Bartleby, the Scrivener (a Story of Wall Street)

Paolo Santori’s comment on Herman Melville’s short story

…And the happiness of being brave And the pleasure, at last, of spying Ithaca.

“Herman Melville” by Jorge Louis Borges

One cannot possibly trace everything back to an end or an ending. Some characters and stories escape the cages in which we try to trap them. We aim at enclosing them inside a circle, but they beg us to draw them in lines with an unclear end and perhaps an even unclear beginning. Their authors make the same request. Those who understand writing know that the rule is indeed the circle, but they are even more aware that the authentic kernel of the story lies in the line.

If there is any truth in all of this, it certainly applies to Herman Melville and the characters in his stories.

Let’s consider Moby Dick and Captain Ahab. How many ex-post readings tried to assess Ahab and considered him as a Graceless man (in the Christian acceptation) or a madman lacking moral values? How many readers did interpret his death, result of the clash with the white whale, as the failure of a certain lifestyle? “Ahab beware of Ahab”, as Melville prophetically stated. He was right. Melville respected the character he had created, he listened to the very same voice luring Ahab (that was perhaps luring him too) without expressing moralistic judgments of sort. Not all the voices and callings are good, but the deep ones are all true and worthy of respect. Readers aspiring to explore Ahab’s depths must join his damned crew, go in search of Moby Dick and fight him to the end. The outcome is uncertain, even for those who have already read the book.

The same goes for another character, Bartleby the scrivener. Some critics defined his short story as the first existential novel. Recently, philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben and Gilles Deleuze dedicated an essay (Bartleby, la formula della creazione) to the philosophical content of the text. What I have in mind is similar in spirit, but different in content. I would like to first briefly tell the story of Bartleby the scrivener and then to highlight a point that struck me. What has been said so far is a warning to myself, as I should not enclose anything, I should not encircle Bartleby, but rather find him somewhere along the line masterly drawn by Melville.

The logic of the spoiler does not apply to short stories. By reporting the facts narrated by Melville I will reveal to you little compared to what emerges from reading the text itself. Little does it matter that I should reveal the ending as well. As for Moby Dick’s Ishmael, Melville entrusts the burden of storytelling to one of the characters, an unnamed lawyer. I like to think that by indicating an unnamed narrator, Melville wanted to give each of us the honour of retelling the story. Faithful to this thought, I will summarize the facts as follows.

Let’s imagine you are a fairly successful lawyer of a notary’s office on Wall Street. Your life’s motto may be summed up under the assumption ‘the easiest way of life is the best’. Three employees work in the office. You know their nature, their strength and weakness and you can reasonably predict their actions and attitudes. Due to the increase in work, you decide to hire a fourth employee and the candidate is Bartleby, a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!”. You decide to hire him, without regrets. Bartleby works tirelessly from morning to night transcribing and copying documents, silent and pale in the desk you have assigned to him. Suddenly the unthinkable happens.

You start to trust this man with each passing day, you appreciate his seriousness and his gentle nature. However, one day you ask him to perform a different task by asking him to read a document he has drafted. His answer is extremely surprising: “I would prefer not to”. Day after day, despite the indignation of your subordinates and your inability to trace that refusal to any reason, Bartleby still refuses to perform the ‘ordinary’ tasks entrusted. Yet, any requests for explanation is ignored. The scrivener simply continues to transcribe and copy documents, with the usual commitment but also with the usual gaze lost in emptiness.

You refuse to fire Bartleby because you still believe he is a good person at heart. In the meantime, you discover that he lives in your study, he barely eats and never speaks if not prompted. Any attempt to help him is vain. You have mercy on him, yet his “I would prefer not” has become an absolute refusal of work, as Bartleby no longer works. When compelled to explain the reasons for his behaviour, he answers with indifference: “Do you not see the reason for yourself?”. In the end, you painfully decide to fire Bartleby but he decides not to leave your studio, with his distinctive mildness and indifference. You move to another study, as it is the easiest solution. Bartleby stays in the Wall Street condominium where the new owners threaten to have him locked up. Despite your effort to move and avoid him, you ask Bartleby to move to your new office, but the answer is always a negative preference. Eventually, Bartleby is locked up in a vagabond detention centre, where he will die rejecting the meals you generously paid for through the corruption of a guard and a cook.

«Not all the voices and callings are good, but the deep ones are all true and worthy of respect.»

The story ends with a passing rumour about Bartleby. You have experienced in person Bartleby’s death, you were witness to his life, while the rumour comes from non-specific sources. It seems that Bartleby was previously employed at the Dead Letter Office, that is the office responsible for the disposal of those letters that do not reach the person to whom they were addressed. Now it is Melville who speaks through you: “When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” Thus ends Bartleby’s story, which is, in turn, Melville’s story, and our own story as well.

Why did Melville craft such ending to the story? It could have certainly ended with Bartleby’s death. Perhaps the rumour is less worthy of trust than direct testimony, it is less crucial than your relationship with Bartleby. Moreover, what does Bartleby’s ‘I would rather not’ stand for? Is it a symbol of the opposition between pure will and the reason of us readers/narrators? Why does Bartleby ‘prefer’ not to do rather than categorically refuse? As it often happens when analysing great texts, the questions are far more interesting than the answers. Bearing in mind what has been stated, I intend to leave all these questions open. One question, however, has struck me more than others and I would like to consider it more in depth. Why does Bartleby firstly copy and transcribe documents – he works for a salary – and then, at a certain point, stop doing his work? In other words, what role did work play in Bartleby’s life?

It is striking that a story defined as the first existentialist novel would be set on Wall Street and would choose work as its main theme. Work is at the cornerstone of the story. Even in the final rumour, work becomes a vehicle of a very deep meaning, as the disposal and destruction of the dead letters is

connected to human deepest misery. Perhaps, the work at the notary’s office and the duplication of documents is Bartleby’s attempt to ensure that writing is not lost, a response to the obliteration characterizing his previous work. Bartleby may be desperately attempting to redeem himself, working his way from obliteration to restoration. In this perspective, the refusal to perform the basic scrivener’s tasks could be the sign that his rescue failed, or that no rescue was actually being undertaken. In the end, Bartleby worked with his eyes lost in a void.

My answer is derived from these hypotheses. The scrivener had a vocation for the job he did – he was ‘called’ by the letters he read in his first job and copied in his second. This call was so strong that letters still charmed him even in his desperate days. The letters that had destroyed his life and made him sense life’s devasting nature called him and he quietly answered. Bartleby was fired from his first job, he did not quit. When he was sent away, when life steered away from the path traced by his vocation, Bartleby tried to convert that call by establishing a new relationship with the letters. In his mind, the tasks of copying and transcribing the letters may have been the exact opposite of his previous work. We tried to help Bartleby through reason and mercy, but perhaps the greatest help was the paid work at our office. So what do we make of his ‘I would prefer not’ and his subsequent refusal of work?

In his comment to Bartleby’s story, Slavoj Zizek focused on the formula ‘I would prefer not to’. Zizek notes that Melville opens a third way as opposed to the dichotomy between the ‘wanting to do’ and ‘not wanting to do’, namely the ‘wanting not to do’. Bartleby was not refusing the additional tasks proposed to him, such as rechecking the writings or sending a registered letter. He was not rejecting the hand that we had all held out to him several times as an offer of help. Bartleby was rather affirming another type of reality and choice. He was affirming a universe of meaning almost inaccessible to those who had not received the same vocation and which we can only glimpse in his ‘I would prefer not’. In this reality, the great human warmth revealed is welcomed with ‘indifference’ (Melville’s word), precisely because it is not different from ordinary tasks. He was only concentrated in his work, in which his relationship with the letters materialized. We tried everything, “meanwhile Bartleby sat in his hermitage, oblivious to every thing but his own peculiar business there”.

I like to think that Bartleby experienced the profoundly secular infinity of life while copying and transcribing the documents at the notary’s office, just as he had experienced the tragic finitude of life in reading the dead letters. Melville’s most beautiful pages are not to be found among Bartleby’s final ones, his death or the rumour about his work. Much life and meaning can be discovered in the first pages of the short story, along with the simple description of Bartleby’s work as a scrivener. Melville knew it well, inasmuch as he decides to reveal everything in the title of the short story: a scrivener, a story of Wall Street. Maybe, when writing the short story, Melville came up with titles such as ‘I would prefer not to’ or ‘The Dead Letters’, but then he changed his mind, as it often happens. Perhaps it was Bartleby himself, who quietly said to Melville ‘I’d prefer not to’ after reading the alternative titles.

This is my circle in Bartleby and Melville’s line. At some point, however, like all vocations and calls, the letters become silent, the voice of his work disappears, or perhaps the one of the previous job becomes far too loud. Thus Bartleby no longer works, he stops writing and transcribing. He preferred not, as well as I do. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!


Teacher of Philosophy and Economics,

Tilburg University

[email protected]