March 30, 2022

#08-198: Bartleby, the Scrivener

Note: Bartleby is symbolic of the "modern man" who just can't seem to get motivated. In this he is a child of Hamlet.

Get Ready: In your work or school is there anything you "would prefer not to" do? How do you deal with it?

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, is also known for his short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," narrated by an unnamed lawyer.

The narrator already has two copyists (called "scriveners") in his office, but business is good, so he hires a third, a forlorn-looking young man whom the lawyer hopes will calm the other two.

At first, Bartleby works quickly and well, but on the third day when asked to proof-read a document, he replies, "I would prefer not to." His employer thinks he has misunderstood, and asks again, but receives the same reply.

Bartleby soon performs fewer and fewer tasks, always stating that he "would prefer not to" do whatever is asked; eventually he performs none at all. Instead, he stares out an office window at a brick wall. No matter how his boss reasons with him, or tries to understand him, Bartleby will not budge.

One Sunday the narrator stops by the office and discovers that Bartleby is living there.

Business associates wonder why Bartleby is always in the office, but doesn't do any work. To salvage his reputation, the narrator--too tender-hearted to evict Bartleby--moves to another building. The old office's new tenant comes and asks for help in removing Bartleby, but the narrator disavows responsibility for the man's strange behavior.

The solution the new tenant hits upon is to simply put Bartleby out. But still he sits on the stairs all day, and sleeps in the doorway at night.

The building's other tenants--and the landlord--come to the narrator for help, and he agrees to speak to Bartleby. He suggests other jobs, even inviting Bartleby to come live with him temporarily. "No," replies Bartleby, "I would prefer not to make any change."

The narrator goes away for a few days, but when he returns, he learns that the landlord has had Bartleby arrested. He visits Bartleby in prison, and bribes a cook to be sure he has enough to eat. When he returns a few days later, he learns that Bartleby has died of starvation: "I prefer not to dine today," he had said repeatedly.

The narrator later hears that Bartleby had once worked in a dead letter office, and wonders how this may have affected him. The narrator's last words are, "Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!"


Read more:,_the_Scrivener

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. budge
  2. dead letter office
  3. disavows
  4. evict
  5. forlorn
  6. landlord
  7. salvage
  8. starvation
  9. tenant
  10. tender-hearted

  1. a place for mail that can't be delivered
  2. save; protect
  3. kick out
  4. move; change position
  5. denies connection with
  6. sad; miserable
  7. death by hunger
  8. a building owner
  9. kind
  10. a person who rents a space

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 30, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. a; 3. e; 4. c; 5. f; 6. h; 7. b; 8. g; 9. j; 10. i