8.17.2011

Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville


"Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none."

I am reading this one on a borrowed Kindle (thinking of making the leap with some job-related monies - what do you think?  Kindle, Nook, or Ipad?  Or MacBook Air which has me oh-so-tempted?), so I can't provide a page number for the above, but it's about half-way through this speedy read, which feels at times like little more than a light page-turner and at others, insists upon something interesting and true. This is my second contribution to the Art of the Novella Challenge sponsored by Melville House.  After the unmitigated joy of yesterday's The Magician's Nephew, I sure did pick a dark but hilarious novella to bring me down from the clouds.  And though this book tickled at the edge of terror for me, it also made me laugh regularly and made me appreciate Melville a bit more as well.

Bartleby is not the narrator, but he is the obsession of a most-interesting narrative voice.  The narrator is the lawyer who hired Bartleby as a Scrivener - one who makes handwritten copies of others' documents.  There are some who read Bartleby with a sympathetic bent, claiming his decline is merely an outward manifestation of an inward life that has no worth.  As though he withdraws because he has no life worth remaining for.  I disagree.  I think Melville had something less humanizing in mind, and I think Frances (and others) are right that this book is more about the unnamed narrator than it is about Bartleby.  What we should be focusing on is not Bartleby's internal motivation; instead, we should be trying to figure out why the narrator is so immobilized by Bartleby's polite unwillingness to participate in regular life. 

As mentioned above, Bartleby scared me.  His dispassionate refusals, his cold gaze out the window somehow shook me, and I could see (some of the time) why it would be so difficult to compel him differently.  Often, we view defiance or rebellion as the stereotypical loud, angry, tantrum-driven toddler.  Bartleby reminds me, instead, of the teenager who knows he doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to and quietly demurs.  And because I did not share the narrator's insistent belief that Bartleby's soul was pure, I did not understand the narrator's unwillingness to simply call the police to have him removed from the premises.

In the end, though, I began to see something of the quiet despair of Bartleby, and I almost sympathized.  Almost. 

2 comments:

  1. I agree that this story is not about Bartleby, but about the narrator. Why is it so important for the narrator to engage Bartleby in "regular" life? There is an unsaid motivation here. I have not read this in years, but have always disagreed that the story was about Bartleby. Thanks for this commentary.

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  2. And why was he so crippled by this man's aversion to "regular" life? Such an interesting piece and one well worth a reread down the road.

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