Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

• Ebook: 100 pages

• Publisher: Public Domain Books, 2004 (first published, 1853)

• A SIN: B000JML2Z6

• Genre: Classic (19th Century American Lit.)

• Recommended For: Anyone who enjoys classics; anyone who enjoys absurdist literature.

Quick Review: Overall, I highly recommend this quick read to anyone. It was amusing and fascinating and quirky; I won’t forget it.

How I Got Here: I was assigned to read this novella by a friend who recently wrote an analytical essay on it and Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”. I wanted to make sure that I had an understanding of the stories before reading his analysis of the rhetoric in each piece. Downloaded the novella onto my Kindle app.

The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis

“I prefer not to,” he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.

Academics 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 City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s 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 Putnam’s magazine—to, sadly, critical disdain.

My Analysis and Critique:

This novella was a quick read (a couple of hours, tops) that compelled me to continuously comment on the plot to whomever was around me. In short, I loved it.

The story is narrated by an unnamed lawyer who is pondering and explaining his short relationship with Bartleby, an unconventional scrivener (human copy machine) that he employed at his office. Bartleby is rather unconventional because he routinely refuses to do the work that he is assigned with the baffling statement to his boss “I prefer not to.” Rather than send him packing, the boss (our narrator) leaves him be, all the while wondering what Bartleby’s motivation could be; why does he insist upon using the word “prefer” rather than “will not”? Bartleby eventually refuses to do anything, simply standing in the office, staring out the window, until finally, with much reluctance, the boss is moved to fire Bartleby. Yet, Bartleby would “prefer not to” leave, and so the boss is forced to consider what is to be done with someone who prefers not to do anything.

I loved the absurdity in this story! More often than not, the boss ends up catering to Bartleby’s will, and he has no idea why. At one point, the employer gets to his office early, only to find that Bartleby is already there and is not ready for anyone to enter the office, he is busy at the moment. He asks that the boss return to his office a little later, when Bartleby is ready for him to enter. Rather than being enraged, the boss actually takes a walk around the neighborhood and then returns to his own office, letting Bartleby prepare himself for his return to his own office. What?! The narrator/boss ruminates on Bartleby’s power, commenting

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

This story also employs excellent characterization. I loved the three characters employed by the narrator at the law office–Turkey, Nippers, and Gingernut. They were highly amusing with their own individual quirks that pop up throughout the narrative.

Overall, I highly recommend this quick read to anyone. It was amusing and fascinating and quirky; I won’t forget it.


Full Text on

Goodreads Reviews