Stories I Love: Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

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Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”

I had a high school teacher who pretty much killed any interest I would have with Herman Melville because of his insistence of teaching Moby Dick with a heavy emphasis on the religious aspects of the novel. For years after that, just the mention of Melville left a sour taste in my mouth; that is, until I attended university and someone handed me a copy of “Bartleby the Scrivener”.

From that day on, I’ve become a huge defender of Melville’s work, and I’m continually amazed that high school teachers continue to teach the bulky Moby Dick over the breezy-by-comparison “Bartleby”.

Let’s be honest, when I was a teenager, I didn’t necessarily have the experience or drama in my life to relate to a revenge-obsessed captain, but I was perfectly qualified to identify with a man who simply “prefers not to”.

To put it simply, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of the best American short stories ever written. By modern standards, the story tends to be a bit dry, and the beginning takes the long way of getting to the point, but it’s part of the story’s charm, as well as being essential for some of the story’s more subtle payoffs. The nameless narrator – who so proudly admits that the easiest way in life is the best – is the boss of two men whose peculiar habits (one works best in the morning and not in the afternoon, and the other vice-versa), which means they essentially function as one worker. One day he hires the title character to be his third scrivener. Unfortunately, after a brief productive period, Bartleby doesn’t want to do the job anymore.

 In fact, he would “prefer not to” do anything. And to make matters worse, Bartleby won’t leave the office:

     “Bartleby,” said I, “are you aware that you are the cause of great tribulation to me, by persisting in occupying the entry after being dismissed from the office?”

     No answer.

     “Now one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for some one?”

“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”

“Would you like a clerkship in a dry-goods store?”

“There is too much confinement about that. No, I would not like a clerkship; but I am not particular.”

“Too much confinement,” I cried, “why you keep yourself confined all the time!”

“I would prefer not to take a clerkship,” he rejoined, as if to settle that little item at once.

“How would a bar-tender’s business suit you? There is no trying of the eyesight in that.”

“I would not like it at all; though, as I said before, I am not particular.”

From there, the narrator discovers that Bartleby’s refusal to work is only a preview to a much bigger problem. And depending on how you take the story, what follows next is either a trip into absurdity or a tragedy of epic proportions. 

Now, I subscribe to a more metafictional interpretation of the story, largely amounting to the sad reality that Melville had to publish this story anonymously in 1853 in light of Moby Dick’s critical failure (one that had the press going so far as to question Melville’s sanity). So when Bartleby declares that he would “prefer not to”, it’s Melville’s way of telling the readers that he would prefer not to do what his audience wants him to. No matter what view you take, there’s no denying that the story’s willingness to wallow in existentialism helps plant the seeds to what will eventually be Absurdism, and clearly provides inspiration to later writers, most notably Franz Kafka, who will take an evolved Bartleby and put him on trial and turn him into a bug, among other things. 

If you are one of those people who is at a loss to why Melville is so well respected, please understand that this is the Herman Melville readers love, the man who destroyed his literary career in his own lifetime in an attempt to earn the respect (and possibly the love) of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Because in the end, Melville preferred not to take the easy path, and the world is honestly a better place because of it.

Prefer to read the story right here.

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