Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Before delving into Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” it might help to define the unfamiliar term in the story’s title. In the nineteenth century, scriveners were something like the legal secretaries of today; in the days before the typewriter, the computer, and the photocopier, scriveners made duplicate copies of legal documents. An important part of the scrivener’s job, therefore, was not only to physically copy one document from an original, but to compare the two versions word by word and line by line to ensure that they are precisely the same.
The unnamed narrator in Melville’s story is a Wall Street lawyer, and a highly respected and successful one. As the story opens, the narrator already employs two scriveners, each of whom has certain peculiarities. Turkey, the oldest scrivener, is sedate and diligent before noon, but after “twelve o’clock, meridian” becomes increasingly erratic, clumsy, error-prone and excitable. Nippers, the other scrivener, is precisely the opposite; he comes in to work surly and nervous, but becomes increasingly pleasant and efficient as the day wears on. Because during their good periods both Turkey and Nippers are good scriveners, the narrator is willing to work around their idiosyncrasies in the name of office harmony; this unfortunately may set a precedent for his lack of ability to handle Bartleby.
Of course, Bartleby at first seems like he should need very little handling. He is an excellent scrivener, if “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, [and] incurably forlorn.” Soon, however, he begins to exhibit peculiarities that are even more disturbing than those of Turkey and Nipper. When asked to compare his copy with the original, he replies that he would “prefer not to.” After a while he would “prefer not to” copy, either, and he eventually would “prefer not to” do anything at all. The narrator asks him to leave, and Bartleby would “prefer not to” do that; in fact, Bartleby moves his few belongings into the office and takes up residence there, subsisting on nothing but ginger nut cookies.
It is at this point that the lawyer’s actions become difficult to justify. We can, to some extent, rationalize his inability to toss Bartleby out on his ear to his earlier-stated conviction that “the easiest way of life is the best.” And of course it is easier on the conscience to simply allow Bartleby to stay on than to call the police and have him removed. Since he cannot move Bartleby, the lawyer opts to move himself, and relocates his office to another building. The new tenant of Bartleby’s building has no compunctions about calling the police, however, and having the obviously unbalanced squatter removed to the city jail as a vagrant. Why can’t the narrator do this?
He himself offers a number of excuses. He rather self-righteously turns Bartleby’s annoying presence into an opportunity to exercise Christian charity, believing that by humoring the poor soul he is buying himself brownie points with God; “Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” Then he attributes Bartleby’s appearance in his life to divine predestination, feeling that the scrivener has been “billeted upon me for some mysterious purpose of an all-wise Providence, which it was not for a mere mortal like me to fathom.” When God has obviously sent Bartleby to the narrator for a reason, who is the narrator to send him back?
Neither of these excuses is tenable, of course. The narrator’s unwillingness to exercise authority and set parameters has finally caught up with him, and his abandoning Bartleby to a new tenant is an act of pure cowardice. To his credit, he tracks Bartleby down to the Tombs and attempts to reason with him that this is the best place for him, but both know it is a travesty; Bartleby cannot live by any rules just as the narrator, whose entire life is bound by rules, cannot enforce any. In the end, we may learn less about the inscrutable Bartleby than we do about the narrator himself.
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