The Science and Ethics of “Bartleby the Scrivener”

American Literature

Lyssa Henry

After reading Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” I became stuck on one concept that is nearly irrelevant to the story itself but gave me both a scientific and a personal curiosity. The story includes a very minor character called “Ginger Nut,” named so because he would go out and buy the other characters ginger nuts sometimes.

I’m sure you have the same question I did upon hearing the words “ginger nut,” so I’ll tell you what a ginger nut is. After some extensive research and an interesting afternoon of Walmart searching and baking, I discovered that a ginger nut is a kind of biscuit (that’s British for cookie). Not far off from a ginger snap, the ginger nut has pretty basic ingredients (for the most part): flour, sugar, butter, baking soda, ground ginger, and golden syrup. Now, I’m American, so I had no idea what golden syrup was. This is where the more extensive part of my research came in. I found out that golden syrup is a toasty flavored syrup with, you guessed it, a gold color, about the same consistency as corn syrup. Since I was looking for my ingredients in the Walmart in Central, South Carolina, I did not find this golden syrup, a British baking tool. In order to get out of the Walmart with my sanity, I caved and bought corn syrup. Hopefully the consistency was enough and the taste wasn’t too important. (I would really like to try these cookies with the actual golden syrup. I’ll give an updated post if that ever happens.)

I spent a long time in my friend’s apartment on campus trying to get these cookies right so I could figure out why the guys in the story would have wanted them often enough to give the person that retrieved them a whole nickname. About an hour into the process, the first batch of cookies came out of the oven. I didn’t want to try them myself because failure was not something I was prepared for at that moment, so I closed my eyes and gave one to my friend who was there for moral support. She ate it slowly and thoughtfully and finally ended with “Wow there’s a lot of ginger in this.” What does that mean? Were they a success? A failure? Everything was a blur. I didn’t know if they were good but I already had the dough made, so I popped out two more batches of cookies and finally tried one myself.

I don’t know if I can say I understand the constant craving for a food like this. It is possible that the real golden syrup would have made the cookies way better, but in the interest of my own experiment and mental stability, I decided to leave the syrup as a challenge for another day. I don’t think I would ever choose a ginger nut over a different kind of cookie like chocolate chip or my personal favorite, oatmeal raisin (I know most people don’t like those but please don’t stone me), but overall they were pretty good and I’m excited to force the rest of my class to eat them.

That was my scientific connection with the ginger nut, but there is still the case of the personal question: I’m not sure if it is considered slightly cannibalistic for me to eat a cookie like this. I have heard from several people throughout my life that I have red hair. I don’t usually agree with those people, but they all believe the same. They call me a ginger. That is where the ethical question comes in. If I am really a ginger like all the people in my life have sid I am, does that mean eating ginger is wrong? I don’t want to be called unethical for putting so much effort toward putting the ginger in the oven. My younger sister is definitely a ginger, and I would probably not want to eat her, but is it different from the spice? I have never been to the place that ginger is manufactured, but it might be worth looking into to find out whether my cookies are made of redheaded people or not.


  • Well that was an entertaining post. Mostly because I had the same struggle. Apparently, there are a bunch of ways to substitute for golden syrup. I discovered this in the middle of Walmart as well, after asking a random stranger who also had no idea what it was. Next time you should try dark corn syrup to see if it makes a difference. Also, you were not alone in your struggle of baking these cookies. My first batch did not have enough butter because who measures butter in grams?? So that first batch was a fail. Good thing I only needed a dozen to force the class to eat. Later I also found out I used a tablespoon to measure two ingredients instead of a teaspoon. So there’s that. Anyway, your cookies were good so thank you for your research, and the time, stress, and effort you put into making them. I hope there were not any people in them though.

  • I did not look into the recipe for this English snack, but according to Julia and you it would be a lot easier to be in the shoes of Ginger Nut and just run down to the store for a few cookies when you felt an urge for some ginger. As far as you comment about oatmeal raisin cookies…I have no words. I feel so betrayed. I thought that we were friends, but clearly I have no idea who you are, which is a witch. And for the question about ginger spice and ginger haired people, I think that you are good to go with using the ginger spice. My brother is a ginger, too, and I could not imagine anything as wonderful as ginger being a by-product of that human.

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