Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book review: Bartleby, the Scrivener

A short story by Herman Melville (1819-1891) 
First published 1853 in Putnam's Magazine, and later in Melville's The Piazza Tales in 1856.

If you can read Bartleby without suspecting, nay, without more or less believing that it was written by Dickens, you can take pride in your mental discipline whilst reading. I confess that I briefly searched for Bartleby in my rumpled collection of Dickens, which of course does not include The Piazza Tales.

None of Melville's notorious South Sea elements here. This is straightforward, 19th century prose set in 19th century Wall Street with shabby, luridly eccentric antebellum characters including the narrator and his bedeviled scrivener (copyist), Bartleby.

The circumstances of this desiccated short story are curious, even eccentric, incredulous. The withered and aloof Bartleby is presented, examined and disdained, until his very dispirited isolation makes him the object of the narrator's genuine but increasingly troubled caretaking.

Bartleby's enervating and apparently desperate ennui keep him always a step removed from the narrator's efforts to supply a little humanity in his life.

The scrivener is lonely beyond understanding. He bears almost in silence the emotional poverty that ultimately kills him.

One believes that Bartleby longed, in vain, to be able to repel the Reaper with his simple and inscrutable refrain: "I would prefer not to."

I will prefer not to re-read Melville's tale on a dreary afternoon.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

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