I have just finished Herman Melville’s short novel Bartleby the Scrivener. My reasons for reading it were two: I know nothing about Melville, nothing even about his period, except that he is supposed to be very good. And the book was free and short on Libra Vox, so I could listen to it in the car.
Bartleby is written in the first person, describing the consternation of a Wall St. lawyer who hires a very strange secretary, for whom the book is named. Bartleby is passionless—he is contrasted with other, colorful characters, the secretaries Turkey and Nippers and the office boy Ginger Nut, precisely to show how colorless he is.
He falls into ever deeper depondency. Increasingly, when asked to do various parts of his job, he responds with the book’s refrain, “I prefer not to.” The narrator discovers that Bartleby is living in the office, apparently without friends, without anywhere to go, and without much food.
A scrivener who “prefers not to”—not even to talk about himself—is pretty annoying, and upon pressure from other business people who pass through, the narrator decides to get rid of him. The book reaches a peak of absurdity when the narrator, who cannot bring himself to call the police, moves offices so as to escape from a Bartleby who prefers not to leave—only to have his former landlord hunt him down and demand that he find a way to get Bartleby out of the building.
The narrator can never quite bring himself to do Bartleby harm. In fact, he repeatedly offers him money, one time putting it in his hand, only to watch it fall to the floor. But when Bartleby prefers not to engage any other opportunities, even an offer to come home with the narrator(!), the landlord finally has him taken to jail. Despite the narrator’s arrangements with the prison grub man, Mr. Cutlets, to provide Bartleby with the best of food, Bartleby prefers not to eat. The narrator finds him dead, as if asleep, in the prison yard.
I know nothing of this period in American literature, which perhaps strengthened the effect of the book on me. Even as Bartleby died, it was still unclear to me whether this was a work of black irony or of Christian compassion. The story is certainly absurd. But it closes with the narrator hearing a rumor that Bartleby used to work in Washington at the “dead letter office,” processing undeliverable mail.
His job was to remove valuables—rings or money, perhaps—from letters that never reached their intended recipients: a long meditation on futility and unbreachable distances between those who would profess their love. The narrator surmises it is this meditation that led Bartleby to despondency. And so, on the last page of the book (or last minute of the recording), we are overwhelmed with the sadness of a man who has so deeply felt the pain of this world that he is finally judged by others to be unworthy to live in it.
I happened to listen to the last section of Bartleby while running errands with my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. They of course couldn’t follow all of the story—I had listened to the whole thing, and understood the language, and still wasn’t sure what was going on until the very end—but my daughter, especially, thought the refrain “I prefer not to” pretty humorous. And I think they, too, were caught up, as I and the narrator himself were, in the riddle of Bartleby.
Perhaps ten minutes before the end of the book, we were driving through an especially rough part of Newark. On a desolate corner stood a black man in ragged clothing, with an odd assortment of bags around him. It wasn’t clear what he was up to, but my daughter proposed, after we’d gone past, “Daddy, I think I just saw one of those men who is too poor to have any home to go to.”
This, I think, is not the least of the virtues of city living. My children know about, and recognize homelessness. It is familiar enough to them that they do not cringe—I was recently in a better part of Newark with a suburban friend, who professes to hate cities, and who was shocked when my wife failed to notice a somewhat derelict looking crowd of black men as she was proclaiming the safety of our neighborhood.
To be a Christian, to be even human, I think, is above all to have compassion for the riddle of Bartleby.