By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 24, 2010

2. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 39-74

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street
Despite the title, this story is less about either Bartleby or Wall Street than about its narrator and his encounter with literature's greatest passive-aggressive character. It was published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in November, 1853.

The narrator tells us he's "elderly," though what that meant in 1853 is not what it means today: He later indicates that he's "not far from sixty."But he, too, thinks the story is about Bartleby and not about himself, though after announcing that the lack of "a full and satisfactory biography of" Bartleby" is "an irreparable loss to literature," he quickly begins talking about himself. He is a lawyer, but an "unambitious" one, "a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best." He does "a snug business among rich men's bonds, and mortgages, and title-deeds," and name-drops "the late John Jacob Astor" three times in as many consecutive sentences.

He works in an office on Wall Street that suits its location: It looks out in one direction on the white wall of an airshaft and in the other on "a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade." There he employs two men, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, as copyists: that is, they spend their workdays painstakingly copying out legal documents, a necessity in the days before photocopiers, word processors, and even typewriters with carbon paper. They are Dickensian characters, known chiefly by their complementary traits: When one is efficient and good-humored, the other is sloppy and cranky -- and vice versa. The narrator puts up with both of them, however. The third employee is a twelve-year-old gofer, known as Ginger Nut for his diligence in supplying the office with the eponymous cookie. (We call them ginger snaps.)

The narrator's work increases, so he decides to hire another scrivener. The one who answers his ad is "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby." The narrator decides to place Bartleby in his part of the office -- the other scriveners are on the other side of some "ground-glass folding doors" that partition the office into two rooms -- so he "procured a high green folding screen, which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice." And so Bartleby goes about his duties, "silently, palely, mechanically."

But on the third day of his employment, he asks Bartleby to come help him with a small task. "Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when, without moving from his privacy, Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, 'I would prefer not to.'" The narrator is astonished, and then angry, and orders Bartleby once again, entering his space behind the screen. "'I would prefer not to,' said he."

Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.
The operative phrase here is "ordinarily human." For it becomes clear at this point in the story that Bartleby is extraordinarily not human. All pretense of realistic human psychology disappears from the character. He is a presence that stirs anxiety and moral doubt in others. Maybe he's a symbol, or maybe he's just an idea; just as Moby Dick seems to be a whale, Bartleby seems to be a human being, but those who encounter him -- whether the narrator encountering him in the story or the reader encountering him on the page -- invest him with something more. In the narrator's case, Bartleby becomes a moral challenge.

As Bartleby's assertion of preference continues, as he resists any attempts to force him to explain his behavior, the narrator begins to question himself: "there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner, touched and disconcerted me." Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut respond to Bartleby's stubbornness only within the limitations of their characters: Turkey, being in his quietly agreeable mode, agrees that the narrator is right in being annoyed; Nippers, in his choleric mode, thinks "I should kick him out of the office. Later, Turkey and Nippers which swap reactions as they swap modes. Ginger Nut only maintains that Bartleby is "a little luny," which is, I suppose, a nineteenth-century spelling of "looney."

But rather than taking action against Bartleby, the narrator begins to treat him as an object of study, noticing that "he never went anywhere" and that he seemed to live solely on ginger-nuts. Even this, the narrator thinks, is preternatural, for "what was ginger? A hot, spicy thing. Was Bartleby hot and spicy? Not at all. Ginger, then, had no effect on Bartleby. Probably he preferred it should have none." At this point, we note that the narrator is taking Bartleby on his own terms: as one who lives his life as a matter of preferences.

"Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance," the narrator observes. And keeping this in mind, he decides to rise above the aggravation, to demonstrate his own strength of character, in his words, to "cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval." The narrator will be pragmatic: "He is useful to me. I can get along with him." By putting up with Bartleby, he will "lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience."

Of course, resolutions at self-discipline are doomed to be broken. The "I would prefer not to" continues. It is always stated as a preference: When the narrator challenges him, "You will not?" Bartleby calmly, maddeningly, replies, "I prefer not." He is a creature not of will but of inertia. Moreover, Bartleby's recalcitrance has its effect on the narrator, who gives up asking anything at all of Bartleby, knowing what the response will be. Bartleby has won: He has trained the narrator in his ways: "every added repulse ... which I received only tended to lessen the probability of my repeating the inadvertence."

And so the narrator continues his fascinated observation, discovering that Bartleby "was always there -- first in the morning, continually through the day, and the last at night."And then one Sunday, on his way to church, the narrator decides to stop by the office and discovers that Bartleby actually lives there. Bartleby is, as usual, imperturbable at being discovered, and "his cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance" so embarrasses the narrator that, "I slunk away from my own door.... Indeed, it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were." Instead of outrage at learning that Bartleby "ate, dressed, and slept in my office," the narrator is filled with compassion for Bartleby's "miserable friendlessness and loneliness.... His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible!"

When he returns to the office and finds Bartleby not there, he goes through Bartleby's desk and discovers his savings, knotted in a handkerchief. He recalls that Bartleby "never spoke but to answer," that he "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." It's good to stop here and remember the kind of work  Bartleby does: copying long, dull, verbose legal documents, a task demanding accuracy and precision rather than imagination and originality. Bartleby is, in short, an office machine.

The narrator, to his credit, is not content to treat Bartleby as a very specialized piece of machinery. We don't ask our photocopiers to run errands for us, after all. But then, on the other hand, they wouldn't claim it was their preference if we did. The narrator again feels compassion:
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 speical cases, beyond that point it does not.... What I saw that moning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give almlost to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.
The narrator is so stricken that he doesn't continue on his way to church: "Somehow, the things I had seen disqualified me for the time from church-going." That is, I think, a remarkable statement on Melville's part about the limitations of religion in the face of the utter bleakness of which human existence is capable.

The next day, the narrator makes an effort to break through into the enigma that Bartleby represents, quizzing him on his personal life, his place of birth, anything that might explain who he is or what has made him this way. He fails, of course, discerning only "the faintest conceivable tremor of the white attenuated mouth" before the inevitable reply comes: "At present I prefer to give no answer." The narrator persists, asking him to be "a little reasonable" about performing other tasks in the office. "'At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,' was his mildly cadaverous reply." Nippers chimes in, mocking Bartleby's "prefer." And the narrator finds himself responding, "'Mr. Nippers,' said I, 'I'd prefer that you would withdraw for the present.'"

There's a brief comic exchange, with a kind of Monty Pythonesque quality to it, in which both Turkey and Nippers are unable to avoid using the word "prefer." Suddenly, the narrator realizes that the word itself has infected the office: "I  thought to myself, surely I must get rid of a demented man, who already has in some degree turned the tongues, if not the heads of myself and clerks."

The next day, "Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery. Upon asking him why he did not write, he said that he had decided upon doing no more writing." And when asked why not, Bartleby doesn't even deign to use his familiar catchphrase: "'Do you not see the reason for yourself?' he indifferently replied." The machine has shut down. Days go by, and all Bartleby will say is, "I have given up copying." Finally, the narrator is forced to act: "Decently as I could, I told Bartleby that in six days' time he must unconditionally leave the office." The usual reply comes. The narrator even leaves some extra money for Bartleby, who ignores it. The narrator preens himself on having efficiently dealt with the matter: "Without loudly bidding Bartleby depart -- as an inferior genius might have done -- I assumed the ground that depart he must; and upon that assumption built all I had to say."

The next morning, however, he's not so certain: "It was truly a beautiful thought to have assumed Bartleby's departure; but, after all, that assumption was simply my own, and none of Bartleby's. The great point was, not whether I had assumed that he would quit me, but whether he would prefer so to do. He was more a man of preferences than assumptions." Nevertheless, he is "thunderstruck" when he arrives at the office and finds Bartleby still there.
For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth, was killed one cloudless afternoon long ago in Virginia, by summer lightning; at his own warm open window he was killed, and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon, till some one touched him, when he fell.
The original, and literal, bolt from the blue (and one of the most beautiful passages of prose in Melville -- or maybe anyone else).

Our narrator is touched by blind anger, the "old Adam of resentment," but is saved from thoughts of murder by his persistent compassion: "Men have committed murder for jealousy's sake, and anger's sake, and hatred's sake, and selfishness' sake, and spiritual pride's sake; but no man, that ever I heard of, ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity's sake." He decides that Bartleby has been given to him by "an all-wise Providence" as a burden to bear, that his "mission in the world, Bartleby, is to furnish you with office-room for such period as you may see fit to remain."

But even he can't maintain this virtuous burden-bearing for long. Doubts and fears return, and finally the narrator decides that the only course is, "Since he will  not quit me, I must quit him." He finds a new office space, and on moving day leaves Bartleby behind, "the motionless occupant of a naked room." Even his attempt to slip some money into Bartleby's hand fails: "it dropped upon the floor."

Before long the new tenant of the narrator's old offices comes to him about Bartleby, and then the owner of the building: the new tenant has ousted Bartleby from the office, but he remains in the building, sitting on the stairs and sleeping in the entry. The narrator agrees to try to persuade Bartleby to leave, and goes to see him, suggesting occupations that he might like: a clerk in a dry-good store, a bartender, a traveling bill-collector. Bartleby insists he's "not particular" about what work he does, but he would, of course, prefer not to do any of those. The narrator even offers to take Bartleby home with him, but Bartleby refuses: "at present I would prefer not to make any change at all."

The narrator gives up. To avoid being badgered by the tenant and the landlord, he spends several days riding around the town, even crossing over to Jersey City and Hoboken. When he finally returns to his office, he finds a note from the landlord: Bartleby has been arrested as a vagrant and sent to the Tombs. He goes to see Bartleby in the prison, but Bartleby won't look at him: "'I know you,' he said, without looking round -- 'and I want nothing to say to you.'" The narrator gives money to the "grub-man" who procures food for prisoners who can pay for it, but Bartleby says, "I prefer not to dine to-day." A few days later, the narrator returns to the prison and finds Bartleby dead.

A few months later, the narrator hears a rumor: Bartleby had once been a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in Washington. And the narrator thinks about Bartleby's work with these undeliverable communications, which are opened and examined before being burned. Sometimes they contain a ring or perhaps money that was sent to someone who can never receive it:
On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

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