Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman MelvilleAcademics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York Citys Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melvilles most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, I would prefer not to?
The tale is one of the final works of fiction published by Melville before, slipping into despair over the continuing critical dismissal of his work after Moby-Dick, he abandoned publishing fiction. The work is presented here exactly as it was originally published in Putnams magazine—to, sadly, critical disdain.
Bartleby the Scrivener Summary
The Lawyer begins by noting that he is an "elderly man," and that his profession has brought him "into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men the law-copyists, or scriveners. Bartleby is, according to the Lawyer, "one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and, in his case, those were very small. Before introducing Bartleby, the Lawyer describes the other scriveners working in his office at this time. The first is Turkey, a man who is about the same age as the Lawyer around sixty. Turkey has been causing problems lately.
Like many artists, Melville felt constrained to choose between art and money. The turning point of his career came in Instead, he cultivated a more spiritual language to express the darker, enigmatic side of the soul. Like his letters, Melville's style became tortuous and demanding; his themes questioned the nature of good and evil and what he perceived as upheaval in universal order. His readers, accustomed to the satisfying rough and tumble of his sea yarns, were unable to make the leap from straightforward adventure tale to probing fiction. The gems hidden among lengthy, digressive passages required more concentrative effort than readers were capable of or willing to put forth.
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How It All Goes Down
He declines to do what is asked of him over and above the basic task of copying documents. Towards the end of the story, he is discovered occupying the office at weekends. The statement juxtaposes a conditional with a negative sense, and this lends the reply its force. On the other hand, this choice and therefore expression of politeness is an illusion, for Bartleby blatantly refuses to do anything asked of him. What we witness in the story is a form of resistance based on the paradox of appearing to yield while yielding not at all. How could one fault such a genteel reply?