Monday, August 26, 2013

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville

Philosophical allegory or ridiculous farce?
Herman Melville
Portrait by Joseph O. Eaton
Bartleby, the Scrivener, a novella by Herman Melville, was originally published in 1853. The story is related in the first person by an unnamed narrator—an elderly attorney who runs a small law office on Wall Street. He is assisted in his practice by three clerks, or scriveners, known only by the nicknames of Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. When prosperous times lead the narrator to add another scrivener to his firm, he hires a mild-mannered fellow named Bartleby for the position. Bartleby performs his duties competently at first, but his performance gradually wanes as he simply refuses to do what is asked of him. To all his employer’s commands, Bartleby responds placidly with the simple statement, “I would prefer not to.” The narrator, through a mixture of saintly patience, an overdeveloped sense of propriety, and a brotherly sympathy for this poor and pitiful scrivener, responds to his inactive employee with more compassion and tolerance than seems humanly possible, until eventually Bartleby’s presence becomes unbearable. Nevertheless, no matter how hard he tries, the flabbergasted lawyer cannot manage to rid himself of this useless and hopelessly passive little man who has established himself as a fixture in the office.

There are no doubt great philosophical depths to the story of Bartleby. Like Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, there is an ambiguity to the piece that opens itself up to multiple interpretations. One could see Bartleby as an admirable exemplar of tenacious human will or as an embodiment of disgraceful societal apathy. Despite Bartleby’s bizarre behavior, his employer comes across as even more deranged for putting up with him for so long. Perhaps Melville is making a satirical or symbolic statement about the social or political climate of his times. I must confess, however, that if there was indeed a valuable moral lesson to be learned here, it was lost on me. My enjoyment of this piece stems not so much from an appreciation for any deep, philosophical or metaphorical meaning, but rather from the fact that I just found it hilarious. The frustrated attempts by the flustered narrator to exorcise himself of Bartleby are an absolute joy to read. Those who only know Melville from Moby-Dick will be pleasantly surprised by his sense of humor, which is apparent in many of his writings, but nowhere more so than here. The characters are insightfully drawn caricatures, like those in some of the more comical novels of Charles Dickens. Though the piece was written 160 years ago, it is surprisingly modern. There is an absurdist quality to it that is more in keeping with the works of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, or Franz Kafka. The weakest part of the novella is its ending, when Melville makes an attempt to justify Bartleby’s behavior, for it is an incongruous departure from the absurdist tone maintained throughout the rest of the story.

Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story that was years ahead of its time, and it remains relevant and entertaining to the reader of today. It is a far cry from Melville’s sea stories, so even if you’re not a fan of works like Moby-Dick or Typee that’s no indication of whether or not you will appreciate this unconventional work. Anyone who enjoys classic American literature should give Bartleby a try. It is one of the more exceptional pieces of short fiction in 19th-century American literature.

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