27 February 2023

Review: Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville book cover

I didn't get on with Moby Dick at University. I was far more interested in reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett at the time and found Herman Melville's writing to be inaccessible and a tiresome bore. Melville is a classic American writer though, and 20 years on I thought I'd give him a second chance by reading Bartleby, the Scrivener.

This is a short story narrated by an elderly lawyer about the office politics where he works. Here's a little about him in his own words:
"I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgagees and title deeds. All who know me consider me an eminently safe man." Page 6
Our narrator has a legal firm in an office on Wall Street in New York, and the novella begins with an overview of his two employees. These character studies of Turkey and Nippers were insightful and Bartleby of the title is a new hire and addition to the team that doesn't pan out well.

We learn that Bartleby is very good at his job as a Clerk, but when asked to do a specific task or run a particular errand he doesn't want to do, he responds with "I prefer not to".

The modern reader can immediately relate and no doubt knows someone in their own circle of friends, family or work colleagues just like Bartleby. Bartleby's attitude of passive resistance and the fact that he'd 'prefer not to' do as he is instructed wound me up immediately and was instantly relatable.

Published in 1853, it was surprisingly reassuring to know that people haven't changed that much over the intervening decades and century. The staffing problems faced in the workplace 170 years ago resonate immediately with the modern reader today.

Bartleby soon causes our narrator great tribulation, and while the narrator remains unnamed throughout the novella, his plight is compelling. There are chuckle worthy moments of dialogue and inner reflection as our lawyer attempts to navigate his way out of his problem with varying degrees of success. I wanted to shout out suggestions to him which is a sure sign of evocative writing, however I did wish for a different ending.

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville is a timeless novella about office politics and in 2019 it featured on the BBC News list of the 100 Most Inspiring Novels. I'm not sure I'd agree it's inspiring, but it's certainly an accessible entry point for readers of Herman Melville.

You can access the novella for free on Project Gutenberg

Of course you might 'prefer not to' and that's okay too.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Thanks for the review. I’m not a huge fan of the classics but I might manage this one.

    1. I really think you would manage well with this one Diana.


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