Bartleby the Scrivener is a classic in literature, one whose name I was already familiar with before diving into the story proper. I enjoyed this story, even if Melville’s pacing is sometimes a bit too stagnant. I loved how the lawyer, despite his increasing frustration with Bartleby, would skirt around conflict in the interest of not making waves. I saw that as stemming from his overtly compartmentalized lifestyle, being perplexed by Bartleby’s behavior to the extant that he simply doesn’t address it in any assertive way.
While I enjoyed the comical nature in which Bartleby held onto his position, I was admittedly a little annoyed by him too. I suppose it’s because I was raised to have a good work ethic, and watching someone brood all day instead of attending to their job would be too much for me. But I understood Bartleby to be a man drained of any facility for the illusions of the modern business world. He came from the Dead Letters Office, and likely must have had his demeanor beaten down after such a dismal occupation, which would make it hard for him to genuinely care about coping legal documents.
When it came time to analyze the story, I kept coming back to the images of Bartleby’s motionless stare and the prominence of bricked up views out every window. With Bartleby standing motionless and in a somewhat perpetual malaise, he becomes the outcast from his busy-body coworkers. He stands outside of progress, of efficiency, and so acts as an anchor on all those around him who are happy cogs in a greater machine.
Bartleby would prefer not to do what us asked of him, and this perpetually perplexes the Lawyer. What I found interesting was how the Lawyer kept thinking himself a charitable man for keeping Bartleby on in his employment, yet he never truly helps him beyond the ramifications of his passive aggressive behavior. The lawyer also never asks just what it is Bartleby would prefer to be doing, which I think may have been a key question.
I couldn’t help connecting Bartleby to a couple of other pop culture appearances the titular character seems to make, specifically Jeff Smith’s epic Bone. This is a series of fantasy comics my wife and I read to our son. It’s a kind of Lord of the Rings-style book for kids, and in it there are a race of vicious-yet-bumbling monsters known as “Rat Creatures”. One of these rat creatures–a baby who has not yet learned to hate humans as the older ones have–ends up joining up with the group of good guys to help in the fight against evil. They name him Bartleby. Though its a bit of a stretch, I can see some parallels between the two characters. What I found more interesting, however, was how by simply naming a him after a famous character in literature Bartleby (in Bone) takes on more depth and symbolic meaning. The same kind of logic could be said for characters named “Judas”, as a more obvious example of the kinds of stigmas or traits that can be associated with a name. I saw how the Bartleby in Bone came to represent the outsider traits of Bartleby in Melville’s story, and I think it gave greater depth to the source material.
I love that in reading more classical literature I can make connections to more familiar modern day repercussions that stem from the same source. Once something becomes a familiar piece of a culture’s history, its effects trickle down into places you would never expect to find them (like in a children’s fantasy comic book).
I feel like there’s more going on here beneath the surface. Bartleby is a bit of an enigma. The clues about his past at the Dead Letter Office help to fill in some blanks, but I think the fact that his character cannot be neatly categorized is what makes the story interesting to read. What was Bartleby up to in the office when no one else was around? Why was Bartleby the only main character would had a proper name, or at least was acknowledged by it? Why is it the general rule that one who won’t “go with the flow” must be eradicated or assimilated?