Discuss the plot structure of Bartleby the Scrivener


Discuss how effectively the plot of the story Bartleby the Scrivener is organized.

bartleby (2)Answer: This question is to be discussed in the light of the definition of plot. Plot is the careful arrangement by an author of incidents in a narrative or dramatic work to achieve a desired effect. Aristotle defined plot as “the arrangement of incidents” and the “imitation of an action” which should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Plot is more than simply the series of happenings in a literary work. It is the result of the writer’s deliberate selection of interrelated action and choice of arrangement in presenting and resolving a conflict. Plot and character are interdependent concepts. Character determines the incidents and incidents illustrate the character. When incidents are arranged in a series of cause and effect, they form a plot. Plots may be tragic, comic, romantic or satiric, and each of these in turn capable of an infinite variety of plot patterns in the mode of drama, or narrative, in verse or prose.

The plot should be aimed at focusing the theme. The themes come out of the incidents arranged in a plot.

The plot of in Bartleby the Scrivener is a tragic one. The writer has carefully arranged the incidents to achieve a tragic effect, involving the emotional and artistic aspects.


In the first section, the narrator relates what he knows about a man named, Bartleby, who worked for him some time ago. The author is a master in chancery, a profession connected with law. In addition to his two copyists—Turkey and Nippers—he needed one more. In response to his advertisement, one morning a young man stood upon his office threshold. Immediately after joining the author’s service, he did an extraordinary amount of work for the first two days. But from the very third day he began to behave in a very strange and abnormal manner. The author called him to complete a small affair he had in hand to examine a small paper with him. Quite surprisingly Bartleby replied “I would prefer not to”. The author was quite unsettled by this utterly unexpected answer. He felt like violently reacting to this answer, something unusual in the countenance of Bartleby. He observed that Bartleby’s face was leanly composed, his grey eyes dimly calm. There was not anything ordinarily human about him. The author stood gazing at Bartleby who went on with his writing, then reseated himself at his desk.

In the second section, the author called all the copyists, and the office boy Ginger Nut, to examine for lengthy documents. Bartleby was also called, but he replied “I would prefer not to”. The author was astounded by this reply, but he did not fly into a rage because there was something in Bartleby which not only disarmed him, but touched and disconcerted him. The author reasoned with him but he gave the same answer. The author asked Turkey and Nippers and Ginger Nut whether he was right in opinion. They all agreed that Bartleby committed an offence by his refusal to obey the author.

In the third section, the author summoned Bartleby and questioned about his past but Bartleby simply replied that he would prefer not to answer. The next day, Bartleby stopped copying altogether. The author then gave him six days’ notice, telling him that within that time, he must unconditionally leave the office. He also offered to assist him in his endeavor to find a new abode and gave an assurance of sufficient money. The next morning Bartleby was still found in his room. The author asked him in an angry mood whether he would quit or not, Bartleby answered “I would prefer not to quit you.” The author felt like killing him but remember one commandment of the Bible, “Ye love one another”, and refrained from doing any violence and accepted it as his fate. He would have remained in that state of resignation to fate, had not his professional colleagues’ uncharitable comments about Bartleby prejudiced him. He decided to get rid of Bartleby. So he moved his office.

In the fourth section, the author had visitors from the new tenants of his old office. They told him to do something about Bartleby who still haunted the old office. A few days later, the landlord and a group of people complained about Bartleby’s stay to the author. The author offered Bartleby a place to stay in his own home, but Bartleby refused. The landlord and the new tenants of his old chamber handed Bartleby over to the police who put him to The Tombs. There the author visited him and arranged for his comfort. Bartleby gave up eating and died there.


The plot expresses the author’s theme about isolation, doubling, mortality, compassion and world of work and business. Bartleby is the very example of an isolated person. His situation in life and his environment cut him off from nature and afterwards from other men. He was profoundly affected by the dead letters he handled in the dead-letter office in Washington, and his death was speeded up. The office that Bartleby works in is incredibly bleak, and the landscape of the Wall Street is completely unnatural. The work environment is devoid of any human worth—chilly, sterile, and dark. Bartleby lows all enthusiasm for this bleak world and disengages himself from it, and ultimately dies. For Bartleby the act of living is rather real death. The Dead-letter office serves as the final image—a place where the last undelivered communications to the dead are burned without ever having been read.

So, we see that the incidents of Bartleby’s life have been forcefully presented by the author. Bartleby’s dealing with the dead letters so affected his mind that he lost all interest in life, even in physical environment. He died in that absolute indifference to life in this world. The plot thus has been aimed at focusing the themes, very artistically. So, Melville has been able to achieve his artistic purpose.