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Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener

“I would prefer not to.”  How long has that phrase haunted me because I didn’t know what it meant to literature!  I confess: I had never read Melville’s short masterpiece, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street (1853).  I’m not sure why not.  After all, I’m a fan of American fiction.  I’m a fan of Moby-Dick.  I know many tastes I admire love this book.  I wander around downtown Manhattan, from Wall Street to Trinity Church to City Hall, the book’s haunts, and, indeed, I dabble in the law of stocks and bonds as does the book’s narrator — and not many great works of literature go there.  What got me to read it, finally?  The desire to be in on the joke!  ”I would prefer not to.”

Our narrator is a Wall Street attorney who lacks professional ambition: “I am a man who, from his youth upward, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.”  He never argues in court and is very content that his job consists primarily in creating legal documents that help others transfer stocks and bonds.  Back then, since all of the documents were written by hand, and there had to be several copies of each document, it is no surprise that his support staff consists of a few scriveners and one courier.  Before Bartleby arrives (“who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of”), the staff consists of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut.  With wit and verve, Melville describes each of these employees.  Turkey and Nippers are the two scriveners.  One is tense and touchy in the morning, the other in the afternoon.  They are great side characters who provide a lot of comedy throughout.  Here, for example, is a description of Nippers’s attempts to get his desk set to just the right incline:

Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him.  He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting paper.  But no invention would answer.  If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk: — then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms.  If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stopped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back.  In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted.

“Nippers knew not what he wanted”: what a great way to get to that insight. 

The young courier is Ginger Nut, so-named because most of the time he is sent to fetch these treats for the rest of the staff.  Before even getting to know Bartleby, I was enchanted by this book and its strange characters portrayed in such charming language.  But then, he approaches:  “I can see that figure now — pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!  It was Bartleby.” 

When hired, Bartleby appears to be an ideal worker.  He doesn’t have the mood swings that afflict Turkey and Nippers, and, for the most part, he just sits down and works and works — “at first.”

At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing.  As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.  There was no pause for digestion.  He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.  I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious.  But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.

The narrator’s misgivings are well founded.  There’s something odd about Bartleby, some disconnect.  He sets up his office space to secure the utmost privacy, though there is nothing he is trying to hide.  His interactions with the staff and the narrator are limited to the work at hand.  And then, what occurs next comes as a complete shock to the narrator, who is impressed but worried:

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do — namely, to examine a small paper with me.  Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singluarly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

It’s hard to imagine saying that to an employer.  Still, Bartleby has said it in such a manner that our narrator cannot help but sit there dumbfounded and mute.

His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm.  Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.  Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.

It only gets worse.  “I would prefer not to” becomes Bartleby’s response to every request.  The narrator’s mood vascillates between fury and curiosity and pity.  Obviously there is something amiss in Bartleby, and the narrator cannot grasp it.  And Bartleby would prefer not to get into any specifics.

Despite this book being much much shorter than Moby-Dick, Melville is still able, through his incredible writing, to grasp depths of emotion.  The reader feels the complexities of these characters deeply.  .

My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion.

As funny and fun as it is to read, Bartleby the Scrivener is not necessarily a happy story.  How does one deal with an employee who prefers to do no work and who, eventually, prefers not to leave the premises, even when he is invited to move in with the narrator?

To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain.  And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.

Highly recommended.  Get in on the joke, too, and be wowed by the great literature on the side!

18 thoughts on “Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener

  1. I can’t help but playfully suggest that “I’d prefer not to” is still a Wall Street motto. As in a) be regulated b) give up my bonus and a number of others. As I said, just a playful suggestion.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hah! Wish I’d considered that angle, Kevin!

  3. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh quotations drive me crazy. Even when I’ve read the work (e.g. Shakespeare’s plays) I don’t remember the quotations and look like a klutz among other people who can quote the entire speech.
    What is most galling is that as a child I could learn an entire poem off by heart, the night before it was required for homework. Now I can’t remember an 8 digit phone number.

  4. Betsy says:

    Bartleby makes a great contrast to the news today -”motionless”, anorexic Bartleby in his cubicle, who, his face turned to the wall, prefers not to do what he is told … v. Egypt in Tahrir Square, dancing, talking, singing, swooning, all firecrackers, hope and delight, after the camels, bludgeons, and prisons. Response to the monolith. Just be careful it doesn’t kill you.

    Wonderful Melville, Trevor, so glad you brought us back to him. The story makes me think of Melville refusing to write what people wanted him to write – but what a tightrope that must have been for him. Too bad he never got to do the celebration in the square.

  5. Kevin says:

    No comment beyond a well done!

  6. Ahh, this brings me back to my 19th century American Lit class with the wonderful Professor Zimmerman! If you loved Bartleby (and really, how could you not?), you must read Billy Budd.

  7. leroyhunter says:

    Funny you mention being “haunted” by that key phrase Trevor – before I read it I thought Bartelby was a ghost story.

    Have you any plans to read Jay Parini’s “novelised biography” of Melville? The reviews I’ve seen have not been positive.

  8. Trevor says:

    Have you any plans to read Jay Parini’s “novelised biography” of Melville? The reviews I’ve seen have not been positive.

    No, leroy, I’m not that interested. I don’t venture into that type of book often and never without some strong recommendations.

    Liz, I do need to read Billy Budd still. Is there anything Melville wrote that isn’t really worth the time? (I’m asking seriously, not rhetorically :) )

  9. Maylin says:

    You might enjoy the novel Bartleby & Co by Enrique Vila-Matas which is about another clerk who decides to track down all the “Bartlebys” in literature. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a follow-up book called Montano, but I haven’t got around to that one yet.

  10. Chris says:

    “Is there anything Melville wrote that isn’t really worth the time? (I’m asking seriously, not rhetorically”

    I don’t know if you’ve read The Confidence Man yet, but if not, it is to be avoided. The premise seems acceptable: A stranger, who might be the Devil, on board a riverboat tries to get his fellow passengers to take him into their ‘confidence,’ either by selling them this or that useless product, or getting them to loan him money, etc. His appearance changes to suit each situation (if I recall rightly he might even be a girl in one episode). It is a parody on capitalism, the American way (confidence being a scam, of course), etc., so it all seems good – but, besides being plotless (not always a flaw), the prose is so tortured and overwrought (I still recall with pain the constant ‘Yarbs! Yarbs! Yarbs!’ [herbs] refrain of one salesman episode) that it is one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had.

    Pierre might be suspect as well – I’ve only read the would-be ‘original’ version, stripped of some 150 pages about ‘Pierre as a writer’ that Melville apparently interpolated into the novel after it was rejected. I can only imagine that those pages are well got rid of; the novel without them was symbolically heavy-handed sturm und drang love story, though not without its thrills and its brilliant passages (and, more commonly, its awful). It’s Melville’s ‘psychological novel.’

  11. Very nice Trevor.I’ve downloaded a copy to my Kindle.

    I note you’ve changed style a bit for this one intercutting with quotes a lot more. Was that because this particular title lent itself to that? It worked very well, but I was curious since it’s not your usual style.

  12. Trevor says:

    Yes, Max, that’s precisely why I put in more quotes and less of my own writing. For one thing, Melville is such a great and, in this case, funny writer. Perhaps anyone thinking that Melville is stodgy can forget that misconception :) . Plus, this work has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times, I didn’t really want to try to do that here but rather to see how much fun it is to read. I hope it works!

  13. Betsy says:

    I recommend Typee and Omoo, Trevor. Being the best sellers of his youth, they speak to the extraordinary journey of Melville’s mind.

  14. Phillip says:

    “Bartleby” is the only thing by Melville that I liked.
    I have an entirely different take on what he was trying to do in that story.
    What follows is the beginning of an essay I wrote:
    “After early success with his tales of the South Seas, Melville met negative critical and popular reaction to both Moby Dick and Pierre. These huge works were tremendously ambitious. What amount of toil and hope went into them? Both sank quickly.
    For the remainder of his life — almost forty years — Melville’s literary output was minuscule. It had become clear that he could not make a living from his writing. He got employment as a customs inspector in New York and worked at that job for nineteen years; so, in a sense, he carried on with life. But what was the state of his creative spirit? I think he addresses the intimate issue of failure in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” a story he wrote shortly after Pierre’s devastating reception.”
    It’s a story about failure. I go on to make a case for that opinion.

  15. Trevor says:

    Hi Phillip, can you ellaborate a bit on your argument? Why about failure? I’m interested in your thesis.

  16. Phillip says:

    Hey, Trevor — If you click on my name, you’ll see a link to my blog. Look for “Dead Letters Office” — there, in about four paragraphs (it’s a very short essay!) I explain why I reacted to the story as I did.
    Maybe my interpretation will make sense to you; maybe not. Either way, I’d like to get your (or anybody’s) reaction.

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