Bartleby the Scrivener (Review)

Labels: Great Works


Bartleby the Scrivener
Herman Melville, 1853
~50 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
July 2009

True story: a full-fledged English professor once told me the biggest mistake Herman Melville made when writing "Bartleby the Scrivener" was to write anything after the title. It's not much of a recommendation.

But I've always loved the story—and my students, if not exactly falling in love with "Bartleby," learned to appreciate it and the lively discussions it inspired.

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.

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2016