I haven’t read Moby Dick, and I sometimes wonder if I ever will. I hadn’t actually read any Herman Melville until now. From the large box of unread novellas, this slim volume caught my eye for the single quote placed on the back:
“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.
The blurb for the Melville House edition of the book states that “Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism”, and for some reason the phrase on the back cover had me expecting surrealism. Or absurdism. I expected that Bartleby would, in fact, disappear into thin air: something that I’ve wanted to do on more occasions than I could possibly recall.
But no, not quite. In fact not at all. Bartleby hangs around well past his welcome.
The novella is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street”, and it’s there that the narrator (a lawyer) has his offices. This Master of Chancery is “a rather elderly man” who has had “more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men […] the law-copyists or scriveners”. He narrates in the first person, introducing us to his office and the scriveners that inhabit it, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers along with an office-boy, Ginger Nut. These men all have their quirks, but the narrator portrays himself as a fairly mild, accepting employer, only reluctantly remonstrating his staff when required.
He is “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury” and believes “with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”, a characterisation that sets us up for his unexpectedly patient and gentle treatment of Bartleby throughout the story. When Bartleby arrives as a newly-employed scrivener, fifteen pages into the story, his key qualities seem to be his cheerlessness and industriousness. He is “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” but seems to “gorge himself” upon the documents that he copies, staying at work well past anybody else.
His first moment of passive resistance comes when he’s asked to collaborate on examining a small document: “I would prefer not to”. It’s tempting to read Bartleby as a hero of passive resistance, sticking it to the man, performing his main duties but drawing the line in his own peculiar way. At first I wanted to read the book this way, to turn up at work the next day and “prefer not to” engage in corporate drudgery. But that would be a misreading. Bartleby is not railing against the shackles of professional labour in the capitalist paradise of Wall Street. He is instead descending into his own personal pit of depression. This depression might be brought on by the meaningless of office life as a scrivener, but perhaps not: Melville gives us no insight into the reasons behind Bartleby’s malaise.
A battle of wills does begin to play out in the story, but it’s not much of one; the narrator is frustrated, but “prefers” to help Bartleby, trying to understand his conduct and find out about his background. He’s not an inflexible and uncaring boss by any measure. Bartleby’s resistance extends its reach until he’s capable of nothing more than occupying the law offices, “preferring” to do nothing else. Bartleby isn’t resisting the system; he’s refusing to engage with it in any meaningful way.
The narrator oscillates between his frustration and tolerance. He checks himself against his worse intentions, realising that the office environment can encourage the worst, being “unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations”. Still, he eventually opts for change after being influenced by the opinions of his professional associates: “the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out the best resolves of the more generous”. Bartleby’s apathy, while unmoving in its stubbornness, has a curious dual nature that lends it a quality of completeness. While he would “prefer not to” engage with the world, he also insists towards the end that he is “not particular”.
Bartleby the Scrivener is short for a novella, at 14,500 words, but the story continues for what feels like too long. It outstays its welcome—appropriately—just like poor Bartleby. In the end, as Bartleby prefers to slowly fade from the world, this wonderfully sad and darkly funny story of depression does much the same. I can’t quite say whether Bartleby has won or lost his battle.
Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!