Bartleby, the Scrivener


Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853) is a rather odd short story about an unnamed lawyer who tries just about everything to indulge then evict an obdurate clerk in his employ. It’s somewhat peculiar in that the writing is crisp and humorous while its main themes are isolation and the fading away of a man who seems to have given up on himself and all else. Walls—in offices, buildings, and the “Tombs” (municipal jail in Manhattan)—appear to symbolize Bartleby’s self-limitation and eventual demise. I particularly liked it for how Melville made his description of Bartleby frustrating for us, in that it's vague because the narrator doesn’t really know who this despondent fellow is or was, or why his scrivener behaves the way he does, giving us plenty of time to try to work these things out for ourselves, and perhaps to try a little to empathize with this puzzling character, before more is revealed on the final page. Very good.

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