By Kabir Altaf
Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, Bartleby the Scrivener, tells the story of a Wall Street lawyer who employs two scriveners (clerks). At the beginning of the novella, the narrator’s business picks up; he advertises for a third scrivener and eventually hires Bartleby for the position. At first, Bartleby produces high quality work, but one day when the lawyer asks him to help proofread what he has copied, he replies “I would prefer not to.” This eventually becomes his stock response every time he is asked to do any work outside of copying. Eventually he even refuses to do any copying. However, the lawyer finds it impossible to fire him.
The lawyer finally does attempt to fire Bartleby, giving him twice as much money as he is owed but Bartleby refuses to vacate the office, saying only that he “would prefer not to.” The lawyer is forced to relocate his entire office, leaving Bartleby alone in the original location. However, even after moving to a new location, he is not free of Bartleby. The new tenants come to see him and beg him to do something about his former employee. Though the landlord has thrown Bartleby out of the rooms, he sits on the stairs all day and at night sleeps in the building’s front doorway. The lawyer visits Bartleby and attempts to reason with him, even inviting him to stay in his own home. Bartleby continues to refuse and the lawyer gives up and leaves. A few days later, he learns that Bartleby has been taken to prison. He visits him there and bribes a turnkey to make sure that Bartleby gets plenty of food. A few days later, he finds that Bartleby has died of starvation, having refused to eat.
Melville is elusive about Bartleby’s character and motivations. In part, this has to do with the author’s choice of point of view. Melville chooses to tell the story using the limited first-person perspective of Bartleby’s employer. The narrator cannot see inside Bartleby’s head and can only describe events to the reader or relate what he has been told by Bartleby or others. If Melville had wanted to provide the reader with a clear picture of Bartleby, he would have used alternative narrative modes. For example, he could have used a third-person omniscient point of view. In this case, the narrator would tell the story from the “God position”, being able to get inside the thoughts of all the characters in the story. Alternatively, Melville could have had Bartleby narrate his own story, in which case it would have been easy to tell the reader what was going on in his mind. One can argue that Melville deliberately chose to have the story narrated by a third person so that he could leave Bartleby as an ambiguous character.
What I found most interesting in Bartleby was Melville’s characterization of the central figure. Although this novella was written before the advent of modern psychology, Bartleby’s symptoms seem to be those of someone who is suffering from major depression. He is unmotivated and takes no interest in his work. He refuses to tell the narrator any details of his previous life. He is isolated and seems to have no existence outside of his employer’s office.
Finally, he even lacks the will to ensure his own survival, not even making sure that he eats enough to stay alive. His inability or refusal to respond in any other way than “I prefer not to” seems to indicate a state of catatonia. Melville’s narrator describes Bartleby’s symptoms as follows:
I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer…I was quite sure he never visited any refectory or eating house… that he never went anywhere in particular that I could learn; never went out for a walk… that he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world; that though so thin and pale, he never complained of ill health. And more than all I remembered a certain unconscious air of pallid—how shall I call it?—of pallid haughtiness, say, or rather an austere reserve about him, which had positively awed me into my tame compliance with his eccentricities…
This description fits what psychologists now identify as the symptoms of major depression. Melville’s novella does a powerful job of describing such a mental state.
Bartleby can also be seen as a rebel against the sterility and impersonality of business. His frustration is that of many intelligent people who are underemployed. His work consists of copying documents by hand and checking them against the original. This is tedious and laborious work that does not require the use of the worker’s intelligence or creativity. It is not hard to understand why someone would reach a point where they are unable to go on. In his essay “Pushing Paper,” published in the Spring 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, cultural historian Ben Kafka refers to Bartleby as “one of the smartest inquiries into the psychopathology of paperwork.” Kafka notes that, by refusing to work, Bartleby forces us to recognize that what he does is labor and that paperwork is also work.
Even in the 21st century, when the clerk’s job has been made so much easier by computers, I’m sure that many office workers wish that when asked to take on yet another mindless task, they could get away with telling their boss “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby has the courage to no longer be simply a cog in the wheel, and from this perspective can even be seen as a heroic figure. Melville’s novel can even be seen as a precursor to Absurdism, a philosophical school of thought that deals with the conflict between the human tendency to seek value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. Absurdism is primarily a twentieth century philosophy, yet Bartleby’s recognition of life’s futility prefigures the attitudes of later literary characters such as Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel, The Stranger. In his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus defines man’s situation as absurd and argues that human beings have three ways of dealing with this situation: suicide, belief in a transcendent realm (the “leap of faith”) or an acceptance of the Absurd. Bartleby’s death by starvation can be seen as suicide, since he lacks even the will or desire to remain alive.
Though it is an extremely short novel, Bartleby the Scrivener contains a wealth of ideas. The central character can be seen as clinically depressed or as a rebel against the sterility of business. The presence of all these ideas makes the work a literary classic and as alive today as when it was written more than a hundred years ago.
Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.