‘Bartleby, The Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

Melville, Herman 1853

Bartleby, The Scrivener by Herman Melville, 1853

Bartleby, The Scrivener by Herman Melville, 1853

The magic trick:

Letting the narrator describe the characters one by one in a very mechanical but fun way at the story’s outset

I’m excited for the summer. Hope you are too. We have the promise of fine weather, exotic vacations and of course some magic tricks.

Each month this summer we’re going to try on a new theme. June, starting today, marks a time-machine trip into the 19th century. All month long, nothing but stories from the 1800s. Then in July we have a steady diet of African-American authors. August concludes the summer fun with a trip into the wondrous world of the American South. Not bad, right? OK, let’s go.

We’ll start with one of the most well-regarded stories of the 19th century. I’d never read it. Probably thought it was too long or boring back when I was supposed to read these things for class. I was stupid. It’s so, so good.

I love the way Melville lays out the characters one by one at the start. It’s mechanical but fun. Very reminiscent of Dickens, they each have particular peculiarities and appropriately ridiculous names. There is a great sense of humor about this story, even as it ultimately is an extremely serious and somber affair. That is a rare combination.

But wait. All that fun Dickensian characterizations? They’re kind of a sham. Perhaps they are only there as means to welcome the reader into the story – friendly, comical, accessible. Even more cynically, perhaps they’re really only there as a ‘screw you’ from Melville to the critics and reading public. It’s as if he’s saying, OK, so you didn’t like Moby Dick, enjoy this trivial, saccharine gibberish. He lures the common reader into his story with such light fare only to hit them with the bizarre, dark doings of Bartleby.

That only makes me enjoy the fun of the story’s early sections even more. And that’s quite a trick on Melville’s part.

The selection:

It was Bartleby.

I was thunderstruck. For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth, was killed one cloudless afternoon long ago in Virginia, by summer lightning; at his own warm open window he was killed, and he remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon, till some one touched him, when he fell.

“Not gone!” I murmured at last.


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One thought on “‘Bartleby, The Scrivener’ by Herman Melville

  1. A quick word about this enigmatic story. The other magic trick, besides the one you’ve flagged, is that it’s an early version of Meville’s “universalizing”. Just as Moby Dick was a great symbol of the dark submerged unknown, so this story’s last line makes it’s motives clear: “Ah, Bartleby; ah, humanity” — two inscrutably sad entities. There are two filmed versions of Bartleby — one starring Paul Schofield and one produced for Maryland Public TV whose music score (two notes on solo clarinet underline that concluding “Bartleby/humanity” comment) inspired me to go interview the composer. Neither film really does justice to this disturbing story, though…

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