Books

Book 63: Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street – Herman Melville

This is my first introduction to Herman Melville. I don’t believe I’ve read any bits of Moby Dick, even though I know (as most people do) the opening line, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago…” This is a novella so I wasn’t sure whether to count it in my total, but decided to as it was an interesting read, and probably a fascinating case study for Mellville’s mindset during the time, or the character Bartleby.

Melville wrote this, among a series of short-stories after publishing Moby Dick. Many believe he wrote this in response to his inability to follow-up with the success of the novel, and that it shows clinical depression through the character Bartleby.

At the heart of the story is Bartleby, who does not speak unless spoken to and even then only complied to requests of help/work during the first few weeks of his employment by the narrator. The way Melville told the story convinced me Bartleby didn’t speak English and only parroted the sentences which sounded like questions back to the narrator.

Through a series of events, all including the seemingly impassive and uncomprehending Bartleby, we learn at the end of the novel that Bartleby is a previous copyist/writer of obituaries, and perhaps having spent countless untold years with only the dead and their stories. This additional information made me think that the abrupt change to the living and the fast-paced world of Wall Street and law copying, was mentally too much for Bartleby and he either falls into a state of depression, or develops another mental illness. I won’t tell you the end, or the main action in the novella, but Melville writes in a way which makes you want to keep reading, plus at only 45 pages it’s a great quick read!

I wish I knew more about the time period Melville wrote this novella, as it seems fairly interesting and this work alone provides comparisons to Albert Camus and Franz Kafka (both of which I’ve read on this blog) and absurdist fiction (as told through Wikipedia). Having looked up absurdist fiction I definitely now see it in the one novel by both Camus and Kafka I’ve read.

Recommendation: Read it.

Quotes from Bartleby, the Scrivener*
“Imprimis: I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.” (Loc. 11-12)

“There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him.” (Loc. 39-40)

“But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me. I began to reason with him.” (Loc. 152-53)

“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.” (Loc. 181-83)

“To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it.” (Loc. 278-80)

“One of the coolest and wisest hours a man has, is just after he awakes in the morning.” (Loc. 354-55)

“Men have committed murder for jealousy’s sake, and anger’s sake, and hatred’s sake, and selfishness’ sake, and spiritual pride’s sake; but no man that ever I heard of, ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity’s sake.” (Loc. 396-98)

*The majority of the drawbacks of the Kindle I discussed back in June have disappeared with prolonged usage, but one thing which still irks me is the lack of page numbers. I didn’t realize they were completely lacking from this novella until I went to plug the page numbers into my quotes section. So if by chance someone who works for Amazon/designs Kindles/knows anyone who does any of the above, please pass on the complaint of thousands.

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5 thoughts on “Book 63: Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street – Herman Melville”

  1. I love this short story. I read it in an American Literature class in high school. One of my more illuminating professors lead us through this story and compared it with Fight Club. I had only heard of the movie at the time and rented it (I was a bit too young to truly appreciate it). But it’s a fascinating comparison. We read it around the same time we read excerpts from On Walden Pond. It’s always stuck out to me as a story that is solidly cemented in its time and yet has harrowing prophecies for the businessman of today.

    Another interesting short is Billy Bud. Melville definitely had the disillusioned-sad-ending thing down.

    Anyway, I thought it was cool that you’ve read this. I don’t know many people that have (especially since my classmates didn’t really read it. You know how it was in high school).

    Cheers

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    1. I’ve only ever read a few collections of short stories (including Fitzgerald’s The Jazz Age which has Benjamin Button in it). I enjoyed this one, and never thought to compare it to Fight Club. Now that you’ve mentioned it, it’s really interesting to think about. Apparently English teachers/professors/lecturers DO have something to add to literature/reading 😀

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      1. Hah! I just finished “Benjamin Button” myself. I feel like often the short stories are much more illuminating of the authors themselves. I’m not sure exactly where this high esteem of the short story came from. Probably my obsession with all the collections of Ray Bradbury and the hopes that one day I’ll have a collection of my own…

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