April 25th, 2010

Bartleby, The Scrivener

I used to read a lot of short stories, but at some point, I noticed that as soon as I was nicely settled into a short story, it would end, so I decided to avoid them. But now, brochures for hearing aids and bathtubs with doors in the side have begun to appear in my mail and I have started to appreciate anything I live long enough to finish. Consequently, a taste for short stories has returned.

A Forgotten Favorite Pops To Mind

Last week, I was put on the spot to name my favorite short story, and out popped Bartleby, The Scrivener. To explain why, I mumbled something incoherent about shifting perceptions, although I could scarcely remember what the story was about, not having read it for many years.
I reread Bartleby this week, and I now have some idea why I like it.

Herman Melville

Hermann Melville wrote Bartleby in 1853 when his career has on a downward slope. Moby Dick had been published but was not nearly as well received as his earlier and now nearly forgotten travelogues like Omoo and Typee.

The Story

The Bartleby story is simple and absurd. The narrator, an ageing lawyer, has two scriveners (clerks). His first clerk, Turkey, is drunk every afternoon, and his second clerk, Nippers, can’t settle down to work until after noon. The narrator has been appointed to a remunerative new official position and he hires Bartleby to handle the extra load. Bartleby is an excellent scrivener, but soon he begins to utter his tag line “I prefer not to.” The old lawyer can’t deal with Bartleby any more effectively than he deals with his first two clerks. Bartleby refuses more and more work and the lawyer discovers that Bartleby has set up housekeeping in the office and prefers not to leave. The lawyer moves his firm out of the office. When Bartleby prefers not to leave for the new tenant, the landlord has him jailed. The narrator attempts to have special food supplied to Bartleby in jail, but Bartleby prefers not to eat and dies.

Themes

What is the story about? Is Bartleby clinically depressed? Is the lawyer a silly old pushover and codependent enabler of Bartleby’s affliction? Or is this an indictment of a social system and mindless employment?
The lawyer’s life is barren. He is esteemed for being steady and methodical but we have no hint that he has a satisfying family life or pastimes, his office is gloomy and shabby. Turkey and Nippers may be defective, but they seem livelier and happier than their boss. Bartleby is a pale wraith, reminiscent of the white whale, whose entire personality is condensed into his utterance “I prefer not to”, a contrast to the steady and methodical lawyer who does what is expected without recourse to preference.
The story ends with a rumor that Bartleby worked in the dead letter office, stripping letters of objects of value when the addressee could not be found. Could Bartleby have preferred not to prepare lawyer’s documents for addressees who could be found? Does the narrator secretly wish to step away from life? Or has life become defective?

I find the story haunting and enigmatic.  I admit that since I reread the story, Bartleby sometimes slips into my day dreams, softly asserting that “I prefer not to” when I have a disagreeable meeting to attend.

Read Bartleby For Yourself

Read it for yourself. I’ve posted Bartleby the Scrivener here.

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