“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a long short story by Herman Melville about a narrator’s encounter with a legal copyist who first refuses to review copy—his famous line is “I prefer not”—and then declines to work altogether. Though the narrator is solicitous (and some readers think he’s too solicitous), Bartleby can’t be rescued. The narrator’s solution to the mystery is the news that Bartleby worked in the dead letter office before joining him, but many readers find that clue inconclusive. Bartleby remains an enigma. As I was teaching the story recently, I started thinking about Melville’s character and wrote this response. I’m not sure it helps at all with the story, but it collects some of my thoughts about it…
Don’t blame the question. The question was simple, calling for just a word or two and not particularly unusual or striking ones. And don’t blame him. The quiet surprised him as much as us. When he reached into his word-hoard—paltry as it was—he found it entirely empty. He had nothing to say.
Looking back, we might have guessed. Many words and ideas are recycled, echoes of ones we’re presented. His phrasing followed patterns discernible in retrospect, subtle grammar but grammar nonetheless—noun, verb, noun and the like—inventive only in seeming novel. Truthfully, we’re all form.
He might have thought, “There’s nothing new under the sun” and swallowed the cliché before it emerged. He might have said, “I have nothing to say” but decided on action. He can’t tell us.
Perhaps some shift in vast invisible forces slid wheels and cogs into place and closed a great dam. But, if so, nothing was behind the wall—not a finger-wide stream, not a trickle deep in the sand, not a drip of pooled dew on rocks—nothing gathered. He wasn’t holding back.
We want to blame his standards and tell him anything is fine, but his eyes have answered already. They’re focused on some other inexpressible surface, a place words don’t describe. He looks on from elsewhere.
Prodding won’t do. We have no recourse but to watch and wait, hoping he walks a circular path that returns before he dwindles. Every moment, however, takes him away—each silence another step into a darkness between stars vast enough to make escape probable. We want to pull him from quiet, but there’s nothing to grab.
Soon we’ll forget he ever spoke and wonder if we dreamed him from dust instead, a new Adam from an Eden wholly imaginary.