Bartleby, the Scrivener

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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer 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:

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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:

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… 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:

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“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:

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“…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:

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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:

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…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:

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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:

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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:

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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)