BARTLEBY, THE SCRIVENER: A STORY OF WALL STREET a short story by Herman Melville (1853).

A scrivener is the job of copying law papers, work which the narrator in Melville’s parable admits is a “dry, husky sort of business”.

The story is written from the point of view of an elderly copyist who owns a successful firm which employs two other clerks, Turkey and Nippers, and a 12-year-old office-boy, Ginger-Nut. These whimsical nicknames are at odds with these rather sad figures who earn their living in this drab line of work.

The story centres on Bartleby, a new addition to the staff who , at first,  appears a model worker – dedicated and conscientious. Gradually, the fact that he never leaves his desk, never seems to eat and doesn’t socialize mark him as an oddity.

Furthermore, whenever he is asked to do any additional jobs, he replies simply “I would prefer not to”.

In this way he stubbornly refuses to do anything other than his own allotted copying work without ever explaining why. He is an enigma who is described in the following terms : “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn…………. singularly sedate”.

The owner of the firm threatens to sack him but, out of pity, can’t quite bring himself to do so. Removing him by force seems to be the only way to get him out of the building.

The formality and procrastinating personality of the narrator is rendered in the heightened formality of Melville’s language: “I determined again to postpone the consideration of this dilemma to my future leisure”.

Eventually, out of desperation the ageing scribe decides it would be easier to move offices that move Bartleby and when the removal company has been and gone, this eccentric clerk remains as “the motionless occupant of a naked room”.

This narrator does not pretend to tell the whole story of this elusive figure; stating in his introduction “I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man”.

We can only speculate that Melville’s short story is intended as a kind of cautionary tale; a warning that if you end up stuck in a soul-destroying job you could become a nowhere man like Bartleby whose only recourse is to become a rebel in the sense defined by Albert Camus : “A man who says no”.

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