Review: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville, 1853

Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street‘ tells the curious story of a scrivener – a copyist – who gives up on work and life, responding to all requests for him to do anything with the simple “I would prefer not to“. The narrator, his employer, knows almost nothing about Bartleby – he remains an enigma throughout the story. His reasons for declining specific tasks and then for stopping work altogether are let to the reader to decide.

The story opens with an introduction by the narrator, an elderly New York lawyer. He employs two clerks, Nippers and Turkey, to copy legal documents by hand. Nippers and Turkey are, as their names suggest, comic figures, both with substance abuse issues. The narrator, looking to expand his business, hires Bartleby, partly in the hope that he will moderate the extremes of temperaments of the other two. Initially Bartleby is an exemplary worker, but one day, when asked to help proofread a document, he answers with what soon becomes his catchphrase:

“I would prefer not to”.

Bartleby slowly shuts down, completing less and less work and spending long periods of time staring out one of the window at a brick wall. All attempts to persuade him to do some work or to leave fail, so eventually the narrator himself moves out. The new tenants come to him to ask for help in removing Bartleby, who now sits on the stairs all day and sleeps in the building’s doorway. Finally Bartleby is forcibly removed and imprisoned where he dies of starvation. The story closes with the narrator’s refrain, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”. (This phrase reminded me of the words of the newscaster at the explosion of the Hindenburg).

This is an enigmatic story, not what I was expecting at all from the author of Moby Dick. It’s an intense psychological piece reflecting on the pointlessness of the human condition that could easily have come from a French existentialist author. It is also a very personal piece – for an author to imagine a character who thinks writing – scrivening – is a pointless, empty activity is in some ways quite shocking. Melville is very much ahead of his time in other ways – Bartleby can be read as a warning of the industrialisation of office work in which people are hemmed into ever smaller cubicles without any personal life outside the office, eating meagre meals at their desk, performing menial repetitive tasks for little reward (Bartleby moves into the lawyers office and never seems to leave).

“Ah, Bartleby, Ah humanity”.

Bartleby is a short story but an immensely impactful and surprising piece that I am very glad to have read – it gives another dimension to one of America’s most significant authors who I had previously only known through Moby Dick.

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