Oh Bartleby. I've been thinking about you ever since I finished (last year!) Melville's story about you, perplexed by your behavior and just what it means. Pondering what to write about you, but then over the weekend I had an epiphany. I had a Bartleby moment and all of a sudden, your retort to so many questions, "I'd prefer not to" suddenly began making sense. Should I admit that? Only something separates us. I understand that "I'd prefer not to" emotion, but I can't quite seem to act upon it. Not in the same way you did, however, which was not to act at all really. The question is, should I see that as a good thing or bad?
Have you read Bartleby the Scrivener? Here in the U.S. it's a high school staple and I have a vague recollection of reading it, but that was so many years ago that rereading the Art of the Novella edition was like discovering it for the very first time. I've read a little criticism about just what the story of Bartleby means, but it's all very vague and open ended. It's one of the more ambiguous stories I've come across in a while, which is not a bad thing at all since it gives me the chance to mull it over and reflect and try and interpret what the story means to me.
I read that Bartleby may have been written in response to the bad reviews that his previous novel received, perhaps a thumbing of the nose to the literary critics, if you will. He may have been inspired too by the works of the Transcendentalists (the argument of materialism versus idealism), though I don't think Herman Melville was part of that school of writers.
The narrator of the story, a successful lawyer in a firm on Wall Street, hires Bartleby to help his two law-copyists with an influx of work.
"In answer to my advertisement, a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold, the door being open, for it was summer. I can see that figure now--pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!"
At first he's pleased with Bartleby's work, but soon requests for tasks to be completed by Bartleby are met with the reply, "I would prefer not to". Had Bartleby appeared angry, impatient or impertinent, the lawyer would have dismissed him immediately. But there is something forlorn about Bartleby so he simply asks one of his other law-copyists to do the work. When it keeps happening, however, the lawyer decides that Bartleby must go, so he gives him six days and then he must go look for a new job. But Bartleby prefers not to. Worse, Bartleby has taken to living in the law office, a desolate place after the hustle and bustle of the work day. Wall Street after hours is empty and Bartleby simply stands looking out of the window.
No matter what the lawyer does, he can't seem to rid himself of Bartleby and his "I prefer not tos". Sympathy and pity turns to annoyance and then a solution that he things is both inspired and final. If Bartleby won't go, then the law firm will. He packs up and moves to another office leaving Bartleby there. When a new firm moves in, Bartleby continues to haunt the premises. He begins sleeping in the doorway to the consternation of the new tenants.
I won't give away the ending in case you've not yet read it, but am curious to know what you make of it if you have. Such a curious character, Bartleby. The lawyer characterizes him as someone who does no harm.
"I now recalled all the quiet mysteries which I had noted in the man. I remembered that he never spoke but to answer; that through intervals he had considerable time to himself, yet I had never seen him reading--no, not even a newspaper; that for long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind the screen, upon the dead brick wall; I was quite sure he never visited any refectory or eating house, while his pal face clearly indicated that he never drank beer like Turkey, or tea and coffee even, like other men; that he never went out for a walk, unless indeed that was the case at present; that he had declined telling who he was, or whence he came, or whether he had any relatives in the world; that though so think and pale, he never complained of ill health."
To call Bartleby an eccentric seems an understatement. He's an elusive character, his ending is ironic considering his life experiences. So how to read him? With pity? Perhaps he was suffering from a form of extreme Depression. As a hero? He chose his own path rather than what Society expected of him. A victim? Maybe his idealistic attitude couldn't compete with the materialism of the world. A cautionary tale? Bartleby's ending is what happens when Society doesn't step up and help take care of our neighbors.
Such a short work of literature yet so much to think about. And isn't this what a really good piece of writing challenges a reader to do? I'm not sure when I'll read Melville again (the thought of Moby Dick, so many pages and so much symbolism intimidates me just a little), but Bartleby the Scrivener is a story that is worthy of reading and rereading.