The Pequod Review:
“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is one of Herman Melville’s finest short stories, one that is as rich and well-structured as his best novels. The story is narrated by an elderly lawyer (an “eminently safe man”) whose secure and well-ordered life is disrupted when he hires a man named Bartleby to be the third clerk in his office. Bartleby is at first an excellent employee — good-natured, obedient and hard-working — but on his third day, he begins to respond to all requests with a polite demurral: “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer is initially surprised and disoriented by Bartleby’s oddly calm rejection, but over time becomes exasperated:
“Bartleby,” said I, “Ginger Nut is away; just step round to the Post Office, won’t you? (it was but a three minute walk,) and see if there is any thing for me.”
“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”
The lawyer tries to continue operating his business as normal, but when he finds out on a Sunday morning that Bartleby has actually been living and sleeping in the office, he considers the depth of the problem:
Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!
For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam. I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself, Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. These sad fancyings—chimeras, doubtless, of a sick and silly brain—led on to other and more special thoughts, concerning the eccentricities of Bartleby. Presentiments of strange discoveries hovered round me. The scrivener's pale form appeared to me laid out, among uncaring strangers, in its shivering winding sheet.
The rest of the story continues to escalate, with the lawyer moving out of his office (while Bartleby remains, to the annoyance of the next tenant) and then later with Bartleby’s forced removal and imprisonment. It concludes with the lawyer visiting Bartleby in jail and discovering that he has died of starvation.
Despite the story’s simplicity, it has an underrated depth, as it explores the effectiveness of personal charity, the nature of the modern workplace (and especially the ways in which authority is exercised in the office), depression, and despair. Highly recommended.