Fourth in my novella a day challenge was Melville’s classic Bartleby the Scrivener. You know—”I would prefer not to.” 🙂
This is the second time I’ve read Bartleby the Scrivener. The first time was for a literature class in college with the theme of disobedience, and my heart poured out to Bartleby the batty as I read. It’s a mystery why he acts the way he does, why he “prefers not to,” why he doesn’t move out of his boss’s office when he is dismissed and turned out. Why doesn’t he do anything? And then there’s the way the novel plays on your sympathy, the way it forces you to examine questions about what we owe to our neighbor, to our fellow man.
I’ve always loved Bartleby even if I never understood him. Indeed, the narrator doesn’t understand him—not until the last line. The ending phrase of “Oh, Bartleby! Oh, humanity!” links Bartleby’s behavior with the plight of the whole of mankind. How? Bartleby refuses to conform. He refuses to obey. Some critics think that Melville wrote the character of Bartleby as a parody of Henry David Thoreau’s brand of civil disobedience, but I think the last line makes this assumption less likely. The unnamed narrator, and indeed Melville himself, clearly has sympathy for Bartleby’s situation, even if it is self-inflicted. There’s a reason why we feel bad for Bartleby. What is it?
It’s just—Bartleby is so isolated. He doesn’t have a home or family, but he never asks for charity. He refuses money from his former employer, and treats him with respect, never asking for help or even sympathy. The only thing “wrong” with Bartleby, in the eyes of the world, is that he refuses to take part in ordinary societal activities. You know, like working when your employer tells you to work, or having a home. Simple things like that.
I think, at its heart, that this book subtly explores the consequences of being different in this world. Bartleby doesn’t hurt anyone, but he is a blight on society and an unendurable burden on his neighbors, simply for existing. They’re annoyed he loiters in the office building, even though he does nothing and asks for nothing. Are we, as a society, that unsympathetic to the oddities and eccentricities of our neighbors? Has this changed since Bartleby was written? It’s interesting to think about.
Rambly post, I apologize. What do you think about Bartleby? Have you read the novella? Do you sometimes “prefer not to?” 🙂
Buy the brightly-colored novella at Wordery.com.
- The Problems of Bartleby (biblioklept.org)
- Ah, Bartleby. Ah, Humanity. (wanderingmirages.com)
- Bartleby the Scrivener (Part 2 of 2) (theautismanthropologist.wordpress.com)