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Vocabulary in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Vocabulary Examples in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street:

Bartleby, the Scrivener

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"Master in Chancery..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A master in chancery is a senior official or clerk in a court of chancery, or court dealing with legal issues regarding equity. Generally, these clerks assisted with lawsuits regarding remedies for damages, heard testimony, took oaths, and examined cases.

"intolerable incubus...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The noun “incubus” refers to a mythological demon that takes a male form in order to engage with women in sexual activity. This activity generally drains the women of their strength and causes their death. In this context, the narrator suggests that Bartleby is draining him of his strength and must be stopped.

"predestinated..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The adjective “predestinated” refers to predestination, the biblical concept that all life is planned by God. Souls are marked from birth for salvation or damnation. Nothing a person does on earth can alter the course of their life.

"violate the proprieties of the day..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

At this time, the U.S. was predominantly filled with people who believed in a Judeo-Christian faith. According to the culture of these faiths, Sunday is the “lord’s day,” a day of rest on which no one is supposed to work. To “violate the properties of the day” is to work on Sunday.

"scrivener..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The noun “scrivener” refers to a writer who proofreads and copies for others as a profession.

"moon-struck..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

In mythology, the moon was frequently associated with making a person unbalanced or crazy. The phrase “moon-struck” means that one is unable to think or act normally. It is generally associated with being in love.

"Custom House..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A custom house is a place where ships stop in to pay the taxes, or duty, on the cargo that they are bringing to shore. Generally, this was a captain’s first stop after docking his ship.

"carman..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A carman is a person who sells wares from a cart.

"restive horse is said to feel his oats..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This cliche means a horse gets energetic once it eats. The lawyer dismissively suggests that Turkey is excited about his coat. This reinforces the lawyer’s elitist attitude towards his subordinates.

"obstreperousness..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The noun “obstreperousness” means noisy behavior, unruliness, or argumentativeness.

"sequel..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

In this context, the noun “sequel” means to follow. The narrator is not suggesting that there will be a second story that follows this one. Instead, he is saying that the “vague report” about Bartleby will be mentioned later in this story.

"the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The word “dishabille” refers to a state of partial or unconcerned dress and in French literally means “undressed.” This state is characteristic of Bartleby’s nonchalance and figuratively suggests his apathy and lack of vitality.

"Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Bartleby’s first words serve as a common refrain repeated throughout the narrative. Many scholars have heralded Bartleby’s statement as a declaration of passive resistance. While it certainly can be read this way, it is important to consider the grammar and meaning of the words employed. The past tense modal verb “would” is used to indicate polite deference; the verb “to prefer” means to indicate a preference or a predisposition for one thing over another. Bartleby is essentially indicating that he would rather not perform such work, but he is also not refusing to do so. That he is allowed to have his way is entirely due to the lawyer’s willingness to indulge him.

"So that Turkey's paroxysms only coming on about twelve o'clock, I never had to do with their eccentricities at one time...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A “paroxysm” is an episode in which a disease becomes more acute in its symptoms. Melville uses the word humorously, referring to how Nippers and Turkey experience bouts of ill temper at alternating times of day.

"was no other than a dun, and the alleged title-deed, a bill...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

A “dun” is a debt collector. Though the lawyer either does not know or does not discuss the nature of Nippers’s activities outside the office, it is likely that they are of a clandestine nature.

"with his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

The adjective “cadaverous” ascribes a corpse-like quality to someone or something. The adverb form, used here, carries similar meaning. The lawyer states that Bartleby’s “nonchalance,” or indifference, is simultaneously respectful (“gentlemanly”) and without life (“cadaverously”). Some form of the word “cadaverous” appears three times throughout the story to characterize Bartleby.

"According to my humor I threw open these doors, or closed them...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

While today we most readily associated the word “humor” with laughter and good feeling, this noun, particularly in this construction, simply refers to one’s mood or disposition. Since the lawyer can open and close these doors as he pleases, this reveals his privileged position of power compared to his employees; they have no say in the office layout nor in whether or not the doors are open or closed.

"cannel coal..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Also called "candle coal," cannel coal is a variety of compact coal that burns very brightly and with little ash.

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