Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener

What to say, how to begin, on a piece of writing which, says Patrick McGrath in the introduction to the Hesperus Press edition of ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, “one of the great achievements of world literature”? In fact he doesn’t quite say that: he simply says that this high praise is “the judgement of many readers”. Get off the fence, Patrick: it is.


‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ was published in 1853 but it forges a path ahead, and is such a keystone of modern literature that to admit not having read it before is akin to proclaiming ignorance of ‘Metamorphosis’ or Waiting for Godot. (Rest easy: I have.) But it is one of those works whose reputation precedes it so handily, and which seems summable in such straightforward terms, that it almost feels unnecessary to read it. Do I need to read it? With all the other books pressing on my time, I would prefer not to. So confident was I that I already knew it, that I even read a novel inspired by it – Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co – without having read the source material. In the end, like all classics, ‘Bartleby’ defies expectations, and expands before your eyes.

A mere 40 pages in the above edition (or 80 in the handsome Melville House one below, for those who like good value: though the Hesperus edition also includes the story ‘Benito Cereno’), this is a story which unpacks several times its bodyweight. The essence is simple to summarise. A lawyer on Wall Street, “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best,” employs a new copyist, Bartleby: “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!” All goes well until one day, when asked to read over a document, Bartleby responds: “I would prefer not to.” Soon it becomes his answer to everything. You can see where this is heading.

This mild statement, through repetition, becomes sinister and frightening. “I would prefer not to.” Why not? Bartleby never explains. His story is twofold: of Bartleby himself, and of his effect on others. It unnerves his employer, forcing him to move offices (“I would prefer not to quit you,” is his reply when the lawyer asks him to go). His response is inhuman – uncooperative, alien – but normal in its civility and its intention: all humans must struggle against the desire to stop, to step off the treadmill. Bartleby is frightening because he dares to.

Bartleby the Scrivener (Melville House)

He clashes with his employer also because he – like all lawyers – likes the definite and concrete, where Bartleby is “more a man of preferences than assumptions.” But his preference is not a statement in favour, but a statement against, a denial: not what we think of as a ‘preference’ at all. His choice is to decide not to choose; to take his fate out of his own hands by stoutly insisting on his desire “not to”. “I like to be stationary,” says Bartleby late in the story. “But I am not particular.” Meanwhile his employer decides that Bartleby is his fate.

‘Bartleby’ – like Bartleby – is endlessly open to interpretation. Patrick McGrath outlines them in his introduction to the Hesperus edition. Bartleby is a Christ figure. He is the narrator’s alter ego; he is Melville’s alter ego (trying to recover from the commercial failure of Moby-Dick and Pierre). Or, more satisfyingly, it is about power and submission, where here the potent employer becomes entirely submissive to the decisions Bartleby makes – or refuses to make. It is the endless unfoldings offered by a book which is so short, on the surface so simple, which is one of the marks of its greatness. That it laid the foundation, and led the way, for much essential 20th century literature, is another.


  1. ‘to admit not having read it before is akin to proclaiming ignorance of ‘Metamorphosis’ or Waiting for Godot.’

    Erm, I have read both Metamorphosis and Godot but am ashamed to take ignorance to new levels by having never even heard of Bartleby.

    Oh dear.

    (he quickly runs off to buy a copy)

  2. It’s shameful, but I’ve never read anything by Melville. Moby-Dick is my summer project, and now you’ve just shown me that isn’t enough! Thanks!

  3. For the first time ever in the history of WordPress, a possibly related post has proved useful — one of the above links to an online text of Bartleby at
    which is useful for those who would prefer not to buy the book.

    I’ve not only heard of it, I’ve read it, although it was some decades ago (I’d prefer not to say how many). As I recall, some professor had assigned it to illustrate that what might look at first to be just an exercise in writing discipline could in the end produce results — he was not very keen on it as a major moment in literature.

  4. It’s a Fantastic book! One of my faves. I tend to see Bartleby as the quiet anarchist – rebelling against those who suppress him and place him in the daily grind. The film, which stars Crispin Glover as the title character does absolutely no justice to the novel.

  5. I’ve never even looked at this book before. But your description makes it sound very interesting, kind of proto-modernist, and a little bit like Dostoevsky’s The Double — another astonishingly early “foundation” for 20th century fiction, having been published in 1846.

  6. Bartleby is in my Top Ten. It’s brilliant. I don’t know why I’ve never mentioned it in my blog. I read Bartleby when it was released as one of the Penguin 60s in 1994 (or was it 93?) and couldn’t believe that it had been written in the middle of the 19th century.

    Bartleby should be made the patron saint of all office workers.

  7. I’ve posted a response on my blog about this review. It seemed inappropriate to post it here. So might this:

    Slightly off topic, it bothers me when people express shame that they have read a particular book or author. I know it’s half-playful and they’re not really ashamed, but that true half troubles me. Life is short, one can’t read everything, not even a fraction of the classics, so it’s best only to seek out what book or author is necessary for oneself.

    Despite being very English being born within a few miles of Dickens’ birthplace, I have never read one of his novels. I have preferred not to 🙂

  8. Ah, ‘Bartleby’, a great anti-busyness book. Better still, a great anti-Wall-Street book. I like the interpretation on which Bart’s the narrator’s double.

  9. ‘Bartleby’ is a great tool for convincing people who haven’t read Melville that he could actually be very funny (in an uneasy laughter sort of way). It’s a wonderful story, and prefigures the horrible comedy to be found in a lot of Kafka. By the way, if you ever come across Frederick Busch’s ‘The Night Inspector’, it’s well worth reading: one of the central characters is a washed-up, disillusioned Melville, his great whale novel a crashing failure, living out his life working in the customs house. Then unfinished business from the US Civil War starts to reappear.

  10. Hmmm, why do we always feel guilty if we haven’t read this or that ‘classic’ book, I wonder? There are plenty of classics I’ve read and plenty I haven’t. Who says reading the lot is essential to my intellectual integrity? I think my intellectual integrity will survive without a few of them. Surely the point of books is just to read what you fancy and enjoy?

    Just for the record, I’ve never read Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Moby Dick or War and Peace. Boy, am I in trouble….

  11. Amazing that so many readers haven’t read either Bartleyby or any other Melville. I really like Benito Cereno, too, and it has a very interesting history behind it ( the name Delano has American political implications).

    Also HIGH RECCO’s to Confidence Man and the Piazza. Melville’s short stories are some of the finest ever

  12. Thanks for the comments everyone. I haven’t had time to respond as first I was away (the post was scheduled automatically) and since then I’ve been off work, which actually gives me less free time to blog, as baby duties tend to be relentless.

    I’ve read it, although it was some decades ago (I’d prefer not to say how many)

    Well Kevin, the one thing we can be sure of is that it was no more than fifteen.

    Nick, point taken, though I suppose my discomfort (more than shame) at not having read ‘Bartleby’ before now was precisely because I did expect it would be something I would ‘fancy and enjoy’, and that I still had not done so despite its only being 40 pages long. I feel no such shame at not having read, say, Proust, which everyone knows is a mammoth commitment.

  13. When I worked for Waterstone’s (the original, superior version) we sold the three-volume Penguin edition of Proust. I remember frequently reordering the first volume, but never the other two.

  14. I can’t say I feel any great shame in not having read it before, but you do make a persuasive case for reading it now John. Interesting stuff.

    ild, there’s nothing that amazing about it, most of us here are pretty well read but the ocean of great literature (not even going down to good, just great) is such that few of us can have read more than a small fraction of it. That we haven’t read will always outweigh that we have. I’ll look at the short stories though, given your recommendation.

    On a vaguely related note, I just saw Waiting for Godot for the first time the other week, quite interesting, not sure why though everyone feels obliged to claim they’ve seen it – it had much to recommend it but it’s nowhere near bumping The Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya off my personal great plays list.

    Dangerous stuff canon, it’s fine as a source of recommendations, but beyond that it can be a bit of a burden and can even make works less accessible – the weight of expectation smothering them.

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  16. I hung out for a few minutes in the room where Melville wrote this and Moby-Dick today before screaming children forced us to get out before anything in the room could get destroyed.

    Now I just need to read them both!

  17. I spent a couple of hours yesterday evening reading this. Totally agree with John. Essentially there are four characters: two major (the narrator, Bartleby) and two minor (the Turkey, Nippers). The way Melville pairs them off – the major characters are mirror images of each other, as are the minor ones – creates a great tension in the reading experience, and Melville does this without resorting to caraciture (unlike, say, Pynchon in Mason and Dixie or Amis in The Information or Smith’s White Teeth – where the two main players in each of those novels are set against one another (one is fat, one short; one is loud, one quiet etc.) rather then gently paired off as in Bartleby).

    Towards the end of the book, before the narrator decides to move to another office, the narrator begins to show signs of really wrestling with himself – he knows he should get Bartleby out of his office, but spends a paragraph trying to convince himself that, in fact, he has no choice but to let Bartleby stay (surely the police will be too busy? and maybe Bartleby’ll change?) The reader infers that the narrator, despite what he says, desperately wants Bartleby to stay. It would have been great if Melville had gone a little bit further with that idea, instead of swiftly, and rather conveniently, moving the narrator to another office, leaving the way open for someone else to despatch of Bartleby. How much more powerful would it have been if it had been the narrator – frightened by what he was learning about himself – who had ended up calling for the police, rather than some person the reader never meets?

    But that’s a minor criticism. I loved it.

  18. I’m a few chapters into Moby-Dick, John. Ishmael just got jumped in the bed by Queequeg. Not too far in, as you see, but so far I’m really enjoying it. It’ll be a slower read that takes place in the background of my other reads–at least, that’s the plan now.

  19. I wrote a review of the book “Fight Club,” which is an update version of Bartleby, with the main character is also stuck in a daily grind and his life is dependent upon endless competition of having the right type of furnishings.

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