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.