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"Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville: A Mrs. B's Eccentric Book Report

Retired school teacher with 25+ years' experience. Tired of the traditional book report—Lee prefers to make writing about literature fun!


So this is my version of a book report, or in this case, a short story report

I want to share books and sometimes movies, short stories, paintings, and possibly other media that have impacted my life, made me think, laugh, and cry.

I deliberately have no plan, order, or logical arrangement, so with no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite long short stories: Bartleby the Scrivner: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville.

Plot Summary

This is usually the most lengthy and boring part of a traditional book report. Just for fun, I'm going to reduce the plot summary to one sentence:

An attorney hires an office worker who works, then doesn't, and then dies, pretty much in that order.

My Inane Ramblings: Why I love this short story, or SAD in Seattle

My inane ramblings will take the form of several confessions. The first is that I, a lifelong reader, an English major, a teacher of literature, and a one time liveaboard, have never read the novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I've read parts of if, I've tried to finish it, but I just cannot seem to, even though it contains one of my favorite passages in all literature:

Yes, there is death in this business of whaling- a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being.

I'm not so sure I agree with the sentiments therein, but I can actually hear it: "...quick chaoic bundling..." Interesting, that I associate the exit of the soul from the body with a sound . Once I heard a sound like this.

I was in Taos, New Mexico, at the ski resort. From the parking lot, I looked up at a restaurant with a deck where many people were eating lunch. A woman had placed her baby, wrapped in a blanket, on the railing. She stepped away for a moment and the baby fell from the railing, two stories down to the ground. All I knew from the parking lot was that there was a scream, then silence. All eyes turned to the direction of the scream to see the baby fall. But in the quiet, I heard it, I swear, I heard it. "...a quick chaotic bundling ..."

Are you thoroughly depressed yet? Because "Bartleby the Scrivener" is probably the most depressing story ever written. I find even Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther less depressing. In Seattle the entire city suffers from SAD--Seasonal Affective Disorder-- all winter long.

Yeah, I'm depressed (second confession), but I'm not the only one. Seattle is the only place I've ever lived where bitching about the weather is perfectly acceptable conversation for every occasion. It doesn't seem to mark one as a social loser to be unable to come with anything better to talk about!

So back to "Bartleby," a story about passive aggression caused, in my opinion, by extreme depression. As a teacher I've encountered several Bartlebys over the years: sad, silent, little souls who never reached out to another nor responded to attempts to reach out to them. Sometimes there was a perfectly understandable reason--for example, one young man had suffered the deaths of several family members and close friends within a short period of time. Another student's mother told me how talkative and animated he was at home and that he had thoroughly enjoyed a recent field trip. I had seen no reaction of any kind during this trip, and was quite surprised to hear it. She insisted that his father was ''the same way," extremely shy, but still engaged in what was going on.

But some of these Bartlebys passed through my life without any explanation for their behavior, or lack of it. They resisted all attempts by me, by counselors, by parents to reach them. Every now and then I'm pleasantly surprised to encounter or hear of one of these former students and find out that all is well. She has overcome whatever it was that inhibited her and is making her way in the world with friends, family, and other human connections. However, other Bartlebys seem to fade away. They aren't on Facebook, and they don't come up on a Goggle search; no one seems to know them or remember them.

I'm haunted by these Bartlebys. Seung Hui Cho, who was responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, from all accounts, was one of these Bartleby-type students. His family was concerned, he did receive counseling, and school officials were alerted, but the worst still happened.

The Greatest Mind-Numbingly Boring Job Ever!

Third confession: I think Bartleby has the greatest job ever. He is, in essence, a human xerox machine. His job, in his mid-nineteenth century office, is to copy documents by hand. That's it! Just copy! He doesn't have to think, plan, or create. I'm famous (in a VERY small circle) for loving boring jobs--sanding, painting, and scraping on my boat are good examples. My mind is set free, and I actually accomplish something. It's my form of meditation.

Bartleby does well at his job until asked to edit his copy as another reads the original aloud. Human interaction, apparently, is the sticking point for our guy Bartleby. "I would prefer not to," becomes his mantra. Soon he would "prefer not to" do any work at all, and then he would "prefer not to" eat and then to breath.

Too bad! If a job as a scrivener were available today, I'd be standing in line to get it.

Some of my favorite passages from "Bartleby the Scrivener"

"I would prefer not to."

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Should you watch the movie?

It was a complete surprise to me that there was a movie. But yes, indeed, made in 2001, is Bartleby , an updated version of Melville's story. I had never heard of it, nor have I yet seen it; however, it looks interesting enough that I'll probably take a look at it one of these days. There is also a Spanish video which is actually a slide show, but captures some of the feeling of the original short story.

For a more complete summary look here

In fact, you can read the entire story online here

Or buy your own copy!

What do you think?


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 22, 2020:

I have never made it through to the end of Moby Dick either. Thanks for your review of Bartleby the Scrivner.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on November 09, 2014:

As a Melville fan, a fellow liveaboard and a reader, i can tell you that Moby Dick is a GRIND! Nowhere near his best book (which is Typee by the way).

Tanya Jones from Texas USA on August 25, 2014:

I recall watching Bartleby in an English class. I've never read the book though. I'll definitely have to do so now. You've included a lot of great support information here as well.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on February 25, 2012:

Thank you, James! I enjoyed writing this hub; it helped me out of my seasonal funk.

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 23, 2012:

I have not read the story but your Hub is fabulous. I enjoyed reading your words very much. I will look for the 2001 film you mentioned. Thank you.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on January 15, 2012:

Oh yeah, it sure does rain out here in the Pacific NW! But you're right, girltalksshop, there's a lot to like out here too, though it's easy to get a bit depressed after days of gloomy weather. Not so bad this year, however!

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, girltalksshop! I look forward to reading your hubs.

girltalksshop on January 12, 2012:

I love Seattle, despite the known fact it rains nine months out of the year. I think your story will be interesting and useful. I miss my home state of MI which use to be known for its four seasons, but as a teen my folks moved us out to the Pacific NW...where it rains...alot! I can get down when it rains, but fortunately don't let it get to me too long. Good book report...unique and helpful. : )Looking forward to reading more from you. (I use to love writing book reports, over oral ones). I was better at putting words down on paper then through what came out of my mouth, being shy and all.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on November 03, 2011:

Glad I'm not the only one who feels that way!

gradeAmerican on October 30, 2011:

I'm with you, Lee. Moby Dick is a hard book to read. The movies are much better as they cut out all the extraneous stuff.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on May 29, 2011:

I see you're making the rounds of my "literary" hubs. Thank you, Sa'ge!

Sa`ge from Barefoot Island on May 29, 2011:

very interesting, :D very :D thanks :D

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on January 17, 2011:

Thank you, Tony! It's an interesting story and really brings up some interesting ideas and comments.

Tony McGregor from South Africa on January 16, 2011:

I found this an engagingly quirky "book report" - thanks for sharing it. Love the story and love the comments people have made here - great stuff!

Love and peace


Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on January 14, 2011:

"Bartleby" really is a strange story, and somehow weirdly compelling to me. I'm STILL trying to read Moby Dick. Okay, I'm still THINKING about reading Moby Dick!

Thanks for the heads up on the "Scrivener" app. I'll take a look at it.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Cheeky Girl! Hope you enjoy reading "Bartleby the Scrivener."

Cassandra Mantis from UK and Nerujenia on January 12, 2011:

A strange and unusual story as you describe it in one sentence. I daresay there is a wee bit more in it than this but you make it sound more interesting, Lee. I will check it out. Melville's Moby Dick is a classic.

By the way, there is a screen writing software app called "Scrivener", just so you know. It's rather good too! Cheers!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on December 21, 2010:

Hi Doug! LOL *I could give you an alternate summarizing sentence to Bartleby, but I'd prefer not to.* Good one!

So true--the Bartlebys of the world are maddening. As a teacher of middle school students, I sure have dealt with a few of them.

Thanks for stopping by! Lee

Doug Turner Jr. on December 20, 2010:

I could give you an alternate summarizing sentence to Bartleby, but I'd prefer not to. Just kidding -- I had to say it.

How about: "An attorney's office finds their world turned upside down when they are unable to rid themselves of a new employee who refuses to do anything whatsoever, including work." -- A bit of a run-on sentence but it's past my bedtime.

Good hub. I love this story, depressing as it is (maddening is the best word I've ever come up with to describe Bartleby). Cheers.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on October 09, 2010:

Glad to hear from you, Astra Nomik! I hope you do read "Bartleby." Let me know what you think.

Cathy Nerujen from Edge of Reality and Known Space on October 08, 2010:

Thank you for the very interesting review of the book. I will have to check this out. I am sure its on project guttenberg, the free ebook website. You made it sound so interesting. I never heard of it till today.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on October 02, 2010:

Hi JayDeck! I still haven't seen the movie but will someday. Thank you for stopping by!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on October 02, 2010:

De Greek, you are too sweet! All is indeed well--I've been very busy this summer and was recently on the road to New Mexico and back. Anyway, I've got about a million ideas for hubs and should have more time to write in the near future. I also need to catch up on reading your newest hubs!

JayDeck on September 30, 2010:

I saw the movie years ago and enjoyed it. Crispin Glover was perfect as Bartleby, just the right amount of menace.

Thanks for the hub!


De Greek from UK on September 28, 2010:

So what's going on? Why have you stopped writing? I hope all is well :-))

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on August 30, 2010:

Hi epigramman! Thank you so much for your very kind words--I love reading and talking about and writing about books and ideas.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on August 30, 2010:

I'm STILL working on Moby-Dick! I think I have some kind of mental block or something! Thanks for stopping by, ralwus. Hope you enjoy the depressing "Bartleby the Scrivener."

ralwus on August 29, 2010:

The movie looks great. I cannot remember if I read Bartleby or not, it does sound familiar, but I have read Moby Dick several times. I find it amazing that you never, being a teacher. Now I must go get that story and read it.

epigramman on August 29, 2010:

..this is a fabulous and most hubdelicious book report Darling and not the least bit eccentric - it is a labor of love and so artfully put together - so it's obvious you share a passion and joy for literature and you pass along this enlightened gift to your readers - lucky us - as Brian Wilson once penned: Sail on Sailor!!!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 23, 2010:

Thanks, Micky! Actually, the movie looks a little more lighthearted. I might try it myself one of these days!

Micky Dee on June 22, 2010:

Great report. I'm not sure I would read it. I'm not into much dram. There's been too much in my life. Now if you get Jim Cary or Steve Martin to play a role I might watch the movie. Thank you for a great book report though!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 20, 2010:

Eric, I can completely relate to your brain glitch. Happens to me all the time. You're too young for those "senior moments"!

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 20, 2010:

Hi Jane! I'm about 20 hubs behind--got the ideas, just not the time, or sometimes the energy or motivation, so Jane Eyre might take awhile.

I can hardly wait to read your "Sexiest Men in Lit" hub.

Eric Calderwood from USA on June 19, 2010:

I never read Bartleby, but did read and enjoy Moby Dick. Of course I was later publicly humiliated when someone asked me the main character's name and couldn't remember it even though the first line of the book, "Call me Ishmael," is one of the more famous lines in literature. Oops.

Jane Bovary from The Fatal Shore on June 19, 2010:

Lee I haven't read this or even seen the movie but I loved the review anyway. I read Moby Dick a long time ago but can't recall whether I finished it or not..lol. I do remember thinking that he was a great writer though.

I'm still waiting for that Jane Eyre review! I was thinking of doing a hub about 'the sexiest men in literature' and of course, I'd have to include Rochester.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 19, 2010:

Thank you for coming by and commenting, Arthur W! Thanks also for the heads-up on the incorrect date. Alas, I have not been time-traveling. Right now, I'd rather get on a plane and travel in real time to somewhere sunny.

I'm glad you brought up the medieval manuscript copyists. The complete title of the story is "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" which now gives me the idea that Bartleby is an Apostate monk by refusing to copy business documents. Hmmm...I'd never thought of "Bartleby" as satire before, but it's working for me.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 19, 2010:

Thank you, David, I do try for something at least a little bit different.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 19, 2010:

Hi De Greek! Thank you for stopping by! I totally agree with you that the author's intent was humorous; however, with my Seattle SAD depression, I'm unable to see anything as funny. Once upon a time, in a place where the sun shone, even dealing with the little Bartlebys in the classroom was sometimes funny. Imagine listening to a "speech to persuade" delivered entirely in a monotone!

I'm not so sure about Melville's hopeful view of our humanity, especially in the aspect of our ability to be kind and tolerant. After all, the narrator is mostly motivated by complacency and cowardice, except maybe at the end. Perhaps the kindness and tolerance comes not from the story, but from the reader, De Greek :)

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 19, 2010:

chasingcars, nice to hear from you! Of course, it's true that even a slight change in characterization or setting would vastly change the plot, especially in this story. I like your comment about contemplatives using repetitive action or non-action as a starting point. Are you viewing Bartleby at a contemplative?

Arthur Windermere on June 19, 2010:

Lee, you've blown me away. This is exactly how I think a book report or a film report or any report really ought to be written: a personal and free-form engagement with the work. You bring up a lot of insightful points, a lot that made me think.

Sadly, I can't give you my thoughts on Bartleby itself. Even though Moby Dick is the book that changed my reading habits for life (could never go back to popular fiction after Moby Dick), I keep putting off Bartleby. No idea why.

Interestingly, Bartleby's job is one that was a major part of medieval monasticism. (Melville would have known that, of course.) Most monks were manuscript copyists and they took they greatest pride in their work. It was a meditative act for them. I also tend to enjoy boring jobs for their meditative quality.

Also, amazed to learn you're currently in the year 2012. You're my favourite time-traveler after Bill & Ted. hehehe


David Stone from New York City on June 16, 2010:

Wonderfully eccentric, Lee. Thanks.

De Greek from UK on June 16, 2010:

I would prefer to take a different position. :-)

1. I thank you for posting a link to a site where one can read this story

2. I have done so (read the story)

3. Why do people ignore the obvious humorous intent of the author? Other than the sad ending, this is a hugely funny piece, even though it’s written in a 19th century type of humour which at times is difficult to comprehend with 21st century mentality.

4. Instead of getting bogged down by looking for ways to understand the mentality Bartleby, try another approach which the author might have intended: A humorous look into a hopeful view (and a celebration of) our humanity and our ability to be kind and tolerant.

Think about it.

Brother Mentalist has actually written two full sentences above, which is a hopeful sign in itself and I salute him with brotherly affection..

chasingcars on June 16, 2010:

I agree with Mentalist; characterization and setting are fascinating since a slight change in either changes the plot. Contemplatives I've studied always use repetitive action or inaction as a starting point, but if I were "scrivenining," the paper would be pretty blotchy.

Lee A Barton (author) from New Mexico on June 15, 2010:

Thank you for your comments, Mentalist acer! I did emphasize the depressive aspects of this story, but I also agree that the unusual character of Bartleby is quite interesting. Hope you enjoy reading this story.

Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on June 15, 2010:

I find things that most people find depressing as meditive as I am hyper and easily detained into delirium.If I read this story I will not find it depressing but will enjoy the unusual (to myself) character study...

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