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Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853)

by Herman Melville

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Bartleby the Scrivener (1853), by Herman Melville, tells the story of a quiet, hardworking legal copyist who works in an office in the Wall Street area of New York City. One day Bartleby declines the assignment his employer gives him with the inscrutable "I would prefer not." The utterance of this remark sets off a confounding set of actions and behavior, making the unsettling character of Bartleby one of Melville's most enigmatic and unforgettable creations.… (more)
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English (71)  French (6)  Italian (5)  Spanish (4)  German (4)  Catalan (2)  Hebrew (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (94)
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  BooksInMirror | Feb 19, 2024 |
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. ( )
  Carpe_Librum | Feb 27, 2023 |
That was a puzzling and provocative story! My 85-year-old mom recommended it to me, so I had to read it. The writing is old fashioned as you’d expect from something from the 1850s. But the quandaries of dealing with weird and unfortunate people are the same today. ( )
  steve02476 | Jan 3, 2023 |
This one comes from my long-held determination to read Great Books that are supposedly a big deal and that I somehow missed during my adolescence.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" lived up to the hype. I really appreciated the disjointed first person narrative, the almost cynical characterisations and the lack of a conclusive ending. Melville really knows how to confuse a reader but keep them interested, pursuing the plot until the unsatisfying end. I use "unsatisfying" without negative connotations (if possible) - it forces you to delve into what you just read searching for hints and explanations. Few books today have that kind of pull. ( )
  kid-pr0-kuo | Dec 17, 2022 |
I would prefer not to write a review. ( )
1 vote garbagedump | Dec 9, 2022 |
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» Add other authors (85 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Herman Melvilleprimary authorall editionscalculated
Borges, Jorge LuisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clement, PietIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leegsma, GerdaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leistra, AukeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGrath, PatrickForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schrameijer, CharlotteIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilharm, SabineIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Witsen, Rosalien vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
Dedication
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I am a rather elderly man.
Quotations
Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation,
when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby
in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not
to.”
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Disambiguation notice
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Bartleby the Scrivener (1853), by Herman Melville, tells the story of a quiet, hardworking legal copyist who works in an office in the Wall Street area of New York City. One day Bartleby declines the assignment his employer gives him with the inscrutable "I would prefer not." The utterance of this remark sets off a confounding set of actions and behavior, making the unsettling character of Bartleby one of Melville's most enigmatic and unforgettable creations.

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Book description
Le narrateur est un notaire qui engage dans son étude un dénommé Bartleby pour un travail de clerc, chargé de copier des actes. Au fil du temps cet être qui s'est d'abord montré travailleur, consciencieux, lisse, ne parlant à personne, révèle une autre partie de sa personnalité: il refuse certains travaux que lui demande son patron. Il ne les refuse pas ouvertement, il dit simplement qu'il «préférerait ne pas» les faire, et ne les fait pas. Et cette phrase revient alors tout dans sa bouche: «Je préférerais ne pas le faire», traduite en français par «je ne préférerais pas», ou «je préférerais ne pas» ou encore «j'aimerais mieux pas» .

Peu à peu, Bartleby cesse complètement de travailler, mais aussi de sortir de l'étude où il dort. Il ne mange rien d'autre que des biscuits au gingembre, et refuse même son renvoi par son employeur.Elle a été publiée en français sous de nombreux titres différents: Bartleby l'écrivain, Bartleby le scribe, Bartleby: une histoire de Wall Street , et plus simplement Bartleby. Bartleby est une œuvre éminemment atypique, qui a marqué au xxe siècle les écrivains de l'absurde, entre autres.

Ce personnage de Melville a inspiré de nombreux théoriciens de ce qu'on a appelé les théories de «l'anti-pouvoir». Ainsi Bartleby et sa fameuse expression «Je préférerais ne pas» (qui conduit son employeur à ne plus rien lui demander) constituant-ils l'illustration de la stratégie de la fuite qui, selon certains théoriciens actuels (Toni Negri, notamment), doit remplacer la lutte directe.

Ces penseurs s'approprient souvent la célèbre phrase de Gilles Deleuze: «Fuir, mais en fuyant, chercher une arme». Il s'agit de combattre l'appareil d'État à distance plutôt que de l'affronter directement. La fuite s'impose non plus comme simple défection mais comme une nouvelle stratégie de lutte.A lire, incontestablement !

L'édition 2020 comprend une biographie de l'auteur.
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