Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener. A Story of Wall Street (1853)


Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”?

There is a specific reason, why I read Melville’s novella Bartleby. I have just read and reviewed Delerm’s novel Quelque chose en lui de Bartleby and since it was obviously inspired by Melville’s story, I had to read it.

I was never tempted to read Moby Dick although my parents had a copy with beautiful etchings. I can’t tell you why but some books just do not sound like you would like them.

Reading Bartleby I was very surprised how humorous it is. The characters are very eccentric and so is the story. It is basically the story of a young man called Bartleby who just doesn’t want to comply. Like the raven, in Poe’s eponymous poem, he has his stereotypical sentence which is “I would prefer not to.” Whatever it is he is asked to do, Bartleby invariably refuses it uttering the sentence I just quoted.

Bartleby is told in the first person peripheral, by a lawyer who has his office on the Wall Street. He once hired Bartleby as a copyist or scrivener. He already had three different copyists, each one of them with his own eccentricities, that’s why at first he didn’t pay too much attention when Bartleby declares that “he would prefer not to” read the copies together with anyone else.

The lawyer thinks at first that this is just a whim but soon enough it is obvious that there is more to it. While in the beginning he doesn’t want to read with the others, never goes out or seems to eat, after a certain time Bartleby stops working altogether. On a Sunday morning the lawyer makes another discovery which leaves him quite fazed. Bartleby never leaves the office. He stays there over night and during the weekends.

As much as he threatens him, offers him money, tries to negotiate, Bartleby doesn’t work anymore and he doesn’t leave either. If he wants to get rid of him, the lawyer has to take extreme measures. After some time and many frustrations, he decides to change the office and move away from Wall Street.

Not long after he has moved, he hears complaints by the new lawyer about Bartleby. The man is still there and haunts the building.

I’m not going to tell you the end in all its details, it should just suffice to say that the narrator tells the reader, that he thinks he might have found out what drove Bartleby to this extreme behavior. Bartleby used to work for another lawyer handling “Dead Letters”. I must admit I had no idea what “dead letters” are. It reminded me vaguely of Gogol’s Dead Souls and it proved that the association wasn’t totally wrong. “Dead letters” are letters that never reach their recipient because he has died or disappeared or left without leaving an address.

While reading this novella I was reminded of many other books. Not only Poe’s The Raven came to mind but some of Poe’s other writings. He didn’t only write Tales of Mystery and Imagination but a fair amount of absurd tales like we find them again in Kafka’s work. The already mentioned Gogol came to mind as well. I was also reminded of the first scene in Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert (see my review in which the clerks bicker and quarrel.

Bartleby is the tale of someone who gives up on life, who stops participating and contributing. He is tired of it all. I often wonder when I see beggars in the streets how many chose to live like that. I met Clochards in Paris who told me that the hassle of a job, an apartment, a wife and children was just too much for them and they found it easier to live on the street. At first this may seem absurd but thinking of it for a while, it may make sense.

If it hadn’t been for Delerm, I wouldn’t have read this novella but I’m glad I did. It’s surprisingly modern. It is interesting to discover its intertextuality and a  more thorough analysis would be fascinating. I’m sure Kafka read it, as sure as I am that Melville was influenced by Poe, Gogol and maybe Balzac. However, I must say, I don’t think that Delerm’s Spitzweg and Bartleby have much in common.

25 thoughts on “Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener. A Story of Wall Street (1853)

  1. lovely review, as always. I got a new term from your review…dead letter, I never heard of it before.

    my friend told me that Moby Dick is terribly boring..based on her words, I dont have any desire to read it. And talking about Poe, one of these days I have to read his work

    • Thanks, Novia. It seems as if Guy didn’t like Moby Dick either so I’ll skip it. I hadn’t known the term, I had to look it up. You should read Poe. He’s one of the first who ever wrote a crime story and one of the fathers of horror too. I used to devour his books when I was very young. Got his collected works and even know some of his poems by heart. Do you know The Raven? If you click on the link you can actually read the poem, I linked it.

  2. I read this some years ago and liked it very much. I dislike Moby Dick BTW–one of those classics that makes me wince. Interesting connection to Colonel Chabert BTW.

    The Post Office has (or had?) a dead letter section. Sad if you think about it.

    • Well it’s good to know you didn’t like Moby Dick, I really have a feeling reading it would feel like a chore. I’m not going to read it any day soon. Bartleby is quite impressive.
      It’s almost creepy to think of those dead letters. And sad, yes. I’ve never heard the expression and wouldn’t even know what they are called in French or German.

  3. It’s a strange tale.

    I’ve never been tempted by Moby Dick either. I feel less guilty to neglect a masterpiece after reading your review.

    About dead letters, I think they have a section for NPAI letters in the French post-office too (N’habite Pas à l’Adresse Indiquée).I’ll ask.
    In America, they send them back to the sender with a “deceased” sign, no? At least, that’s what happens in Brokeback Mountain.

    PS : I want to read Dead Souls. According to the blurb, I think it inspired Gary’s Charge d’âme.

    • I liked Dead Souls although I had a bit of a struggle to understand what he really did with the “Dead Souls” (you will read it and see what I mean). I don’t know about the relationship Gary/Gogol but I think there are a fair amount of people and writers who prefer Gogol over any other Russian writer. Bartelby is an interesting story but I’m sure Moby Dick is not for me.

  4. Although I haven’t read Bartleby in ages, Caroline, it seems to be making a “comeback” for all the modernist reasons you mention (it seems to be a little more appreciated these days). If you want to read a funny spinoff on the Bartleby concept, Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas wrote a novel not too long ago called Bartleby & Co. on all the writers in history who have suffered from “Bartleby syndrome”: i.e. those who preferred not to write anymore like Rimbaud, Salinger, and Walser. It’s really funny. P.S. I loved Moby-Dick</em!

    • I will have a look at Vila-Matas. I think I remember seeing it in a bookshop. Walser didn’t strike me as Bertlebyish. He wrote quite a lot. Was it really choice when he stopped writing? I tought it was his illness which forced him. Reminds me that I have his collected works here and should read those I haven’t read yet. You loved Moby Dick? Now that leaves me in a hard place… The “Bartleby-concept” is quite interesting and I can see how it would make a come back. Although the writing is modern, the idea to stay out of everything and just not bother is so contrary to the way our world goes.

      • Vila-Matas’ conception of “Bartleby syndrome” is deliriously wide open, receptive to any writers who gave up writing before their time no matter what the reason. The famous Walser quote that I remember is that Walser’s friend or literary executor went to visit the writer in the sanitarium and asked Walser why he wasn’t working on anything. Walser replied, “I am not here to write but to be mad!” To give you a hint of his humor, Vila-Matas also mentions Jacques Vaché as an example of “a suicide Bartleby,” “an artist of silence” and “a paradigm of the author without works,” adding “he is listed in all the encyclopedias, though he only wrote a few letters to André Breton and nothing else.” As for Moby-Dick, while aware of its polarizing tendencies as a longwinded “sea chronicle,” I loved it for its language (consciously playing off the King James Bible and Shakespeare at times) and for Melville’s fearlessness in taking on evil, obsession, civilization vs. the sea, and man’s fate itself. I found it a very soulful book, to be honest. I didn’t actually get around to finishing the book until last year, but it was worth the wait, for me at least. It was also one of Roberto Bolaño’s favorite novels, so I think it plays well to non-Americans despite its rep as a very American classic. It’s not for everybody, though, as this thread makes plenty clear! 😀

        • You know I start to wonder whether I’m not associating Moby Dick with The Old Man and the Sea. Although I like Hemingway a lot I didn’t manage to like The Old Man and the Sea and whenever I think “Moby Dick” I immediately add “the longer version of …”. Really biased thinking. Occasionally I think it is in the vein of Candide. Candide is great but short. The same dense writing on more than 500 pages sounds painful. Your choice of the word “soulful” does intrigue me. When you look at the thread, apart from Guy, no one has really read it. I think it’s the fate of bulky classics that we don’t dare to tackle them when we are not sure in advance we will like them.
          I see what Vila-Matas means. Vaché seesm a very typical Bartleby, at least to me. I will need to have a closer look at Bartleby & Co.

  5. I can only add to the chorus of people who have never quite fancied reading Moby Dick. I’m not great with sea narratives; I haven’t read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or Mutiny on the Bounty either. Nor have I read Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands. I have often wondered what the story of Bartleby was, though, so I am very grateful for the enlightenment!

    • The only sea narrative I have read is Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym which has influenced Melville. I read it a long time ago and it was quirky but didn’t stay with me. Bartleby is a fast read and I’m glad I read it as there seem to be quite a few authors referencing it. I’m glad my review was of use. 🙂

  6. I think Moby-Dick is worth reading. It’s about a lot more than a man and a whale. 🙂 I’ve also read Melville’s Billy Budd, but not Bartleby the Scrivener. You make it sound interesting, so I’ve put it on the TBR list.

    • It is interesting as it is influenced by many books and did influence many others. That makes it quite fascinating but it would also be interesting withouth knowing or caring for the intertextuality.
      I’m still not sure about Moby Dick. I think it is a book I should have read when I had still much more time. Should this chnage in the future, I think I will give it a try.

  7. I read this years ago and should really read it again. I have to chime in and say I’ve not had a lot of desire to read Moby Dick, but it seems like the sort of book I should read. Maybe someday–I sort of like sea faring tales, but not so much whale stories! 🙂

    • I start to think we miss out on something but it is the length that keeps me from it the most. I might rather go for War and Peace if I had to choose. The whale sounds somewhat biblical.

  8. I just read this and Bookaround kindly directed me to your review. I was struck by the humour too, for such a bleak tale it’s very funny.

    I actually do rather fancy Moby Dick, it’s just that it’s reputation is so massive that it’s a bit offputting.

    The Old Man and the Sea is an interesting one. I respect it, but I don’t love it and there were other Hemingway’s that I enjoyed far more. It’s all a bit too meaningful perhaps.

    Candide on the other hand is a masterpiece.

    • Thanks for visiting, Max. She did mention your review and I wanted to have a look but got tied up with my readalong.
      It is funny and sad at the same time. If you look at what happens to him in the end. That is actually another part that is very similar to Le Colonel Chabert.
      I’m not easily put off by the reputation of a book. I read Ulysses and A la Recherche du temps perdu and what not but Moby Dick did never sound like a book I would enjoy. Knowing Richard’s and Violet’s taste in books I really need to give it a try one day.
      Candide is a masterpiece, I agree. But I’m not sure if I would have liked it ifi t had been as long as Moby Dick. It’s so dense and multilayered.

  9. Wonderful review, Caroline! I can’t wait to read Bartleby now! I found it quite fascinating to read about the conversation you had with the Clochards in Paris. There is a point in what they are saying.

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s a amazing story, that’s for sure.
      I remember how I always pitied those Clochards until I heard that. I’m not saying theirs is an easy life or all of them think like that but I can see the logic. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the story.

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