Certain figures from nineteenth century gothic horror fiction are still very much part of mainstream culture. One thinks of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula the vampire, and Doctor Jekyll’s murderous alter-ego Mr Hyde. Less well-known, but more unsettling in my opinion, is the figure of “Bartleby the Scrivener” from a short story of that name by Herman Melville (author of Moby Dick) first published in 1853. Bartleby is ostensibly a bland, passive character, who could not be further removed from the nightmarish creations I have mentioned. But, to me, he is scarier than any of them.
Melville’s story is narrated by a successful, elderly lawyer who has his business chambers on the second floor of a Wall Street office building in New York City. In the days before photocopying and digital technology, lawyers had to employ droves of law-copyists, known as “scriveners”, to laboriously transcribe duplicates of legal documents by hand. It is hard to imagine a more monotonous and soul-destroying occupation. At the beginning of his story the narrator already has two scriveners in his service, but needs a third to cope with an expected influx of new work:
“In answer to my advertisement,” the narrator relates, “a motionless young man one morning stood upon my office threshold…I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” If Bartleby has a first name we never learn what it is, and, despite knowing nothing whatever of him beyond his having the appropriate qualifications, the narrator engages him straightway.
Everything is fine at first, since Bartleby works quickly and efficiently by daylight and candlelight (“he seemed to gorge himself on my documents”), the only cause for unease being that he does so “silently, palely, mechanically”. But when the narrator asks him to help in examining copies against each other, a routine exercise for a scrivener, Bartleby simply says “I would prefer not to.” He does not refuse in any insolent or confrontational manner but “in a singularly mild, firm voice…”. “His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.” Although disconcerted by this, Bartleby’s blank passivity somehow disarms the narrator.
The scrivener will not be shifted from his refusal and the narrator gradually notices that he never leaves the office, indeed when asked to go out on an errand he replies “I would prefer not to.” Needing to call in there one Sunday morning, the narrator finds that he cannot get his key into the lock because there is a one already lodged there from the inside. The door is at last opened from within “and thrusting his lean visage at me, and holding the door ajar, the apparition of Bartleby appeared, in his shirt sleeves, and otherwise in a strangely tattered dishabille, saying quietly that he was sorry, but that he was deeply engaged just then, and – preferred not admitting me at present.”
Bartleby is plainly living at the office, and the narrator finds himself deeply affected by his employee’s apparent loneliness and desolation: “For the first time in my life a feeling of over-powering stinging melancholy seized me.” “What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder. I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”
An attempt by his employer to elicit some basic facts from Bartleby concerning his previous life and present circumstances receives the inevitable reply, “I would prefer not to”. Soon he stops copying (“I would prefer not to”) and declines to do any work at all. Increasingly, he does no more than stand looking out of a window which is faced by the blank wall of another building only ten feet distant, in a pose the narrator refers to as his “dead-wall revery”. The narrator tries to dismiss him but he will not go, even when offered monetary incentives. All efforts to persuade and reason with him, and tempt him, are met with his standard anodyne rebuff: “I would prefer not to”.
At length the narrator, his other employees, and his clients and business associates grow so unnerved by the baleful and inert presence that the situation becomes intolerable. But still the narrator cannot bring himself to have Bartleby coerced in any way. Instead, he actually moves office and leaves the scrivener in sole occupation of his now empty former premises.
Eventually Bartleby declines to go on living altogether, so he stops eating and passes away. But in a coda to the story, the narrator hears a rumour that the scrivener had previously been employed at the “dead letter” office in Washington. This was where letters that could not be delivered due to their being hopelessly addressed ended up. There, they were opened, and then burned if no return address could be located inside. Anything valuable within would be auctioned off. “Dead letters!” the narrator observes, “does it not sound like dead men?”
Having reread the story recently, I turned to the editor’s (Harold Beaver) introduction to my volume of Melville’s work to find out what it’s supposed to mean. Apparently it comes out of Melville’s own experience as a writer: “…it becomes a parable of all writers in a financial society who refuse to write on demand or to compromise…”. Alternatively, the editor says, it’s a religious parable, with the narrator eventually betraying the Christ-like purity of Bartleby by forsaking him.
But, echoing Bartleby, I prefer not to accept such convoluted abstractions. To me, it’s about a haunting. I read somewhere that all ghost stories are grief stories, and I fancy that Bartleby represents some elemental human grief being visited upon the complacent narrator. As the story ends: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”
The illustrations are “The Book Auctioneer” from Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” (which looks like my idea of Bartleby) and “The dead letter office at Washington”. I read “Bartleby” in “Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, And Other Stories” ed. Harold Beaver