Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener


This is a short story by Herman Melville, 19th century American writer, better known for writing Moby Dick. What is interesting in this short story is the depiction of behavior in a specific work setting. Very strange behavior in fact. And even stranger response of the boss to the employee’s peculiarities.

 A lawyer on Wall Street hires a new scrivener (or copyist) for this office, a fellow named Bartleby. The man is a bit of a loner and spends his days copying legal documents in his own little corner of the office. It is normally the practice in this context, it is said, that the copyists would cooperate and verify one copy each as it is being read out loud. The first time the lawyer calls for a review of his work, Bartleby states that he would prefer not to… This turn of phrase would subsequently be used to refuse to carry out a task. Eventually, Bartleby refuses all work, even copying, but remains a physical presence in the office. The lawyer had found out that Bartleby slept in the office at night and seemed to have no home. He therefore hesitates to kick him out. When he asks him to leave, he “prefers” not to… The lawyer then decides to move his premises to another rental location. Bartleby remains in the original office to the great dismay of the new tenant. When this new tenant makes it impossible for him to enter the office, he starts haunting the common areas of the building. His former employer is called to talk to him. Bartleby is eventually taken away and put in jail, when he becomes nearly catatonic and dies. The lawyer, who is the narrator, reflects about who Bartleby might really be and on how he became so strange. He admits to the reader than he has no knowledge to share on the topic so the mystery remains complete.

I was wondering what the essential aspects of the story would be that must remain if we were to undertake a modern rewriting of the story. To me, they would be the following (but you may wish to disagree): the situation is work related, there is a central hierarchical relationship, there may also be some generational difference between coworkers that show in different attitudes towards work, one character shows evidence of some mental illness or disturbance, and the end alludes to some unresolved mystery.

One could imagine the following titles:

1)      Bart the Technical Writer

2)      Bart the Webmaster

3)      Bart the Trainer

4)      Bart the Help Desk Specialist

5)      Bart the Recruiter

6)      Bart the Production Planner

Each option suggests a different work environment with its own customs, routines, practices and other unspoken rules. Each would offer fertile grounds for the exploration of relationships at work.


Melville, Herman. Bartleby the Scrivener. Downloaded from the Gutenberg Project.

One response »

  1. Pingback: Works in Progress (Devotional) | pnissila

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