Summary and Analysis Exposition


Throughout this story, the limited first-person point of view of the narrator reveals more of his own values and motivation than those of Bartleby, whom he never fully appreciates or comprehends. Like yin and yang, the two form the necessary dichotomy of clerical worker and professional, just as Turkey and Nippers offset each other’s propensities and idiosyncrasies. This motif of duality suggests the complementary nature of human beings, who must accommodate both points of view in order to comprehend life fully. The setting, an integral unit of the financial center of the United States, is actually Melville’s own childhood neighborhood and also the general location of the Custom House, where he spent the last years of public service until his retirement.


John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) American entrepreneur who amassed a fortune in the fur trade.

Master in Chancery chief clerk of the court of equity.

Wall Street Dating from a Dutch settlement, a walled street in New York City, reaching from Broadway to the East River and currently comprising the financial nerve center of the United States.

cannel coal bituminous coal, which burns with a bright flame.

anthracite a hard, slow-burning form of coal.

sand-box container holding sand which is sprinkled to blot up excess ink.

boxing his papers evening the edges of a stack of papers by tamping them into place.

with submission meaning no disrespect.

the Tombs nickname for a New York City prison.

a dun a bill collector.

car-man van driver; deliveryman.

Spitzenbergs strong-flavored red and yellow apples common to the New York area.

conveyancer attorney who prepares documents to facilitate the transfer of property; a real estate lawyer.

title hunter attorney who establishes prior claims on property.