Updated on August 5, 2015
52. ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ by Herman Melville
This story is narrated in the first person, by a lawyer who once met a strange man called Bartleby. On the one hand, the narrator and the reader are quite close, as if they’re in the same room and the narrator is recounting an odd anecdote. On the other, the reader and Bartleby are distanced somewhat – the entire story is secondhand information and thus Bartleby remains a mysterious figure.
Not that he isn’t, in himself, quite mysterious enough already. One day he turns up at the narrator’s legal offices in response to an advert for a position as scrivener. He starts work there and, at first, is quite helpful. Then one day the narrator asks him to proofread a document and he simply responds, “I would prefer not to.”
The narrator is taken aback: he can’t force Bartleby to help him, he can’t argue with him, and he doesn’t want to just fire him. So Bartleby gets away with it, and he continues to get away with it as he turns down more work, doing only what he ‘prefers’ to. Even when the narrator has enough and tells him to leave, Bartleby’s response remains the same – “I would prefer not to” – and there’s nothing the narrator can do. In the end he’s forced to take increasingly extreme measures, but they are all met with quiet indifference.
I like the claustrophobic atmosphere in the office, which is surrounded on all sides by close buildings so that the view from every window is a brick wall. I also like how the word ‘prefer’ becomes contagious. The other scriveners begin to use it without even noticing they’re doing it. Bartleby, in his own quiet way, causes all sorts of problems but nobody can quite bear to treat him without some semblance of dignity. It seems to me a form of silent protest, and yet it is also tragic: he does only what he wants to do, but it does not make him happy. On the contrary, he seems lost, forlorn and friendless.
The revelation at the end – the source of Bartleby’s sadness – and what happens to the titular character is deeply moving. I felt huge sympathy for Bartleby who, although he barely speaks, still manages to make everybody who encounters him, both pity and admire him.
“Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring – the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by undelivered calamities.”
This is the first book I received from my Melville House subscription. They send me two novellas a month – lesser known or shorter works by well-known writers – and I’m extremely pleased with this, my first delivery!
Reading this story reminded me of a temporary job I once had, in which I was asked if I would ‘mind’ taking all the phone calls for an office of twenty people, whilst they all worked on a huge stack of data entry work, in order to meet a deadline. Oh yes, they didn’t put someone with knowledge of the office on the phones, and give me some easy data entry work. I had been working there for ONE DAY and I had to answer several hundred calls from people who were also struggling with forms and deadlines. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t ask anyone around me for help. All I could do was write down their queries and add them to the growing pile, knowing that they wouldn’t be called back for a week, no matter how urgent their question. It was futile. If they ever asked me to do it again, I’d love to say, “I would prefer not to.” At least it would be more polite than “Fuck off.”
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