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.