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|"Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street"|
|Publication date||November 1853|
|"Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street"|
|Publication date||November 1853|
"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853) is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville, first serialized anonymously in two parts in the November and December editions of Putnam's Magazine, and reprinted with minor textual alterations in his The Piazza Tales in 1856. The story of the lawyer-narrator who cannot bring himself to remove from his office the silent scrivener (save for the repeated phrase "I would prefer not to"), who neither works nor eats, has always fascinated both readers and critics. Numerous essays are published on what according to scholar Robert Milder "is unquestionably the masterpiece of the short fiction" in the Melville canon.
The narrator, an elderly, unnamed Manhattan lawyer with a very comfortable business, relates the story of the strangest man he has ever known: Bartleby. At the start of his chronicle, the lawyer already employs two scriveners to copy legal documents by hand: Nippers and Turkey. An increase in business leads him to advertise for a third, and he hires the forlorn-looking Bartleby in the hope that his calmness will soothe the irascible temperaments of the other two.
At first, Bartleby produces a large volume of high-quality work. But one day, when asked to help proofread a document, Bartleby answers with what soon becomes his perpetual response to every request—"I would prefer not to." To the dismay of the lawyer and to the irritation of the other employees, Bartleby performs fewer and fewer tasks, and eventually none. The narrator makes several futile attempts to reason with him and to learn something about him; and when he stops by the office unexpectedly, he discovers that Bartleby has started living there.
Tension builds as business associates wonder why Bartleby is always there. Sensing the threat of ruined reputation but emotionally unable to evict Bartleby, the narrator finally decides to move out himself. Soon the new tenants come to ask for help: Bartleby still will not leave—he now sits on the stairs all day and sleeps in the building's doorway. The narrator visits him and attempts to reason with him, and surprises even himself by inviting Bartleby to come live with him. But Bartleby "would prefer not to." Later the narrator returns to find that Bartleby has been forcibly removed and imprisoned in The Tombs. The narrator visits him. Finding Bartleby even glummer than usual, he bribes a turnkey to make sure Bartleby gets enough food. But when he returns a few days later, he discovers that Bartleby has died of starvation, having apparently preferred not to eat.
Some time afterward, the narrator hears a rumor that Bartleby had worked in a dead letter office, and reflects that dead letters would have made anyone of Bartleby's temperament sink into an even darker gloom. The story closes with the narrator's resigned and pained sigh, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"
Herman Melville may have written the story as an emotional response to the bad reviews garnered by Pierre, his preceding novel. Christopher Sten writes, in "Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville's Dead Letter to Emerson." that Melville found inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays, particularly "The Transcendentalist" which shows parallels to "Bartleby".
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.”  Bartleby may also be seen to represent Melville's relation to his commercial, democratic society.
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."
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.
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.
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.” 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.”
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."
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. The narrator's detached attitude, towards life in general, and his compatriots in particular, seems to become increasingly compromised as the story goes on through his emotional and moral entanglement with Bartleby, culminating in the story's pivotal final line "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"
Various philosophical influences can be found in "Bartleby the Scrivener". The story alludes to Jonathan Edwards's “Inquiry into the Freedom of the Will” and Joseph Priestley's Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity. 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 and determinism. 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. The reference to Priestley and Edwards in connection with determinism may suggest that Bartleby's exceptional exercise of his personal will, even though it leads to his death, spares him from an externally determined fate.
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.
Milder, Robert. (1988). "Herman Melville." Emory Elliott (General Editor), Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-05812-8
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