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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?

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