Bartleby, the Scrivener
Melville’s short story is set in a Wall Street legal office and provides us with a wonderful array of characters. Namely the narrator, the owner of the business, and his three clerks: Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut. The titular character, Bartleby, arrives at the offices unexpectedly and is engaged as a scrivener. At first, Bartleby shows a great flair for his work of copying legal documents, almost ‘devouring’ the work given to him, but not with relish: his method is almost machine-like and he resembles a pale, passive automaton.
Then one day, Bartleby simply refuses to work any more, using what will become his famous catchphrase of passive resistance: “I would prefer not to”. The rest of the tale sees the Lawyer attempt various means of coaxing, bribing and cajoling Bartleby to industry. However, Bartleby would rather spend all day stationary: standing in the middle of the room and staring at a blank wall.
I really enjoy reading about work and have found Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym particularly good on workplace dynamics. My favourite sections of A Confederacy of Dunces are when Ignatius J Reilly is employed as a filing clerk at Levy Pants. Unlike Bartleby, his rebellion is belligerent, chaotic and obvious – he files all of his work in the trash and stirs up his fellow workers to noisy protest (one of the funniest things I’ve ever read).
The story of Bartleby is entirely different. It is fascinating psychologically, but also seems to be symbolic in some way. The narrator keeps referring to Bartleby’s pallor, his dislike of change, and at one point calls him an ‘incubus’; he haunts the story and the narrator is unable to shake him off. I can’t help wondering if he is in some way a reference to Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. There are probably many ways of reading the story and I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to do so.