Bartleby, the Scrivener

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"Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street"
Author Herman Melville
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Short story
Publisher Putnam's Magazine
Media type Print
Publication date November 1853

"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville (1819–1891). It first appeared anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 editions of Putnam's Magazine, and was reprinted with minor textual alterations in his The Piazza Tales in 1856.

Plot[edit]

The narrator, an elderly Manhattan lawyer with a very comfortable business helping wealthy men deal with mortgages, deeds, and bonds, relates the story of the strangest man he has ever known. Amongst the lawyer’s wealthy clientele, John Jacob Astor is singled out, demonstrating the lawyer’s erstwhile success and status.

At the start of the story, the narrator already employs two scriveners, nicknamed Nippers and Turkey, to copy legal documents by hand. Nippers (the younger of the two) suffers from chronic indigestion, and Turkey is an alcoholic, but the office survives because in the mornings Turkey is sober and Nippers is irritable, while in the afternoons Nippers has calmed down and Turkey is drunk. Ginger Nut, the office boy, gets his name from the little cakes he brings the two scriveners. An increase in business leads the narrator to advertise for a third scrivener, and he hires the forlorn-looking Bartleby in hopes that his calmness will soothe the temperaments of Nippers and Turkey.

At first, Bartleby appears to be a boon to the practice, as he produces a large volume of high-quality work. One day, though, when asked by the narrator to help proofread a copied document, Bartleby answers with what soon becomes his stock response: "I would prefer not to". To the dismay of the narrator and to the irritation of the other employees, Bartleby performs fewer and fewer tasks around the office. The narrator makes several attempts to reason with him and to learn something about him but Bartleby offers nothing but his signature "I would prefer not to". One Sunday the narrator stops by the office unexpectedly and discovers that Bartleby has started living there. The loneliness of Bartleby's life impresses him: at night and on Sundays, Wall Street is as desolate as a ghost town and the window in Bartleby's corner allows him no view except that of a blank wall three feet away. The narrator's feelings for Bartleby alternate between pity and revulsion.

For a while Bartleby remains willing to do his main work of copying but eventually he ceases this activity as well, so that finally he is doing nothing. The narrator finds himself unable to make Bartleby leave; his unwillingness or inability to move against Bartleby mirrors Bartleby's strange inaction. Tension gradually builds as the narrator's business associates wonder why the strange and idle Bartleby is ever-present in the office.

Sensing the threat of a ruined reputation but emotionally unable to throw Bartleby out, the exasperated narrator finally decides to move out himself, relocating his entire business and leaving Bartleby behind. Soon the new tenants of the old space come to ask for his help: Bartleby still will not leave. Although they have thrown him out of the rooms, he now sits on the stairs all day and sleeps in the building's front doorway. The narrator visits Bartleby and attempts to reason with him. Feeling desperate, the narrator now surprises even himself by inviting Bartleby to come and live with him at his own home. Bartleby, alas, "would prefer not to."

Deciding to stay away from work for the next few days for fear he will become embroiled in the new tenants' campaign to evict Bartleby, the narrator returns to find that Bartleby has been forcibly removed and imprisoned at The Tombs. The narrator visits him, finding him even glummer than usual. As ever, Bartleby rebuffs the narrator's friendliness. Nevertheless, the narrator bribes a turnkey to make sure Bartleby gets good and plentiful food. When the narrator visits again a few days later, he discovers that Bartleby has died of starvation, having apparently preferred not to eat.

Some time afterward, the narrator hears of a rumor to the effect that Bartleby had worked in a dead letter office but had lost his job there. The narrator reflects that the dead letters would have made anyone of Bartleby's temperament sink into an even darker gloom. Dead letters are emblems of human nature and the plight of failing. Through Bartleby, the narrator has glimpsed the world as the miserable scrivener must have seen it. The closing words of the story are the narrator's resigned and pained sigh: "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!".

Inspiration[edit]

Herman Melville may have written the story as an emotional response to the fact that Pierre, his preceding novel, was published to bad reviews.[1] Christopher Sten writes in "Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville's Dead Letter to Emerson" Melville found inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, particularly "The Transcendentalist" which shows parallels to "Bartleby".[2]

Bartleby is a scrivener—a kind of clerk or a copyist—"who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him." During the spring of 1851, Melville felt similarly about his work on Moby Dick. Thus, Bartleby may represent Melville’s frustration with his own situation as a writer, and the story itself is “about a writer who forsakes conventional modes because of an irresistible preoccupation with the most baffling philosophical questions.” [3] Bartleby may also be seen to represent Melville's relation to his commercial, democratic society.[4]

Melville made an allusion to the John C. Colt case in this short story. The narrator restrains his anger toward Bartleby, his unrelentingly difficult employee, by reflecting upon "the tragedy of the unfortunate Adams and the still more unfortunate Colt and how poor Colt, being dreadfully incensed by Adams ... was unawares hurled into his fatal act."[5][6]

Analysis[edit]

Bartleby's character can be read in a variety of ways. Based on the perception of the narrator and the limited details supplied in the story, his character remains elusive even as the story comes to a close.

As an example of clinical depression[edit]

Bartleby shows classic symptoms of depression, especially his lack of motivation. He is a passive person, although he is the only reliable worker in the office other than the narrator and Ginger Nut. Bartleby is a good worker until he starts to refuse to do his work. Bartleby does not divulge any personal information to the narrator. Bartleby's death suggests the effects of depression—having no motivation to survive, he refrains from eating until he dies.[7]

As a reflection of the narrator[edit]

Bartleby’s character can be interpreted as a “psychological double” for the narrator that criticizes the “sterility, impersonality, and mechanical adjustments of the world which the lawyer inhabits.” [8] Until the very end of the short story, the work gives the reader no history of Bartleby. This lack of history suggests that Bartleby may have just sprung from the narrator’s mind. Also consider the narrator’s behavior around Bartleby: screening him off in a corner where he can have his privacy “symbolizes the lawyer’s compartmentalization of the unconscious forces which Bartleby represents.”[8]

The psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas insists the story is more about the narrator than the narrated. "The narrator’s willingness to tolerate [Bartleby's] work stoppage is what needs to be explained ... As the story proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that the lawyer identifies with his clerk. To be sure, it is an ambivalent identification, but that only makes it all the more powerful."[9]

Analysis of the narrator[edit]

The narrator, Bartleby’s employer, provides a first-person narration of his experiences working with Bartleby. He portrays himself as a generous man, although there are instances in the text that question his reliability. His kindness may be derived from his curiosity and fascination for Bartleby. Moreover, once Bartleby’s work ethic begins to decline, the narrator still allows his employment to continue, perhaps out of a desire to avoid confrontation. He also portrays himself as tolerant towards the other employees, Turkey and Nippers, who are unproductive at different points in the day; however, this simply re-introduces the narrator’s non-confrontational nature. Throughout the story, the narrator is torn between his feelings of responsibility for Bartleby and his desire to be rid of the threat that Bartleby poses to the office and to his way of life on Wall Street. Ultimately, the story may be more about the narrator than Bartleby, not only because the narrator attempts to understand Bartleby’s behavior, but also because of the rationales he provides for his interactions with and reactions to Bartleby.

Philosophy in "Bartleby"[edit]

Various philosophical influences can be found in "Bartleby the Scrivener". The introduction alludes to Jonathan Edwards's “Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will.” Jay Leyda, scholar and author of the introduction passage in The Complete Stories of Herman Melville, comments on the similarities between Bartleby and Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity by Joseph Priestley. Both Edwards and Priestley wrote about free will. Edwards states that free will requires the will to be isolated from the moment of decision. Bartleby’s isolation from the world allows him to be completely free. He has the ability to do whatever he pleases. Both Priestley and Edwards discuss determinism in their considerations of the story, suggesting that Bartleby's exceptional exercise of his personal will, even though it leads to his death, spares him from an externally determined fate.[10]

Religious influences[edit]

There are various analogues between Bartleby and lepers of ancient times. Lepers were often exiled from communities because of their illness. Bartleby was fired from his job because he refused to perform his duties. When a leper would be taken to a leper colony, he was given a few items such as a blanket, a pillow, a wooden bowl for bathing and a towel. When the narrator discovers Bartleby's residence in the office, he locates under Bartleby's desk the same items the lepers were given. Lepers were also forbidden to enter any markets or places of worship. The narrator is surprised when he learns Bartleby “never visited any refectory or eating house.”[11]

Legacy[edit]

Reception[edit]

Though no great success at the time of publication, "Bartleby the Scrivener" is now among the most noted of American short stories. It has been considered a precursor of absurdist literature, touching on several of Franz Kafka's themes in such works as "A Hunger Artist" and The Trial. There is nothing to indicate that the Bohemian writer was at all acquainted with the work of Melville, who remained largely forgotten until some time after Kafka's death.

Albert Camus, in a personal letter to Liselotte Dieckmann published in The French Review in 1998, cites Melville as a key influence.[12]

Adaptations[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • There is an angel named Bartleby in Kevin Smith's 1999 film, Dogma. He shares some resemblance to Melville's Bartleby.
  • Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas wrote in 2001 "Bartleby & Co.", a book which deals with "the endemic disease of contemporary letters, the negative pulsion or attraction towards nothingness".
  • Bartleby is also referenced by main character Paul Weston during an early session with Adele, his new therapist, in the third season of "In Treatment"[15]
  • Cartoon secret agent Archer mentions the title of this story to an enemy during Season 1's episode, "Skorpio".

Documentaries[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Daniel A. Wells, ""Bartleby the Scrivener," Poe, and the Duyckinck Circle", ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 21 (First Quarter 1975): 35–39.
  2. ^ Christopher W. Sten, "Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville's Dead Letter to Emerson." Modern Language Quarterly 35 (March 1974): 30–44.
  3. ^ Leo Marx, "Melville's Parable of the Walls" Sewanee Review 61 (1953): 602–627.
  4. ^ "Bartleby, the Scrivener" Study Guide at What So Proudly We Hail Curriculum. Retrieved 23 February 2012
  5. ^ Melville, Herman (1853). Bartleby the Scrivener. 
  6. ^ Schechter, Harold (2010). Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend. Random House. ISBN 978-0-345-47681-4. 
  7. ^ Robert E. Abrams, '"Bartleby" and the Fragile Pageantry of the Ego", ELH, vol. 45, no. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 488–500.
  8. ^ a b Mordecai Marcus, "Melville's Bartleby As a Psychological Double", College English 23 (1962): 365–368.
  9. ^ "Pushing Paper - Lapham’s Quarterly". Laphamsquarterly.org. Retrieved 2012-09-04. 
  10. ^ Allan Moore Emery, "The alternatives of Melville's "Bartleby", Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 31, no. 2 (September1976), pp. 170–187.
  11. ^ Richard J. Zlogar, 'Body Politics in "Bartleby": Leprosy, Healing, and Christ-ness in Melville's "Story of Wall-Street"', Nineteenth Century Literature, vol. 53, no. 4 (Mar., 1999), pp. 505–529.
  12. ^ Jones, James F. (March 1998). "Camus on Kafka and Melville: an unpublished letter". The French Review 71 (4). Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  13. ^ Stanley Hochman (ed.), "Albee, Edward", in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama: An International Reference Work in 5 Volumes, 2nd. ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984, vol. 2, p. 42.
  14. ^ "Britannica Classic: Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2012-09-04. 
  15. ^ "In Treatment" - HBO Series, season 3 (Adele)
  16. ^ "Le spectacle de Daniel Pennac au coeur d'un documentaire télévisuel vendredi soir - La Voix du Nord". Lavoixdunord.fr. Retrieved 2012-09-04. 

External links[edit]