss his feelings or his personal history. Even if a tragic story hides beneath Bartleby’s preferences not to share, The Lawyer would have no way of discovering it unless Bartleby is willing to tell him.

“At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

Related Characters: Bartleby (speaker), The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is situated after The Lawyer has found out Bartleby is living in the office, and he has thus resolved to find one of Bartleby’s relatives, fire Bartleby (with a $20 severance bonus), and pawn the responsibility of Bartleby off on said relative. However, after asking Bartleby a barrage of questions about his past, none of which Bartleby answers, The Lawyer breaks down and asks if Bartleby will be “a little reasonable.”

This quote that Bartleby would “prefer not to be a little reasonable” is the epitome of Bartleby’s passive resistance—not only does Bartleby resist disclosing personal information to his boss or doing fundamental aspects of his job, he now resists participating in reason, so that even though The Lawyer’s requests are entirely logical and fair, Bartleby still resists them as he has no interest in participating in fairness. Language cannot connect two people if they don’t agree on a unifying system of logic; so, Bartleby is able to resist all of The Lawyer’s requests, as a soldier would resist a general’s orders if that soldier didn’t recognize the general’s authority, or, more reflective of this scenario, if that soldier felt entirely disconnected from the general. In Bartleby’s mind, he is to The Lawyer as a German soldier would be to an American general: entirely outside his purview.

Additionally, The Lawyer’s tag referring to Bartleby’s response as “mildly cadaverous” foreshadows Bartleby’s passively resistant demise.

“…Good-bye, Bartleby, and fare you well.” But he answered not a word; like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has decided that the only solution to ridding himself of Bartleby is to fire him. After giving Bartleby six days’ firing notice, on the eve of the sixth day The Lawyer wishes Bartleby well, and leaves him with money, which is certainly a nice gesture, but it somehow seems to fall short of the definition of true Christian charity. The Lawyer could simply keep Bartleby on as an employee, agree to house him at the office but not pay him, try to help Bartleby secure housing, or even bring Bartleby home with him, but The Lawyer attempts to do none of those things (yet).

Additionally, The Lawyer metaphorically compares Bartleby to the last column of a ruined temple—the ruined temple being his office. Despite their already clear physical separation—embodied by the secluded area Bartleby works in, behind a screen and next to a window with a view of another wall—The Lawyer and Bartleby are even more so ideologically and emotionally separated. To use The Lawyer’s example, they are as separate as an ancient temple and a modern Wall Street law office. Also, this metaphor can be extended further, as perhaps Bartleby’s needs represent the ancient, biblical definition of what charity can mean (full sacrificial charity, as Jesus suffered for man’s sins), and The Lawyer represents what charity means in a modern capitalistic American context, i.e. an extra twenty bucks on top of whatever you’re owed, and a courteous farewell.

Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs… At last I see it, I feel it; I penetrate to the predestinated purpose of life… Others may have loftier parts to enact; but my mission in this world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has tried to fire Bartleby, has found him still in his office, and, after fearing Bartleby might murder him, The Lawyer has decided that he will be charitable to Bartleby and let him stay. Here, The Lawyer develops this idea further, proclaiming that Bartleby has entered his life because of the forces of divine predestination, and so it is his holy duty as a charitable Christian to provide Bartleby with a place to live. The Lawyer is brought to this feeling of holy duty not by speaking with Bartleby, nor by having any sort if interpersonal contact with his scrivener, but instead by reading two religious texts, Edwards on The Will and Priestly on Necessity. This quote in itself epitomizes the unreliability of language, and how it often has the most power when one is isolated, reading by one’s self. That is one of the inherent ironies of language and literature—though it is meant to connect people, we often feel the most connected to others when we are by ourselves.

Also, despite The Lawyer’s Christian inclination toward charity and his feeling that Bartleby was brought into his life via divine intervention, he still abandons Bartleby later in the narrative and leaves him on his own. So, though The Lawyer at this moment undoubtedly truly feels that it is his divine purpose to care for Bartleby, in the end he still allows worldly concerns to limit his ability to give Bartleby the charity he believes Bartleby deserves.

…it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last the best resolves of the more generous.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after The Lawyer’s internal monologue about Bartleby having entered his life via predestination (thus making it The Lawyer’s Christian duty to charitably house Bartleby for as long as he wants). Obviously, The Lawyer is justifying why he has decided to go back on his vow to be wholly charitable to Bartleby, and this is the moment where The Lawyer is the most self-aware about his shortcomings as a charitable Christian.

Although he believes keeping Bartleby in his office is the right—and even the divine—thing to do, The Lawyer admits that he allows other people—who he refers to as “illiberal minds”—to influence him to rid himself of Bartleby. Immediately after this quote, Bartleby embarrasses The Lawyer by refusing a request of one of The Lawyer’s colleagues, so, when Bartleby’s behavior begins to threaten his business interests, The Lawyer decides once and for all that Bartleby has to go. If it weren’t for The Lawyer’s own capitalist interests, he might go on housing Bartleby until the day Bartleby or The Lawyer himself died, but in mid-1800s Wall Street, charity seems to reach its limit when business dictates it should, not when God does.

The yard was entirely quiet. It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew underfoot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the lefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Related Symbols: Walls
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated near the end of the narrative, after The Lawyer has abandoned Bartleby by moving offices, so the landlord has had Bartleby put in a prison called The Tombs. The Lawyer has visited once before and, out of a charitable urge (perhaps brought on by guilt), he has paid someone to provide Bartleby with good food (which he “prefers not to” eat). Here he visits Bartleby again, and finds that Bartleby is not in a cell, but is instead still alone in a yard in the middle of the prison.

The Tombs is an extremely appropriate name for this prison, not only because it is literally the place where Bartleby’s passive resistance will cause him to die, but also because, just as in the office, Bartleby is as secluded from the other prisoners as he was from his colleagues at the office, effectively meaning he is just as isolated as if he were literally in a tomb or a grave.

The walls “of amazing thickness” that even keep external sounds away from Bartleby are another example of his disconnection from everyone around him, especially when considering that he’s in an area of the prison where other prisoners are not allowed. The Lawyer tries to see some good in this extremely dark situation: he notes that, somehow, as if by “strange magic” grass is blooming in the center of this “pyramid” (another allusion to tombs, as pyramids were the tombs of pharaohs), and perhaps, implicitly, The Lawyer is hoping that Bartleby’s story will, in a way, grant a rebirth to this now-lifeless man. The entire narrative of Bartleby, the Scrivener, then, can perhaps be seen as granting a glimmer of hope to the connective and communicative possibilities of language: though Bartleby and The Lawyer will never understand each other, perhaps readers of this story might understand themselves and those around them better for having listened to Bartleby’s and The Lawyer’s respective journeys.

Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? … Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifling by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Related Symbols: Dead Letters
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs at the very end of the short story. Bartleby has presumably died, and The Lawyer cuts off Bartleby’s narrative to impart one final piece of rumor to the reader: that Bartleby, allegedly, used to work at the Dead Letter Office.

In some ways, it could be argued that The Lawyer feels as if he has treated Bartleby like a dead letter—The Lawyer tried to connect with Bartleby, failed, and thus he discarded Bartleby, who would go on to die without ever communicating. After all, The Lawyer has just been reflecting on Bartleby’s death when he comments “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?” Additionally, dead letters themselves are a literal example of language failing at its job of connecting people through imparting meaning, and The Lawyer gives numerous examples of tragic missed communications (and failed charitable offers) caused by these dead letters.

Also, The Lawyer (and Melville through him) makes an extremely significant grammatical choice in this final sentence—for the first time in the narrative, The Lawyer narrates in the present tense rather than the past tense. He does not say that these dead letters sped to death, but rather that “On errands of life, these letters speed to death.” This shift implies that this phenomenon of dead letters—of language failing to connect us—is ongoing, and therefore The Lawyer’s final cry of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” applies not only to the characters in the story, but to the reader as well. In the end, the narrative of Bartleby attempts to compel the reader to seek out connection, not in two-dimensional text, but in the three-dimensional world outside of words we all exist in.

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Bartleby Character Timeline in Bartleby, the Scrivener

The timeline below shows where the character Bartleby appears in Bartleby, the Scrivener. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Bartleby, the Scrivener
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...the biographies of the many scriveners he’s met for the most peculiar of them all: Bartleby, of whom little to nothing is known, except what The Lawyer himself has witnessed (and... (full context)
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The Lawyer goes on to describe his employees before Bartleby’s arrival. First he delves into Turkey, a short, overweight Englishman of elderly age, who is... (full context)
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...more business, and so he posted an ad for a new scrivener, which is how Bartleby entered his life. (full context)
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After exchanging words about his qualifications, The Lawyer is happy to hire Bartleby, because he hopes that Bartleby’s “singularly sedate” nature might help calm the erratic natures of... (full context)
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At first, Bartleby provides The Lawyer with an enormous quantity of writing, working nonstop all day and not... (full context)
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...that he has helped with correcting copy himself, and one of the reasons he placed Bartleby so close by was so that he could easily call him over to go through... (full context)
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The Lawyer stews in silence, and initially thinks he has misheard Bartleby. He repeats the request, and Bartleby again responds with, “I would prefer not to.” After... (full context)
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However, after staring at Bartleby and watching him write for a while, The Lawyer can detect no such intention, and... (full context)
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...Lawyer convenes a meeting in his office, calling in Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut, as Bartleby has just finished writing out four lengthy copies of a week’s testimony that The Lawyer... (full context)
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...Lawyer stands there, unsure what to do. Finally he advances toward the screen, and asks Bartleby why he refuses. Bartleby again responds simply that he “would prefer not to.” The Lawyer... (full context)
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The Lawyer feels as if Bartleby is not being curt with him. He feels that Bartleby has listened to his argument,... (full context)
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...The Lawyer asks Nippers what he thinks, and Nippers says that The Lawyer should kick Bartleby out of the office. The Lawyer then notes that, since it is the morning, this... (full context)
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The Lawyer notes that they managed to correct the papers without Bartleby’s help, with Turkey commenting on how unusual the situation was, and Nippers cursing at Bartleby... (full context)
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Some days pass, and The Lawyer says that due to Bartleby’s odd behavior, he has started watching Bartleby’s habits more closely. The Lawyer notes that Bartleby... (full context)
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The Lawyer then delves into Bartleby’s attitude, which he refers to as “passive resistance,” saying that nothing can so aggravate an... (full context)
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However, despite The Lawyer's resolve to accept Bartleby as he is, one day The Lawyer is overtaken by what he deems an “evil... (full context)
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...Lawyer states that Nippers has changed his opinion since the last time he asked about Bartleby, and Turkey exclaims that Nippers’s “gentleness is the effects of beer,” and then again asks... (full context)
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The Lawyer then sits at his desk, and after some thought, calls out for Bartleby, who doesn’t respond. The Lawyer calls again. Still nothing. On the third time The Lawyer... (full context)
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As days pass, The Lawyer becomes increasingly accepting of Bartleby’s habits. He enjoys Bartleby’s work ethic (aside from the occasional times when he stands silently... (full context)
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...so that he cannot open the door. The Lawyer calls out, and none other than Bartleby answers the door, dressed in unprofessional, disheveled clothing. Bartleby tells The Lawyer that he is... (full context)
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The Lawyer, though frustrated, follows Bartleby’s request and walks around the block, noting that it is Bartleby’s “wonderful mildness” that compels... (full context)
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Once he’s alone in the office, The Lawyer determines that Bartleby must be eating, dressing, and even sleeping in the office. The Lawyer finds a blanket... (full context)
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...whereas “misery hides” so we deem that “there is none.” As he is thinking about Bartleby, The Lawyer is suddenly attracted to Bartleby’s closed desk, which has its key sticking out... (full context)
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The Lawyer recalls all of Bartleby’s curious habits and mysteries—his lack of speaking except to answer, the fact that he stands... (full context)
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...intended, The Lawyer decides to head home, and on the way he resolves to ask Bartleby about his history tomorrow morning. If he declines to answer, The Lawyer states that he... (full context)
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The Lawyer ruminates on how he should handle this situation. Despite his resolution to dismiss Bartleby should this problem arise, The Lawyer feels a “superstitious knocking” at his heart that makes... (full context)
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Nippers enters the office, overhears Bartleby’s words, and calls him a stubborn mule. The Lawyer says he would “prefer” that Nippers... (full context)
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The next day, The Lawyer notices that Bartleby has done “nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall reverie.” When The Lawyer... (full context)
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A few days later, with the other employees absent, The Lawyer asks Bartleby to carry letters to the Post Office, but Bartleby declines, forcing The Lawyer to go... (full context)
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Six days later, Bartleby remains in the office. The Lawyer offers Bartleby the 20-dollar bonus and tells him he... (full context)
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As The Lawyer walks home, he becomes more and more confident that Bartleby will comply with his order to leave. He calls his own handling of the situation... (full context)
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...his way to the office, The Lawyer debates back and forth in his head whether Bartleby has stayed or left the office. He passes someone on the street who says, “I’ll... (full context)
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The Lawyer is somewhat shocked that Bartleby is still there, and mutters to himself on the street. He walks around the block,... (full context)
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The Lawyer asks Bartleby if Bartleby will leave, to which Bartleby replies that he’d prefer not to. The Lawyer... (full context)
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Sitting at his desk, The Lawyer’s resentment of Bartleby grows, but a Christian impulse overtakes him, reminding him that it his duty as a... (full context)
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Some days later, after reading two religious texts, The Lawyer decides that Bartleby has been thrust into his life via predestination from eternity, and God’s intention regarding Bartleby’s... (full context)
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First, The Lawyer simply suggests to Bartleby that he leave. After he thinks about it for three days, Bartleby tells The Lawyer... (full context)
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...week, emptying the office of furniture. When everything is gone, The Lawyer says goodbye to Bartleby, and tells him that he hopes God blesses him. Despite The Lawyer’s fears, Bartleby never... (full context)
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Several days pass, and The Lawyer thinks he has finally been ridded of Bartleby. However, a week or so later, The Other Lawyer returns to the office to tell... (full context)
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...to stop him. He decides that he has done all that he possibly could for Bartleby, and, “so fearful” of being “hunted out by the incensed landlord” and his tenants, The... (full context)
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That day, The Lawyer heads to the prison to attest to the fact that Bartleby is an honest, but eccentric, man. The Lawyer then requests to visit Bartleby and speak... (full context)
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On his way out, a man (The Grubman) stops The Lawyer and asks if Bartleby is his friend. The Lawyer says “yes,” and the man says that if The Lawyer... (full context)
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The Lawyer and The Grubman chat about Bartleby being odd, and The Lawyer says he is somewhat “deranged.” The Grubman says he initially... (full context)
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Some days later, The Lawyer returns to the prison, and finds Bartleby asleep in the yard, surrounded by walls “of amazing thickness.” Bartleby is huddled at the... (full context)
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...saying that there is “little need for proceeding further,” as the reader can easily imagine Bartleby’s fate. Then, The Lawyer decides to “divulge one little item of rumor” he has heard... (full context)