Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street by Herman Melville

November 15, 2009

Very short books warrant very short reviews. This is a very short book, easily mistaken for a longish short story. This review will attempt to be as effectively concise. The task is difficult, because Bartleby, the Scrivener is an excellent work.

BartlebyThough apparently there is shame in it, I will admit to not having read this book previously. I owe John Self (previous link) a debt for persuasively reviewing this book. It will now go on the list of those I want to re-read.

The book is narrated by an elderly attorney who recounts all he knows of the title character. At the time the attorney first meets Bartleby, he has in his employ three copyists. The only names we know them by are Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Melville’s descriptions of these characters is quite entertaining. For instance, this is our introduction to one:

Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers — ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, an unwarrantable usurpation of strictly professional affairs, such as the original drawing up of legal documents. The indigestion seemed betokened in an occasional nervous testiness and grinning irritability, causing the teeth to audibly grind together over mistakes committed in copying; unnecessary maledictions, hissed, rather than spoken, in the heat of business; and especially by a continual discontent with the height of the table where he worked.

Turkey is Nippers counterpart. He is only reliable in the morning, whereas Nippers is only reliable in the afternoon. The attorney suspects drink is the cause of Turkey’s midday transition. Not so Nippers:

But indeed, nature herself seemed to have been his vintner, and at his birth charged him so thoroughly with an irritable, brandy-like disposition, that all subsequent potations were needless.

Each of the other copyists likewise has humorously related personality quirks. The attorney, too, is not without his own oddities. But each of them has fit into this Wall Street office of an unambitious attorney. Bartleby upsets the inkwell.

Bartleby’s disruptive influence takes some time to be felt. At first, the narrator is happy to have him:

After a few words touching his qualifications, I engaged him, glad to have among my corps of copyists a man of so singularly sedate an aspect, which I thoguht might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.

Bartleby’s sedateness soon becomes a mild obstinance. Scriveners must check their copies for accuracy, but, the first time the narrator asks Bartleby to check the copy:

Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

Bartleby’s initial refusal is met with confused indulgence. As his preferences become more disruptive, his employer’s patience ebbs. Bartleby’s “I prefer not” becomes something of a refrain, leading to havoc in the office and consternation on the part of the narrator. Much of the meaning and fun of the book occurs after the second half, but I want to leave with a quote from midway. The narrator’s pity for Bartleby is overridden by his frustrations. He makes a particularly insightful observation:

So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections, but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.