Bartleby sure was strange… but so was his employer.

Note: this post assumes the reader has already read the story. If you haven’t read it, take 45 minutes or so on your lunch hour some day and add it to your collection…

I re-read Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street,” yesterday. Most people probably find the story memorable simply because of the uniquely strange title character. I mean really, how does one get away with staying on in a job after repeatedly replying “I would prefer not to” to any request to do something?

Part of what’s remarkable to me about the story, though, is the character of his boss, the narrator of the story. He admits to being somewhat “disarmed” by Bartleby’s passive resistance via steadfast though quiet and polite refusals and reacts with pity and charity to the man, rather than with anger and violence – as many others certainly would. Indeed, at each instance of increasing non-compliance or insubordination, the boss simply retreats and re-evaluates his stance regarding poor Bartleby.

His boss is also self delusional. At one point, after he has communicated his latest “ultimatum” to Bartleby. He convinces himself what a fine job he did of it, and by the time he had walked home was confident that, when he arrived at the office the next day, Bartleby would be gone. However, in the morning he realizes his mistake as he has “slept off the fumes of vanity” (as Melville says; I love that description) and finds Bartleby still haunting his offices.

The narrator’s perplexity at how to deal with Bartleby – now a “millstone around his neck” – leads him to eventually relocate his offices to another building. This “solves” the boss’s problem, but not the problem of Bartleby himself, who continues hanging around the old building, so much to the dismay of the new tenants that they at last have him arrested and taken away.

Our narrator still feels pity for Bartleby and visits him in jail, offering to help him and even ‘bribing’ the cook/commissary man in order to make sure his charge is well fed. Why does the narrator of this story react to Bartleby the way he does? I know countless analyses of this story have been written or contemplated, but I naturally haven’t had the time yet to read them all.

There was one interesting interpretation I did read, however. It is that the story is biographical, and that Bartleby represents Melville. This rings true in one important way: Melville had gained much success with is earlier novels, Typee and Omoo, written more for mass consumption, but his Moby Dick (written more in the contemplative style he would “prefer to” write) was snubbed by critics and readers alike. This coincides with Bartleby’s profession as a scrivener (essentially a human copy machine). People wanted Melville to simply copy the formula of his early successful books even though he “would prefer not to.” This may be why at one point in the story, Bartleby informs the narrator that he has decided to stop copying altogether (his earlier refusals are for other tasks). I find this interpretation interesting.

What about you? Have you read this famous story? I’m particularly interested in anyone’s thoughts who read it for a literature class or the like. What were the interpretations there?