It is uncommon to read a story that is uncommon. In the literary world, where there seems to be nothing new under the sun, it is eventful to uncover something that is literally unique: something profoundly mysterious, poignantly existential, and perfectly amusing. The imagination of man longs for wide horizons and wide canvases—as did the imagination of Herman Melville, and his cravings created monsters like Moby-Dick, the white whale, and mysteries like Bartleby, the scrivener.
After publishing Moby-Dick in 1851, Melville’s nervous and neurotic energy was given intense voice in a series of short stories, of which “Barlteby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” is held as a masterpiece and a herald of absurdism. As its influence bears out, there is a stark difference between absurdist literature and absurd literature—it is the difference between Kafka’s The Hunger Artist and Collins’ The Hunger Games. There exists a transcendent sort of absurdity when the eternal sounds through the temporal. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is an uncommonly strange tale that no one can quite grasp the meaning of, but it thereby serves as a singular meditation on the presence of the divine in things uncommon and strange.
Bartleby was a very good scrivener. He copied volumes of legal documents for his employer “silently, palely, mechanically,” by a window that looked out on a black brick wall. Bartleby was a very good scrivener, indeed. A pallid, catatonic, distant man was Bartleby. No one knew where he was from, or had ever seen him outside the office. He had no friends. No habits. No distinguishing characteristics. He was simply a good scrivener and that was all that anyone knew. Then came the day that gave all his secrets and eccentricities a new and electric pitch. When asked to perform a common duty, Bartleby, one day, gave the uncommon reply: “I would prefer not to.”
From then on, Bartleby continued in this flat yet firm refusal—as his superior and fellows grew increasingly confused and cross—until he did no work at all, but only stood in a reverie behind his writer’s screen staring blankly at the black brick wall. The lawyer who employed him, being a man of peace and patience, undertook to reason with the scrivener and discover something about him; but the mystery of Bartleby was only accentuated when his employer only learned that he had taken up residence in the office. Tension mounted rapidly over the bizarre fixture that Bartleby had become, and the lawyer began to fear for his very reputation; yet he somehow could not bring himself to show Bartleby the door.
The situation finally resolved itself when the exasperated lawyer, and not the exasperating scrivener, moved out to seek new rooms. But Bartleby still preferred not to leave the premises. The new tenants eventually sought the lawyer for advice and aid. Bartleby haunted the stairwells, slept in doorways, and preferred to do nothing. The kind-hearted lawyer visited the inexplicable Bartleby, again tried to show him reason, and even invited him to live with him; but Bartleby, as always, preferred not to. Poor Bartleby wound up in prison where he suffered an insufferably tragic end.
Bartleby is considered one of the iconic mysteries in English Literature and the subject of a host of symbolic interpretations. Clinical depression. Economic rebellion. Autobiographical. Free will. Determinism. Nihilism. Capitalism. Catholicism. What is perhaps the most important element of Bartleby, however, is that Bartleby is elusive. G. K. Chesterton praised Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens’ last work, as he died after writing only half of it) because it was a partial mystery, and therefore it was a perfect mystery. Everyone who has read a mystery, from Holmes to Hannay, knows that the solution is never as wonderful as the problem. The mystery of Bartleby, like Drood, remains inviolate and eternal, retaining that perfection, that sense of immortality, to which Mr. Chesterton referred, and the strangeness of Melville’s story is a wonder as a result. Bartleby is impossible yet irresistible. His tale is at once comic and tragic. It is pathetic as it is rich. It is an untouchable riddle, a hilarious and serious reductio ad absurdum, providing great material for contemplation, imagination, and wonder.
A large part of the mystery of Bartleby is the mystery of despair—the strange impetus to turn one’s back on humanity and divinity. It is the temptation that the scrivener succumbs to and one which Melville himself struggled against. It is one of the plagues of Wall Street, the negativistic conviction that the black brick wall dominating the window-view is a universal domination, a mirror of reality. Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” is a mild expression of Captain Ahab’s morbid refusal to knuckle under the divine madness—and, what is more, his determination to play a part in it, and break beyond the wall. The world has many walls, walls that block out the beauties that must be fought for; and freedom often seems only the fruit of the fury that can burst out and through. Thus, Ahab heroically resists, driving the “vindictive bows” of the Pequod through the “cold, malicious waves.” And thus, Bartleby, in his forlorn dignity, merely embraces the wall, becoming a phantom of passive resistance and accentuating human suffering on every level, be it psychological, emotional, spiritual, or social. Bartleby is, in this sense, a darker creation than any horror from the pages of Poe or Hawthorne.
Though Bartleby is an absurd caricature of a man, he is capable—as demonstrated in his effect upon his employer who narrates the history—of awakening a sense of pathos and drawing people who are self-defined as “eminently safe” beyond the surface of the truth, whether they like it or not. Encountering the overpowering melancholy isolation of Bartleby amounts to a type of conversion to the complexities and consternations of humanity for the narrator, a man who struggles with shades of hypocrisy in his belief that “the easiest way of life is the best.” He, and every reader with him, see afresh “the bond of a common humanity” and are given to extend a strange and unfounded pity and mercy for Bartleby—unfounded save for: “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.”
Is Bartleby an emblem of modernist philosophy or metaphysical philosophy? Is he a Christ figure or a Freudian figure of the uncanny? It is not easy. Nor is it safe. There is nothing easy or safe about the human condition. Nothing is satisfactory. Nothing is adequate. Nothing pins Bartleby down. He would prefer not to be pinned down, and so is he not. Bartleby became an immovable reality in a Wall Street office, a living curiosity; but his purpose as a literary creation is to threaten the foundations of the walls that people build around themselves, brick by black brick; and perhaps even to tumble a few of them over to reveal a whole wide world that is yet unaccounted for—a world of strange beauties, sublime absurdities, and secret wrongs, whose discovery compels the cry: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
Editor’s note: The image above is a portrait of Herman Melville painted by Joseph O. Easton in 1891.