He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.

Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville

It’s a daunting sort of name Herman Melville. Not intrinsically, but because of Moby Dick of course. Like the names of a fair few great authors Melville’s comes with a slight expectation that reading him will be some kind of worthy, possibly improving, labour. One feels one should, but somehow the prospect never looks much fun.

Well, that’s how he’s always been for me anyway. I still haven’t read Moby Dick, but I have now read Melville’s infinitely shorter and less intimidating Bartleby the Scrivener and even though John Self of The Asylum, Trevor of themookseandthegripes and Kerry of Hungry like the Woolf all told me it was great, I was still surprised at how great it was.

The narrator is a lawyer on Wall Street. He employs two scriveners (legal clerks basically) and a copy boy in a small office which has nothing much by way of view. He’s a sensible and solid sort of man. Reliable. The sort you’d want if you had some tedious piece of property conveyancing to do and wanted it done meticulously but didn’t need any particularly creative thinking being put into it.

His first scrivener is nicknamed Turkey and is dependable before lunch, but has a tendency to return red-faced and irascible after it. In the morning Turkey has a careful hand. In the afternoon however it’s smudges, dripped ink and a more incautious approach than is perhaps entirely appropriate.

Alongside Turkey is Nipper. Nipper has poor digestion. In the mornings he’s irritable and difficult and his concentration is poor. After lunch though his stomach settles and his work is as good as Turkey’s was in the morning. Here’s Nipper struggling with the table he works at:

Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk:–then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted any thing, it was to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.

That final sentence contains a world of frustration.

Ginger Nut is a young boy who mostly goes out to buy ginger nut biscuits for the others. It’s a well ordered office, but an extra hand would be useful. Bartleby is hired. He’s a pallid and reserved fellow who turns out at first to be highly efficient. He works quietly behind a screen stolidly ploughing through his documents without complaint. He’s a model employee.

All goes well, until one day the narrator asks Bartleby to help check a document:

It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original.

This actually carried on until right into the 1980s (possibly the 1990s). A colleague of mine as a trainee used to have to sit in a room with a copy of a bond prospectus in one hand, a bottle of seven-up in the other and another trainee holding another copy of the prospectus. One read it out. The other checked what was read against his copy. The seven-up kept throats moist. If that had still been going when I trained I doubt I’d have made it to qualification.

Bartleby doesn’t like the idea much either. He’s asked to help check a document. It’s a perfectly routine part of his job. He doesn’t come into the narrator’s office so the request is repeated, more loudly. The answer comes:

“I would prefer not to.”

And that’s where things suddenly get much less funny.

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.” “Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here–take it,” and I thrust it towards him. “I would prefer not to,” said he. I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined.

We all live by social contracts, by expectations of what is and isn’t permissible. We may dream of telling a boss to go stuff it, but mostly we don’t. Everywhere I’ve ever worked the underlying reality is that employees must do what they are told or look for another job. Employers though still mostly dress orders up in polite clothing. “Could you type this up for me please?” “I’d like you to take a note in this meeting.” “If you could turn the draft by tomorrow morning that would be great.” They’re expressed as requests, but we all know they’re not really.

What happens when someone doesn’t care about the unwritten rules? If I say to someone “could you let me have those deeds please?” and they reply “I would prefer not to” what do I do with that answer?

Actually, that one happened to me once when I was a junior lawyer, with a senior partner’s PA. I had no idea what to do. The social contact was simple. I was a fee earner. She was a PA. It was her job to give me those deeds. When she said no I was lost. I couldn’t go back to the partner and say I hadn’t been able to get the deeds because his PA didn’t want to give them to me. I had to negotiate with her. The truth was that when she broke the social contract there wasn’t actually much I could do about it.

That’s what particularly interested me here. There’s a lot in this story. There’s a great many possible interpretations (and I’ve linked to three different blogs to show some different takes). What struck me most was that it asks precisely that question of what happens when someone just doesn’t care about the social rules we all live by?

I won’t say how the story develops or what answers it has, but I will say that for a novella that opened with comic scenes worthy of The Diary of a Nobody to then go onto questions of that difficulty is no small achievement. To stay funny while doing so is simply brilliant.

In the end there’s something profoundly disturbing about Bartleby as a character. His passivity becomes both sinister and pathetic. At one point he is asked to be at least a little reasonable:

“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

And why should he be? Why should any of us be? Why should we do that which we prefer not to? Mevlille examines pity and despair and purpose and meaning (and much more besides), and he does so while being funny and without even breaking the 100 page barrier. He leaves me wanting to read more by writers such as Beckett and Kafka, and maybe even one day when I’ve finished Proust I’ll read Moby Dick itself.

It is still quite daunting though.

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17 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Melville, Herman, Novellas, US Literature

17 responses to “He was more a man of preferences than assumptions.

  1. leroyhunter

    Nice review Max. Your anecdote about coming a cropper with a PA leaves me dying to know how you got round the situation (unless you’d prefer not to say).

    I think the genius of Bartleby is that it can be read any number of ways and be perfectly convincing in them all: an allegory, a straight ghost story, a comedy of manners and so on. One of the other things that stands out for me is character of the narrator himself, who comes across as a flabbergasted but humane interlocutor of the reticent scrivener and his increasingly troublesome refusals.

    Honestly, don’t think that about Moby Dick. It’s a quite incredible book, unique in so many ways. I often see people being encouraged to read it with the proviso “oh just skip the whaling bits” but I honestly can’t believe you’d want to once you get into it.

  2. This is an excellent novella and yours a great review. You’ve really given the flavor of it and exposed the brilliance. That Melville can maintain levity while examining some of the most disturbing aspects of human society is amazing. Bartleby is both hero and villain. Your anecdote is perfect. How do you deal with someone who politely refuses an order dressed as a request? But haven’t we all wanted to decline some mundane or tedious task when asked by an employer or supervisor? Depending on whether you choose the employer’s or Bartleby’s perspective, his “I prefer not to” is either maddening or liberating.

  3. Ah, this is perhaps where I should start with Melville too as neither have I read Moby Dick. I love the sound of this book Max (as I did your anecdote) … the writing in your excerpts is appealing and the story sounds intriguing.

    Did you read it on the kindle?

  4. Great review, I want to read it now.
    I know exactly what you mean with your two anecdotes. The one about not wanting to go on training as a lawyer when you hear about the tedious work done before the computer era. Same thing for me when I heard older colleagues talking about huge additions made with a calculator or about physical bills of exchange and hand-written cheques. I’m not sure I would have made it to qualification either.
    And the one about the partner’s PA rings a bell too.

    PS : Caroline has reviewed it here : http://beautyisasleepingcat.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/herman-melville-bartleby-the-scrivener-a-story-of-wall-street-1853/

    PPS : I’ve never read Moby Dick either, I see I’m not the only one. It’s even more frightening that Ulysse. :-) I think I’d rather read Ulysse first.

  5. Leroy, a lengthy mix of cajoling, pleading and persistence. It wasn’t comfortable.

    There’s a lot more one could say about the novella. As you say the narrator is an interesting character in his own right and what Bartleby is and what he represents is open to a great many interpretations.

    Kerry, exactly. Which of us hasn’t wanted to say no? But how much does society depend on our not doing so? It’s fascinating and balancing all that wich such levity is remarkable. Thanks for your review which encouraged me to read it.

    WG, definitely a good place to start. It’s a very easy read. I did read it on the kindle, I downloaded a free copy and it was absolutely fine. I can dig out the link to the edition if that would help.

    Bookaround, I find Ulysses less daunting too. Not sure why, but it’s true. How did people do these jobs before computers? Of course, given the ability to look forward perhaps they’d have pitied us leaning over screens all day…

    Thanks for the link, I’ll check that out.

  6. If it’s easy to do so Max, that would be great, though I’m sure I could find it myself.

  7. I read this one: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bartleby-Scrivener-Story-Wall-Street-ebook/dp/B000JML2Z6/ref=pd_ys_iyr32

    The formatting seemed fine and I didn’t come across any obvious typos that I remember. No essays or endnotes of course, but then the contemporaenous readers didn’t have those and the price is hard to beat…

  8. Reading your very nice review made me laugh again. The beginning of the novella is so funny. The narrator is a very strange person, didn’t you think? He puts up with a lot of things and never really does anything about it. I thought he was very tolerant, a bit passive as well.
    Have you read Balzac’s Le Colonel Chabert? There are so many parallels, it’s very fascinating.
    I didn’t expect it to be like this at all and am glad I read it.
    Moby Dick still has to wait a bit, I’m afraid.
    (Off topic. Did you see that The Wolves do a group read of the Josipovici in May http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.com?)

  9. LaurencePritchard

    Max,
    I have a tiny Penguin mini-book/classic/whatever it was called ten years ago. It’s a great book.

    I have no doubt the interpretations are interesting and valid (really not being sarcastic here) but i agree there’s something about the saying no. I’m terrible at saying no myself. Maybe he’s a hero.

    I feel compelled to namedrop Enrique Vila Matas’s Bartleby & Co. It’s about all the other Bartlebyesque characters in literature, but it’s a pleasure to read, like Bartleby, not worthy etc.

    Thought Moby Dick was just weird, very weird-I understand that’s not that most eloquent review ever. Have got Typee somewhere. Haven’t read that yet.

  10. I am always on the look-out for public domain books and have just downloaded this one on your recommendation.

    I never found a PA like the one you mention, but I think I found the rivalry between different branches of an organisation could cause difficult negotiations at times. I was probably too polite when asking for things, but found it easy to get into a wrangling contests of will when things didn’t work out as they should. Nice to be out of all that now.

  11. Hi-
    I am a big Melville fan. Don’t skip the ‘whaling parts’ of Moby Dick!

    You might look at Benito Cereno, a short story, for another example of a narration by a flabbergasted stuffed shirt who just couldn’t fathom (so Melville…) what was in front of him. The story was partially inspired by the Amistad slaveship incident.

    Moby Dick is intensely philosophical, of course, and the themes of Bartleby are amplified and ramified in many ways there. Social rules, meaning of life, obsession, absurdism, materialist convention vs. spiritual depth, etc.

    Also, I recommend the recent short film adaptation of Bartleby – modern setting – and quite good.

  12. Oh crikey, this one sounds a bit close to home. I would imagine that Melville, a guy otherwise mostly known for his bombastic adventure stories, would have little time for the strictures of modern bureaucracy. I’ve been meaning to read some more of his stuff as I absolutely loved Moby Dick. Incidentally, in regard to the latter, I think its reputation as a difficult read is mostly down to its size. There are some longeurs on whales and whaling, but they’re actually kind of funny in the context of the novel. In terms of dauntingness it’s not a jot on Proust, I can guarantee you that much!

  13. Caroline,

    I have read Le Colonel Chabert. I don’t recall it well enough to note the similarities though. What were you thinking of? I missed the Josipovici read, thanks for the link.

    Laurence, there’s lots of interpretations but the one that matters most is the one that speaks to the particular reader. For me it was what’s above. I’d heard the Matas was fun.

    If he’s a hero, and that is an argument, he’s perhaps a rather tragic one.

    Tom, let me know what you think. Office politics is a surprisingly little addressed subject in literature. Probably because most writers have little experience of it.

    Lichanos, I didn’t skip the architecture chapters in Notre Dame de Paris, I won’t skip the whaling chapters in Moby Dick either. Thanks for the Benito Cereno and film tips, I didn’t know about either. Interesting to hear the same themes recur in MD.

    Danny, I doubt he would have much time for it, but the portrait of the narrator isn’t a contemptuous one. The narrator is a quiet and steady man, but he is what he is and there’s no sense of authorial disdain.

    On that note I mentioned The Diary of a Nobody. Part of what makes it funny rather than sad is the distinct note of authorial empathy for the protagonist. Mr Pooter is absurd, but somehow one ends up rather rooting for him despite his absurdity, despite the fact one probably wouldn’t look twice at him in real life. For a comic novel it does a good job of taking you inside someone and ultimately making you care about what they care about.

    That said, I don’t want to draw too much comparison. They’re not actually very similar at all. One just reminded me in passing of the other and I love Diary enough I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

    If you’ve read Moby Dick this should be a snap. On Proust, I lost the long weekend just past due to a burst water main meaning I had to evacuate the house for a couple of days (all fixed now). That blew out my reading so I now have 300 pages to go and am back at work. Not ideal…

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  15. The beginning for example, the eccentricities of theose who help the lawyer and the end, what happens to Colonel, it isn’t different from how Bartleby ends.

  16. Good points. Thanks Caroline, those comparisons had escaped me.

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