Herman Melville’s Bartleby exists in a long gone world of scriveners and copyists, and yet there us something urgently contemporary in its scrutiny of the world of work. Before Bartleby joins the Wall Street offices of the narrator, a lawyer, we are introduced to the current staffing complement, Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut: “In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks and were deemed expressive of their respective person or characters.” Encapsulated by nickname, the narrator is able to describe their particular, unchanging characteristics; while they are presented as completely known, Bartleby enters as the unknown.
Best of all, he leaves the story equally unknown. Initially he seems the ideal worker: first to arrive at the office and last to leave, writing diligently behind his screen:
“At first, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famished for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.”
Problems occur when Bartleby is asked to proof-read his work with the other clerks. “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby replies, a standard response to any request which would take him outside the comfort of his screen.
“His face was leanly composed, his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.”
Bartleby’s passive resistance worsens when he refuses to even write, but the narrator finds himself helpless in the face of his indifferent refusals.
The story’s genius lies in Melville’s own refusal to offer any explanation for Bartleby’s behaviour (one can just imagine him telling his editor that he ‘prefers not to’). It can, of course, be read as Melville himself grappling with his writing, but I prefer to see it as resistance to the futility of work, the realisation that pointless copying is almost all we ever do, and also the liberation of that five-word phrase that frees us from the obligation.