Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

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.

9780974607801I’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.

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  • Paul Johnston

    I would be even more sympathetic to Bartleby than you. I think the narrator is a self-centred, complacent hypocrite and one can understand why Bartleby is reluctant to compromise with a world where compliance can have such negative consequences. I think Bartleby poses the question: how is it possible to live in this world? and if you look at all the other characters in the short story, none of them offer very promising answers to this question. Its a very dead world that Bartleby is invited to become part of, a world of meaningless copying, viewless windows and dead letters. He insists on something different, but fruitlessly. He is potential Messiah in his call for radical change, but his message of salvation got lost and anyway no one would have listened. The narrators “Oh Bartleby! Oh World” is rather typical of the narrator – it suggests he understands and feels, but it is a way of closing off his response to Bartleby rather than the first step towards a new way of living. While Bartleby would prefer not to chose a dead life, the narrator would prefer not to change and would prefer to repress the vague inkling he has that his own choices are not good.