Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Bartleby, The Scrivener" by Herman Melville

"Bartleby, The Scrivener" by Herman Melville (1853 and revised 1856-39 pages)

I read this story about a year ago, before I began my blog.   I decided to reread it now as it somehow reminded me in several ways of a great literary work of art I recently posted on, "The Overcoat" by Nikolai Gogol published in 1842, eleven years prior to "Bartleby, The Scrivener".    The central character in "The Overcoat" is also a copier of documents, the meaning of the term "scrivener".   There was in the days before copy machines a huge demand for scriveners to duplicate legal and government documents. The work was boring and mind numbing.    The scrivener in both stories is an isolated man with no family or  friends  and few social skills.   Melville and Gogol each wrote one towering master novel that defines their place in literary history.     The central character in both stories is hard to really understand.   Both stories are seen as forerunners of the literature of the absurd and the   existential novels of the post World War Two Period.   Both deal with a man somehow frustrated by life in ways that are hard to fathom.   Both central characters today feel like a near nameless everyman caught up in a corporate night mare world.

I think what surprised me a lot about "Bartleby, The Scrivener" was that it is quite funny.   The narrator of the story is an attorney to the wealthy of New York City.   He deals in mortgages, bonds, and contracts and does not sully himself with criminal cases.   He is a decent man, good to his employees.   He has two scriveners working for him when the story begins, Nippers and Turkey.   Turkey is often drunk in the morning but by afternoon he sobers up and is a good dedicated worker.   Nippers has chronic stomach problems but is alert in the mornings.   He also employes an office boy called "Ginger nut" as his man function seems to be to bring ginger nut cakes to the two scriveners.   The attorney knows his workers are not perfect but he is a fair and reasonable man and accepts that they are not bad so he keeps them on.   His business begins to increase so he puts out an ad for a third scrivener.   Bartleby appears at his office to apply for the job.  He is a kind of sad seeming young man, bland in his appearance but well spoken so he is hired.   The narrator hopes his calm personality will bring peace between the often squabbling  Nippers and Turkey.   For a while everything is great.   Bartleby is a very hard work and does not seem to have any quirks of personality.   He is the ideal employee, never late, never stops working, and is always very subservient in his attitude, something that cannot be said of the other scriveners.   Part of the work of a scrivener is to proofread each others work as the smallest mistake in a legal document could be very harmful.   One day the attorney asks Bartleby to help in proof reading and Bartleby says, in a very calm unemotional way detached way "I would prefer not to."   Bartleby begins to do less and less around the office.  Soon his response to every request that he join in the work of the office is "I would prefer not to."    The attorney asks him about his background and life history and he is told when asked to relay information about himself that "I would prefer not to."    Soon the other employees are very upset.   Why is Bartleby allowed to simply refuse to work without explanation.   Turkey offers to give him a good thrashing and Nippers just wants him thrown out.   The narrator is a very kind decent man but he cannot have this go on.   One day one of the leading attorneys of New York City drops by.  He needs a simple errand run and notices Bartleby is doing nothing.  He asks him to run the errand and is told "I would prefer not to."   The narrator is losing face as more and more people learn about Bartleby.   He offers Bartleby the equivalent of two months pay to leave and tells him if he needs help in the future he will help him.   Bartleby tells him he when asked when he will leave "I would prefer not to."     There are some interesting fun twists in what happens to Bartleby so I will not reveal more of the plot.   

There are religious and philosophical interpretions that could be put on this story.   There is reference to Jonathan Edwards, a thinker on free will and maybe there is a point to seeing Bartleby as man trying to assert his freedom the only way he can, by refusing to do what he does not want to.    This story still speaks to us because of the sheer absurdity of Bartleby.   He has figured how to deal with absurd demands and requests.  Just say "I would prefer not to".

The writing style is very different from Moby Dick.  As fits the themes of the novel, the prose is  almost bland feeling (bland for Melville that is!) .   We get to know the narrator, the attorney, and his world well.   Bartleby remains a mystery to us.    "The Overcoat" is the greater work of art of the two stories but "Bartleby, The Scrivener" runs it a a close second and I think Gogol would have understood this story as would Kafka and Oe.   I will be reading more short stories as I am coming to understand more an  art form I have perhaps not respected as well as I should as it does not quite suit my need for worlds to enter. 

I am grateful to LuAnn for hosting the Spring into Short Stories Challenge

I am also reading this book for Aatri's Flashback Challenge-I also read this story about a year ago-
I would appreciate any suggestions as to "the best short stories ever written"-I have collections of Chekhov and Gogol short stories and a few James and Wharton on hand also but need more ideas as I really want to read a lot more short stories now.


Missy B. said...

I have an award for you at my blog:

Happy Wednesday!

Fred said...

I think Bartleby is Melville himself. Bartleby is one who "prefers not" to write what others want him to write and chooses to write only what he wants to do. This is very close to Melville's own career.

Melville started out by writing popular South Sea adventure tales and gradually started writing more serious works, in spite of losing his audience and negative reviews by the critics.

Simplistic perhaps, but it does make some sense of an very strange story.

Suko said...

This sounds like a very interesting story. (Will or did you link this review to Spring Into Short Stories?) I see Melville as having a great measure of understanding of psychology, of people.

Mel u said...

Missy-thanks so much for the award-your blog is a design inspiration to me

Fred-you are no doubt right-I resist autobiographical readings of works, when I can

Suko-I linked it in now-finished the post late last night as I wanted it in for March-I like her challenge a lot now

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

The Gogol comparison had never occurred to me. Those stories do fit together well.

Mel u said...

Amateur Reader-maybe the Gogol comparison jumped out at me as I read the two stories nearly one after the other-