Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street
by Herman Melville (1853)
Melville House (2004)
64 pp

“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. 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!

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