Reading Review: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

Melville has gained most of his literary renown on the strength of Moby Dick, which I have yet to read (yes, somehow I got through a 20th century US high school education, and even an English major undergraduate degree, without encountering the great white whale). Given my personal conviction that the writings of Shakespeare are not what they have been cracked up to be, it wouldn’t surprise me if Moby Dick engenders a similar skepticism in me in the event that I choose to read it. But I decided to sit down for “Bartleby the Scrivener” based on the strength and passion of its recent recommendation to me from my grandfather. After all, it’s a short story; even if it’s bad, I reasoned, it’ll be over quickly.

Now that I’ve read the story, while I wouldn’t characterize “Bartleby the Scrivener” as bad, Melville’s work puzzled me. Its 20th century introduction tried to force parallels between the actions of the title character and a protester’s acts of civil disobedience, and my appreciation of the short story probably suffered as a result, because I did not find the comparison apt at all. Let’s take a moment – a brief one, for a brief work – to scratch our heads and explore what Melville somehow got published.

Plot

Did Melville ever try to diagram the shape of his stories?
Did Melville ever try to diagram the shape of his stories?

The plot of “Bartleby the Scrivener” is quite simple. The narrator, an attorney, hires a new scrivener (law clerk, copier of documents), and after his hire, the new scrivener starts refusing to do common scrivener tasks. Eventually he refuses to do all of his work, and also to leave the office. The attorney moves out of the office and conducts his business elsewhere to be rid of Bartleby, but other tenants of the old building insist that the attorney is responsible for Bartleby, and this sense of responsibility persists after Bartleby is arrested. Bartleby eventually dies in “the Tombs” (some form of jail), presumably as a result of refusing to eat.

If, while reading the above summary, you found it rather odd that the narrator did not fire Bartleby and have the police escort him from the premises of the law office early in the story, then you and I have something in common. Melville’s narrator explains at the start of the story that he is “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is best… All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.” The argument, I suppose, would be that it is easier to acquiesce to someone like Bartleby who is full of irrational and blunt refusal than to assert authority. And that might hold up for the portion of the story in which Bartleby is simply refusing to examine copy work. But when it becomes clear that Bartleby has been living without permission at the narrator’s office, I would think enough alarm bells would have been going off in the head of someone concerned with safety that the narrator would have contacted the police and had Bartleby taken away as trespassing. The course of action seems pretty clear cut to me – but then, I’m a product of a different era from Melville and his intended audience. How will the plots of my creations look to anyone reading more than a century later, I wonder?

Themes

Some things make us nervous.
Some things make us nervous.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t take away from this piece whatever it was Melville wanted me to take away from it. I’m also pretty sure that what he wanted me to take away from it was a sense of curiosity about Bartleby. I base this supposition on the story’s epilogue, which offers up a completely unhelpful sentence of explanation about Bartleby’s past with a preface along the lines of ‘In case you’re curious about where this guy came from…’ The thing was, I really wasn’t curious about where Bartleby came from at that point. I was much more curious about why neither the narrator nor apparently anyone else in Bartleby’s society was thinking to ask Bartleby what he would actually prefer to do.

Bartleby doesn't do much except refuse.
Bartleby doesn’t do much except refuse.

Before it was revealed that Bartleby was sleeping in the law office, it seemed pretty obvious to me that what needed to happen was, the narrator needed to ask him some questions to draw out his logic and work with his motivation. Eventually, the narrator writes Bartleby off as having a disorder, and I guess what I got out of this story more than anything else is the fluidity and cultural definition of disability, because Bartleby can’t really be diagnosed under a modern mental health rubric and he certainly isn’t seen by any authority in the story as being in need of treatment.

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading “Bartleby the Scrivener”. It wasn’t an especially unpleasant experience, but it also didn’t feel like a great use of my time. My advice to you as a reader is to only pursue this if you are already a fan of Melville or distinctly enjoy 19th century literature. Personally, I feel it’s safe to let the sun set on this one.

Overall Rating: 2.0 out of 5.

Video Game Review: Dragon Age, Inquisition (spectator review)

The state of the art of video gaming sure has changed since I played 8-bit Nintendo. Many of today’s games feel more like semi-interactive films, with a degree of interpersonal thinking built in layers along with strategy. Some games are menu-based, like the Culdcept series, and those I can still play; but the vast majority of games involve three-dimensional (well, technically four-dimensional, since there is change over time) geometry, and because the controls involve quite a few more buttons and toggles than the up,down, left, right, select, start, A, B of my childhood and I was out of circulation for so long, I am clumsier than a child at contemporary console games. If the Wilder-Dean household were to invest in PC games that were played by tapping and holding keyboard keys, like our housemate does, I might stand a chance; but my husband prefers console games over PC games, and he is far more invested in the hobby than I am. Therefore, this review, like any video game review that is going to follow it on this blog that is not guest-written by my husband, Joel, has been written from the perspective of a spectator. It’s worth noting that in the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I didn’t strictly spectate; my husband allowed me to have a lot of input regarding menu-based choices in the game. This included the appearance of the protagonist, how strategic decisions were handled at the War Table, and the flow of many of the conversations between that protagonist and other characters in the game. I really appreciated this input, as it allowed me to feel like even though I wasn’t holding the controls, I still had a stake in game play.

Without further ado, here are some aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition that you may want to consider before purchasing or playing the game.

Story

For those of you just tuning in, something is happening.
For those of you just tuning in, something is happening.

Dragon Age is a running series of video games from the company BioWare. According to mobygames.com, there have been 25 releases in the series since 2009. Most of these can be grouped in with the first game of the series, Dragon Age: Origins, or the second game, Dragon Age II. It is a fantasy series set in a world called Thedas.

Some of the story elements have a distinctly modern or even post-modern twist (such as the party character Sera, a female elf whose life and secret society are dedicated to class warfare, though the phrase “class warfare” is never used in the game and the conversation options for dealing with her are about as Marxist as a broom-handle), but the majority of what the game focuses on is classic fantasy material. You’ve got your elves, you’ve got your dwarves, you’ve got your warriors, you’ve got your wizards and thieves. I was surprised at the absence of clerics for a character class, but hey, in Thedas there are magic potions for that.

So given the standard fantasy content, someone who’s an old hat at fantasy novels and Dungeons & Dragons should be able to plug right in to Dragon Age: Inquisition, right? Well, I’m skeptical about that. Perhaps it would have been easier for me to slip into the role of Thedan adventurer if Joel hadn’t painstakingly customized the world’s backstory using a BioWare website before we got rolling, so that the history of what I saw conformed to the choices he had made playing the previous games. The game probably assumed that because those choices had been made, it was dealing with someone versed in the world (a logical assumption – I’m not sure what percentage of gamers have spectators trailing them, but it’s probably not the majority), and may have skimped on the explanations. As it was, there were lots of times that I was left scratching my head and asking Joel for a review of world concepts. “Hey Joel, what’s a Grey Warden again? Are they just normal people with fighting experience, or do they have special powers? How does the Blight work? Did you say Morrigan’s mother was an Abomination? I know I’ve asked you this before…” I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were a lot of subtle twists, turns, and complications in this game that I would have appreciated a lot more if I had experienced at least the basic iterations of the two that had gone before it.

So my advice to you if you are considering picking up Inquisition without having played anything else in the series is to invest the time to play some of the preceding material. If you’ve sold your previous generation of consoles and don’t have a hardcore friend who will let you use their system, at the very least investigate some of the material that is on the Internet about Origins and II. It’s a worthwhile series, but this is not a good point of entry.

Visual Appearance

If you can follow what's going on in this screen, you are a better gamer than me.
If you can follow what’s going on in this screen, you are a better gamer than me.

When Joel got out of camp/the village/a cinematic and the screen went into normal quest mode, I knew that it was time for me to text somebody on my phone, work on something in my notebook, or generally zone out. Believe me, there were many times that I tried to stay engaged in what was happening on screen, but I could only manage it for ten to fifteen minutes at a time (and we poured hours into this game for at least a month, so it’s not like I didn’t have the opportunity). The reason that I didn’t watch combat can basically be summarized as visual overload. We were pitting not just the protagonist, but three other party characters against multiple enemies in every combat. There were status effects (“PANICKED”, “CHILLED”, “TAUNTED”), as well as damage notifications, not to mention magical explosions!, happening on several areas of the screen at the same time, all moving and flashing. I couldn’t keep track of what Joel’s character was doing separate from what the party characters were doing separate from what the enemies were doing. It just wasn’t fun to watch. Stressful.

Characters

You can flirt with this scout dwarf, but she's not an official romance option. Grumble.
You can flirt with this scout dwarf, but she’s not an official romance option. Grumble.

BioWare does a great job in Inquisition of crafting realistic conversations between believable, and usually likable, characters. There were only a few conversations where none of the options I was presented with as the speaking protagonist were anything I really wanted to say (usually these conversations happened with Sera, though there was one between the protagonist and Blackwall the warrior that really frustrated me as well). I was also very happy with how several of the villains were portrayed (particularly when they said their last pieces in defense of themselves when the main character sat on his throne in judgment). While the main villain was painted in pretty broad strokes and didn’t really grab me, some of the dialogue that was assigned to his second in command, Samson, was ingenious and gave me pause. The writers did a good job of demonstrating how people who commit evil acts are able to justify those acts and rationalize them away. They deserve a lot of credit for that. It’s not easy to do in a fantasy setting, where the time-honored trope of “a sentient being’s physical appearance will give you carte blanche to kill them without any discussion” holds sway. The writers even took the time to deal sensitively with the subject of addiction. In fantasy fiction, that’s even more rare.

In conclusion, I look forward to spectating other games in the Dragon Age series, with my husband at the helm, but I will do so with some other activity available at the ready so that I won’t be wasting time in a bored stupor while Joel engages in combat. For this particular spectator, the heart of the game did not lie in the quests; there are many other games (The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim comes to mind) that do that part of their content more skillfully. The heart lay in the story and the characters that propelled it, and what a beating, beautiful heart it was.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0