Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on Bartleby, the Scrivener

“Only the man who says ‘no’ is free.” – Melville

So unusual is the perplexing tale of Bartleby, the Scrivener that I suspect it long remains in the minds of most readers, haunting them as they try to understand the inexplicable. I first read it in grey days, head filled with emotive sloganeering music that spun from white-noise fury to bitter despair and back again, on a train clattering to London and its countless offices filled with unhappy workers. One of the songs I listened to used the above line of Melville’s on its cover art, and so the tale of Bartleby’s resistance proved the perfect read and stayed fixed in my head, as stubbornly unmoveable as Bartleby himself.

Melville’s “only the man who says no is free” was used as the album’s sleeve quote.

Hired as a clerk by a successful legal office on Wall Street, Bartleby initially proves keenly industrious. So far, so good. Then one day he rests his pen and stops. Over the following weeks he intermittently resumes only to stop again. And again. Eventually he stops for good.

Nothing and no-one can move him: he will not carry on.

The story’s perplexing heart is that Bartleby gives no reason and cannot be persuaded by his (winningly sympathetic) employer ever to do so. His retort is simply, “I would prefer not to.” Neither threat nor entreaty can elicit anything further. Bartleby is a rock against which all pleas break themselves.

But he remains so calm and polite, maintaining “his great stillness, his unalterableness of demeanor under all circumstances”, that his baffled employer, our narrator, can for a long while do nothing but let him be. Then after discovering that the reason his clerk appears ever-present in the office is because he is ever-present – Bartleby has taken up permanent residence in his small corner – even this thoughtful employer reaches his limit and asks Bartleby to leave. He stays. And stays. The solution? The business leaves instead and moves to a new office! Yet, to the amazement of his now former employer, still Bartleby remains in his old corner, driving the new tenants to distraction. Less forgiving, they have him removed and locked up.

When the narrator visits the imprisoned Bartleby, by now little more than a shadow, he rejects his kindness. Ever benevolent, the lawyer gives the turn-key money to provide extra food. But Bartleby will not eat. And he does not eat. And when thought to be sleeping is found to have died, quietly, unnoticed, unmissed.

What is the reason for the clerk’s (in)action? Wilful obstinacy? Laziness? Depression? Is Bartleby taking a stand against capitalism in the midst of its cold heart, Wall Street? Is he a symbol of the power of the proletariat? Is it a deliberate, heroic act of resistance? I like to think the latter. Only the man who says no is free, right? But no to what?

In the closing paragraph our narrator suggests Bartleby may have been forever marked by years in his previous job, handling dead letters: “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames?”

Has this instilled his impenetrable passivity? Has the sight of those innumerable letters, each filled with news, plans, love, urgency or some such sign of life but now come to nothing and lost forever unread to a furnace, extinguished all the poor clerk’s hope and energies?

It’s hard to ascribe a reason with any certainty when Bartleby is so incredibly passive that he sleepwalks to his death (figuratively, of course, as he’d probably rather not actually sleepwalk). It’s a desperately bleak tale lightly told but bluntly truthful. What’s the point? It makes me think about work and what, overall, we work for. If there’s nothing to work for, there’s no need to work and not much point doing anything more.

Maybe there’s a clue in one of Melville’s letters:

“They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. True Work is the necessity of poor humanity’s earthly condition. The dignity is in leisure. Besides, 99 hundredths of all the work done in the world is either foolish and unnecessary, or harmful and wicked.”

Only the man who says no is free and Bartleby was brave enough to say it, albeit very politely.

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