Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

I suppose if you compared the size of Melville’s “Moby Dick” (over 600 pages) with his “Bartleby the Scrivener” (64 pages) you might be inclined to consider it a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous (or the other way round!) Certainly, I’ve never been particularly drawn to a long volume about a man battling with a whale; however, “Bartleby” slipped into vision when I was reading George Perec’s wonderful “LIfe: A User’s Manual”, as the character was apparently part-inspiration for Bartlebooth, one of Perec’s main protagonists. Somehow, the name popped up again recently and I tracked down a very pretty and quite appropriate Melville House Press ‘Art of the Novella’ version recently as I had a sudden need to read it (as you do!)

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The story is subtitled “A Tale of Wall Street” and it’s set in that very location during the 1890s. Our narrator is a lawyer with an office on Wall Street, a successful one at that. He employs two scriveners plus an office boy called Ginger-Nut. The two scriverners have some rather strange characteristics of their own and so our narrator decides to employ another – enter Bartleby, a pale, quiet young man about whom we (and the lawyer) know absolutely nothing.

Things go well at first: Bartleby is placed behind a screen in the lawyer’s office and writes away efficiently. It’s worth reminding ourselves of what a task it must have been in offices in the past, with no technology, no computers or even typewriters – so that everything was done by hand, and a complex, 500 page legal document would have to be written out as many times as was required. So the scrivener’s job was an important, but probably mind-numbingly dull, employment.

The crunch comes when the lawyer asks Bartleby to come and read through a document with him to check all is correct (a regular occurrence when dealing with hand-written documents). Bartleby’s classic reply is “I prefer not to”, with no other comment. He won’t answer questions about why, simply repeating his statement over and over again. His boss and fellow workers can’t understand why, and initially try to work round it. However, as the tale continues the situation deteriorates and Bartleby begins to make a gradual withdrawal from the world.

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I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from “Bartleby” but I got a fascinating and affecting tale, showing the strength of passive resistance. In many ways this seems to be a very prescient book – Bartleby is part of the early rat-race, stuck at a desk all day with a sea of paperwork, which it could be argued is no good occupation for a human being. So his rejection of the modern world of law and business could be seen as some kind of existential crisis. But the book is also something of an unsolved mystery in that we don’t know who Bartleby is, where he came from, what motivates him or anything. He could be a symbol of the little man, crushed under the wheels of big business, making a small stand against it and actually causing it some problems.

And that’s actually a demonstration of Melville’s achievement. You come out of this novel with half a dozen theories, your thoughts well and truly provoked – which is hopefully what Melville intended! I shall keep ruminating on this one (along with reading the helpful extra material MHP provide to go along with the book). Apparently Melville was roundly criticised for this novella, so obviously it was very ahead of its time. But I found it moving and strange and unforgettable – highly recommended!