Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville, 1853
The story's narrator is a Wall Street lawyer who hires Bartleby, a strange, pale, apparition-like man, as one of his copyists. But Bartleby refuses to do what's asked of him—responding always with the enigmatic phrase, "I would prefer not to." Soon the narrator discovers Bartleby spending nights in the office—because he has nowhere else to go.
Although the plot revolves around what to do with mysterious Bartleby, the story's central figure is really the narrator. Much like the butler Stevens in Remains of the Day, Melville's unnamed narrator, while hardly callous, remains dense and uncomprehending—until the end, when he grasps hold of a fragment of his own humanity.
"Bartleby" is a powerful read, rich in symbolic imagery and meaning. It has particular resonance today, given the current crisis from Wall Street and the myopia that led to it.
The story in this Dover edition (cover photo above) is paired with "Benito Cereno," about a slave ship mutiny. Both stories would make for riveting book club discussions.
See our Reading Guide for Bartleby and Benito Cereno.
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