A must-read for anyone wishing to transcend: “Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville

My favorite story ever.

I read Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville when I was eighteen, pretty much torn apart between what my parents expected of me and what I wanted to do. This short story not only worked as an incentive for me to become more honest with myself, but also as a lesson reminding me of how important communication is in relationships with people around.

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SYNOPSIS (if you have read the story, you can skip this):

For those who have not read this story (I highly recommend this short read), Bartleby the Scriverner is narrated by “a rather elderly” lawyer who is “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best”. However, his way of life is suddenly turned upside down by Bartleby, a new scrivener he hires in the office. Bartleby’s behavior may frustrate many readers, since no matter how desperate the lawyer requires him to do some errands, Bartleby answers:

“I would prefer not to.”

This answer is repeated numerously throughout the story. At first, I tried to count how many times Bartleby said this, yet I gave up halfway because the number exceeds what I expected. In addition, this strange character rarely eats anything but gingernuts.

Bartleby’s complete apathy to social norms causes turbulence to the narrator, who has never let anything frustrating invade his peace. As a result, he moves to a new office, knowing that Bartleby still literally lives day and night in the old office. “Since he will not quit me, I must quit him. I will change my office; I will move elsewhere, and give him fair notice that if I find him on my new premises I will then proceed against him as a common trespasser.”  As Bartleby keeps staying in the office like a ghost, he is moved to the prison as a “vagrant”. Finally, since he refuses to eat anything, Bartleby passes away. “Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred.”

A bit of ANALYSIS:

The filter light from the skylight shaft penetrates the lawyer’s office chambers, which face a brick wall “black by age”. An eminently “safe” man, the lawyer — protagonist in the short story Bartleby the Scrivener has been pulled away from his content state by the appearance of Bartleby, and thus, undergoes fundamental change through the risks he subconsciously takes. With allusion to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Emerson’s “The Transcendentalist”, the fictional tale by Herman Melville has illuminated many readers with its heartbreaking message about humans’ communication, and more broadly, about humanity.

Bartleby, with his complete apathy to social norms and materialism, causes chaos to the narrator’s philosophy: “easiest of life is the best”. Exposed to the eccentricity of the existentialist, the lawyer devotes more than half of the story to desperately rationalizing the behaviors of Bartleby, whose most regular response to his demands is “I would prefer not to”. This action gradually presents to the “master of control” a risk: leaving his comfort zone. The transcendentalist, failing to apply his way of life to control Bartleby, now embarks on doing what he has been so disinclined to. It is a hazardous journey: ceasing to go to church (similar to Emerson’s suggestion), moving away from his office (which reminds readers of the prisoner who is dragged out of the cave in Plato’s famous metaphor) and questioning himself numerously about how to help another human. Furthermore, after transcending, the narrator must face the painful doubt of how he will continue to live: following the novel principles he has learned or coming back to the content state. However, if the prior condition is so comfortable, what motivates the lawyer to take risks? The obvious answer seems to be the arresting Bartleby – an external force that throws the lawyer into a dilemma where the more he clings to his habit of mastering people, the further he steps away from his comfort zone. Yet, the narrator also possesses a little soul left that drives him to save the vagrant Bartleby. In other words, his inner desire motivates him to shrink from his habit and change.

The lawyer’s soul, which gets dry because of avoidance to deal with humanity, reaches out for Bartleby. The transcendentalist, who never walks around the screen to face the existentialist, starts inquiring about Bartleby, suggests to him new job places and comes to find the “haunting ghost” in the Tombs. He has walked his steps in penetrating the barrier built between humans. His actions become an awakening to readers, who may also build for themselves a wall of security that discourages them from communicating with others. Moreover, Herman Melville suggests this idea by the coda revealing that Bartleby emerges from the Dead Letter Office where he must handle the letters or rings that never reach the receivers. These dead letters are emblems of failed communication.  The disheartening facts burden Bartleby with miseries, making him indifferent. Bartleby the Scrivener indicates that if we do not reach out to each other, all will become Bartleby – haunting ghosts rather than humans.

While Bartleby seems to be so unreal, the narrator is all of us. Don’t we sometimes feel so insecure that we build around ourselves walls of protection that prevent others from stepping closer to?

Herman Melville has wonderfully narrates a story that we all need to read – a tale that ignites in readers disturbing contemplation, makes our hearts drop and enrich our souls.

 -By Nhi


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