Mar 13 2010

He’d prefer not to: Melville as Bartleby

Published by at 4:10 am under Uncategorized

One of the most interesting features of Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” is its complex nature. Within the story lie many themes, interpretations, and symbolic meanings, and, like Moby Dick, one could spend years trying to uncover them all. Bartleby, the scrivener in the Lawyer’s office, seems to slowly disappear in the story until he finally perishes. He begins to say no to his employer with a simple, passive, “I’d prefer not to.” The Lawyer is baffled but, perhaps surprisingly to the reader, puts up with Bartleby’s behavior. Bartleby refusal to do anything at his work eventually leads to him being thrown into jail, where he refuses to eat. Bartleby dies quietly, just as he passed his days in a quiet, passive manner.

A way of interpreting this story is through a “biographical” lens, with Melville as Bartleby. When Melville wrote “Bartleby” in 1853, his epic Moby Dick was considered a literary flop. Like Bartleby, Melville finds himself disillusioned with his work; he knows that his earlier novels such as Typee were extremely successful, but perhaps not as complex as the works he truly wished to write. The narrator of the story (the Lawyer) is the reader, hungry for more travel narratives, asking Melville to write more, but Melville would “prefer not to” write these types of stories.  By the end Bartleby refuses to do any more work, perhaps symbolic of Melville preferring to write nothing instead of popular novels that lacked depth (of course, Melville did go on to write more after “Bartleby,” so this is purely hypothetical analysis here). A bit of information that is quite telling in the short story is the revelation that Bartleby worked in a dead letters office, a lonely environment that no doubt contributed to his depression. The dead letters could represent his earlier works that depressed him in the sense that they were not “artistically” fulfilling.

Again, this is only one way to look at “Bartleby the Scrivener,” but I did find it quite striking that it could be an intentional (or unintentional) revelation of Melville’s view of himself and his work.

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