Barkleby the Scrivener!


Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville, 1853

Simone is tired of taking pictures of me and wanted to take pictures of her dog instead. So cute! He made an almost perfect scrivener, except he had a tendency to look happy, which is quite out of character. These pictures make me nostalgic for “Wishbone.”

I am one full year behind in my blogging. Meaning, I am posting about books that I read a year ago. Look, y’all, I’m a reader. I love to read. I have to read. I do it everyday. Writing posts takes time though, which I have none of during the school year. Taking pictures takes time too. I am trying to catch up. I reread Bartleby the Scrivener to prepare to write this. It’s a 90 page novella, so rereading didn’t take up too much time. I had some pretty poignant thoughts about this one, and I wanted to go over it again so I could express them to you adequately.

The story is set in a law office and narrated by the principle lawyer. He sets about to tell the tale of a very odd law copyist, or scrivener, that he employed, providing ample descriptions of his other scriveners for contrast. Compared to his colleagues Bartleby is something of a non-entity. While they exhibit signs of indigestion, drunkenness or ill-temper, Bartleby quietly does his copying, rarely ever behaving like a living organism with human needs.


The trouble begins when Bartleby refuses to do certain tasks. He answers requests from his employer with his signature phrase “I prefer not to,” and declines any further explanation of his behavior. The narrator is clearly befuddled by Bartleby’s behavior and does not know how to proceed. Employees are supposed to obey their employers, but there’s something so pallidly, passively helpless about Bartleby. He’s like an under-pigmented, bottom dwelling fish, incapable of thriving on land.

As the story proceeds, Bartleby prefers not to complete an increasing number of tasks. He remains in his workplace, but does no work. The narrator struggles to know what to do. He knows what is expected of him as an employer. He should throw Bartleby out on the street, but every time he determines to do this, a feeling of sympathy and concern swells up in him. What will become of this man who is so ill-suited to the world?

As Bartleby is such a blank, mysterious character, many interpretations can apply to the story. This is my blog, so I’ll tell you mine. Not quite every person has a brain capable of the functions required to live successfully and independently in human society. Not quite every person can adapt their behavior and personality to the demands of the world around them. Bartleby cannot, or prefers not to, take the actions necessary to function as an employed adult. The narrator grapples with the expectations of his role as an employer and his moral feelings as a compassionate person. The sad reality he faces is that the world does not provide a place for people like Bartleby.

You can see this story as commentary on mental illness, capitalism, individuality, free will or anything else you see in it. Trying not to give away the whole story, I do see a comment from Melville on the tendency of institutions to degrade human morality. Sad, sad, sad, but true. The story is bleak, but I found the narrator’s internal debate over how to treat Bartleby very touching.

Hold on while I Find some Quotes for You:

Now, the utterly unsrumised appearance of Bartleby, tenanting my law-chambers of a Sunday morning, with his cadaverously gentelmanly nonchallance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door, and did as desired.

I believe that this wise and blessed frame of mind would have continued with me, had it not been for the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks obtruded upon me by professional friends who visited the rooms. But thus it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last eh best resolves of the more generous.

You might like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you hate Ayn Rand (and, really, what reasonable person doesn’t?)
  • you care about the misfits in this world, not the lovable, ragtag misfits, but the unlovables who need our care
  • you care about Trancendentalism

You might not like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you have no interest in hearing about the habits and habitat of mid 19th century law copyists

Final Thoughts:

I like it. This is not a book for those craving adventure, but one for those who love a tale about the lack of social justice entailed in a capitalist system. Does that describe you? Give it a read.