Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville

So...hi, everyone.

Can I just say that it's hard to write about literature that I've viewed strictly academically? (Unless I'm writing about it academically, that is.) After analyzing a poem or a story, it's hard to see it in a personal light anymore.

But, as I'm getting into the more and more modern part of American literary history in my class, I've been finding it easier and easier to make a strong personal connection to the story.

Here's something I actually wrote about a week ago about Herman Melville's short story (which, by the way, is not actually that short), "Bartleby, the Scrivener":

This is the first short story I’ve ever read by Herman Melville--well, okay, it’s the first literature of any kind I’ve ever read by Melville. It was somewhat more interesting than I’d expected (for some reason, I’ve always assumed Melville is boring, even though I have zero evidence to back that up--but also, a story with the title “Bartleby, the Scrivener” just doesn’t sound interesting at all). Anyway, it was a pretty interesting introduction to Melville.

The story was just...interesting. (I know, all my writing teachers would kill me if they knew how many times I’ve used the word “interesting” in an attempt to describe something, but there really just isn’t a better word.) On the surface, it was sort of a mild story, but it kept making me mad.

I’ll give you a really quick summary if you haven’t read it...

The (unnamed) narrator has a little business and employs some people to do copy for him. His employees are sort of useless, so he hires a fellow named Bartleby. Bartleby is very quiet and mostly just stays in his office. One day, the narrator asks Bartleby to run an errand, and Bartleby responds, “I would prefer not to.” The narrator isn’t sure what to do with Bartleby, especially as this sort of thing begins to happen more often, and Bartleby works less and less, until Bartleby does absolutely nothing anymore and the narrator can’t seem to get rid of him...

Except for the end, that’s the entire story. Over and over, the narrator asks Bartleby to do something, and Bartleby says that he would prefer not to. That’s all there is. (Well, the narrator goes through a lot of inner conflict about Bartleby, too, but as far as the plot itself goes, there isn’t anything more.)

And yet, this story was somehow fascinating. It made me angrier and angrier. That annoying Bartleby! Why does he think he can get out of everything just because he “prefers not to”? But the narrator was even worse--why does he let Bartleby get out of everything?!

I think I might have been supposed to have sympathy for Bartleby, at least at the end, but I just never did. Pretty much every character in the story annoyed me. But despite that, I actually really liked the story; I can’t say why. I guess I could say it was thought-provoking. I felt like the whole story was a “why” question. Why is Bartleby the way he is? Why does the narrator let him get away with it? Why does Bartleby stop eating? It’s sort of a stream of events that doesn’t really have much of an explanation, but you get the feeling that there is an explanation, somewhere, buried deep...


  1. That story annoyed me greatly too! I wanted to slap Bartleby and shake his employer.

    1. Absolutely! Although I may have wanted to do worse to the employer...

  2. There is some speculation that Bartleby is Henry David Thoreau. It's an oversimplification, but the major American writers of that era are sometimes thought of in two pairings; Emerson and Thoreau (the transcendentalists) in contrast with Hawthorne and Melville. If this is the case, Melville may have been having a bit of fun at Thoreau's expense.

    Give yourself a treat and dive into Moby Dick sometime, a truly great novel.

    1. Haha! I haven't heard of that way of looking at it. I hadn't even thought of the story as being remotely funny, but I would like to interpret it that way. That would certainly make it more entertaining. I am definitely planning on reading Moby Dick as soon as I can give it the attention it deserves.