Fiction: Bartleby the Scrivener

Read Melville's best short story for free

Dec. 31, 1969
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I'm in the process of trudging through Moby-Dick, purely for the enjoyment of it (and yes, it turns out the story is quite enjoyable!), and I'm glad to see that Melville's signature writing style is at the forefront in this novel. My first experience with Melville was his short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," which surprised me at just how readable it really was.

In fact, I'd say it's one of my favorite short stories, which is why I'm sharing it with you. Not only is Melville a truly humorous writer, the story of Bartleby actually resonates in today's economic climate. The story, about a scrivener (a copy writer, essentially) named Bartleby, deals mainly with the act of coming to terms with one's place in life, specifically when it comes to working inside a shaky economic system.

Sounds like it could have been written last year.

Here's a passage that I found especially humorous:

"Bartleby! quick, I am waiting."

I heard a slow scrape of his chair legs on the uncarpeted floor, and soon he appeared standing at the entrance of his hermitage.

"What is wanted?" said he mildly.

"The copies, the copies," said I hurriedly. "We are going to examine them. There"--and I held towards him the fourth quadruplicate.

"I would prefer not to," he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen.

For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt, standing at the head of my seated column of clerks. Recovering myself, I advanced towards the screen, and demanded the reason for such extraordinary conduct.

"Why do you refuse?"

"I would prefer not to."

With any other man I should have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him ignominiously from my presence. 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.

"These are your own copies we are about to examine. It is labor saving to you, because one examination will answer for your four papers. It is common usage. Every copyist is bound to help examine his copy. Is it not so? Will you not speak? Answer!"

"I prefer not to," he replied in a flute-like tone. It seemed to me that while I had been addressing him, he carefully revolved every statement that I made; fully comprehended the meaning; could not gainsay the irresistible conclusion; but, at the same time, some paramount consideration prevailed with him to reply as he did.

"You are decided, then, not to comply with my request--a request made according to common usage and common sense?"

He briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. Yes: his decision was irreversible.

It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith. He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.

"Turkey," said I, "what do you think of this? Am I not right?"

"With submission, sir," said Turkey, with his blandest tone, "I think that you are."

Funny stuff. A great story. You can read the entire thing for free right here.


Ken Brosky


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