Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: "Bartelby," by Herman Melville

I love this story. It's a very simple thing: Bartleby prefers not doing over doing; chaos ensues.

Bartleby is a scrivener--a person who by hand makes copies of important legal documents, long before the digital age. Is this important? I don't know. Bartleby is described in several ways; first, as "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!" then as possessed of a "cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance." 

The action begins when Bartleby applies for a job working for the unnamed lawyer who narrates Melville's tale. He is a good scrivener for a successful lawyer, but when the time comes for the lawyer to request certain duties all scriveners perform (such as reading aloud a copy to check for mistakes) Bartleby merely states, "I would prefer not to." This then happens for every request made to Bartleby.

The narrator and his other employees are befuddled. Soon the narrator finds himself using the word prefer a little too frequently.  His frustration with Bartleby grows when he discovers the man pretty much living in the law office. He essentially fires Bartelby, offering compensation, but Bartleby prefers not to leave. Soon Bartleby stops working altogether, though he doesn't leave the office. The narrator can't deal with it anymore, so he up and moves. The new occupants find him complaining that Bartleby is still there. The narrator tries to reason with the man, but nothing works.

Bartleby's taken to prison, where he prefers not to do anything. Soon he is found lying in the yard. But the story doesn't end there. The narrator later hears that Bartleby worked in the dead letter office. He sees some meaning in this.

If you're looking to read more about Bartleby, Dan McCall's The Silence of Bartleby is probably the best place to start. A whole book about Bartleby, in which you'll find that Bartleby is everything and nothing, that every academic theory can be used successfully to illuminate the story, and that none of them encompass the respectable cadaver that is Bartleby the scrivener.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? I had intended to make a joke about preferring not to tell you, but Bartleby is just so compellingly inscrutable. He reveals nothing. He gives no indication of why he does what he does--or doesn't do, as the case may be. Yet the hints are fascinating. Melville's style isn't always the most accessible, and Bartleby is a long story for so little to happen in it (though still not very long). But it's worth reading. And reading a whole book about just to show how much can be made of so little.

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