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.

One thought on “Reading Review: Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

  1. We read this in High School English class. As the teacher explained what we were SUPPOSED to have gotten out of it, I silently disagreed. Like you, I felt the lesson was there was something inherently wrong with the narrator – not that he was trying to make Bartleby do something he preferred not to, but that he let the situation fester and grow. But, I decided it wasn’t worth arguing about as we moved on to other readings and topics.

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