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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bartleby, the Scrivener

Herman Melville

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To purchase Bartleby, the Scrivener

Title: Bartleby, the Scrivener
Author: Herman Melville
Genre: Novella
Written: 1853
Length: 64 pages
Availability: Bartleby, the Scrivener - US
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  • A Story of Wall Street
  • First published in Putnam's, in 1853.
  • First published in book-form as part of The Piazza Tales

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Our Assessment:

A- : classic portrait, well written

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Bartleby, the Scrivener is narrated by a lawyer who comes to hire Bartleby as a copyist. It is an account of a person of almost no account:

Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and, in his case, those are very small.
       Bartleby is an employee; his background, history, personal circumstances are not of particular interest to his employer -- but even he surely expected to come to know more of Bartleby eventually. The narrative begins with a description of the offices before Bartleby's arrival, and the other employees -- nicknamed, with personal quirks -- are part of what has become at least a loose family of sorts, even if it does not extend beyond the workplace. Thrust into this environment, Bartleby, however, remains largely a cipher.
       The story is written retrospectively, and that colours the narrator's description of their first encounter:
I can see that figure now -- pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn ! It was Bartleby.
       An industrious worker at first, Bartleby proves soon enough to be a less than ideal employee. His stock phrase soon becomes: "I would prefer not to." As it turns out, he would prefer not to do most things he's asked, whether reveal any of his history, run an errand, do a specific task, or finally even quit his employment. He settles in and then does as he pleases -- not actively disturbing anyone, but the most passive irritant one can imagine.
       Bartleby, the Scrivener is tragic-comic, and Bartleby an individual who stands essentially totally apart from society. The narrator tries to be understanding, but Bartleby doesn't want to be understood: he prefers nothing, beyond being left to his own devices. It's ultimately not a situation that can be tolerated, and Bartleby's decline and fall comes fast and hard.
       The narrator's sympathy, curiosity, and incredible frustration are very nicely captured, as is the figure of Bartleby. The novella is a small, eerie classic -- and resonates even more strongly in contemporary times, in a world that more readily breeds (and, likely, also crushes) Bartlebys.
       Expertly written, it's a worthwhile if disturbing text.

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Bartleby, the Scrivener: Reviews: Herman Melville: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Herman Melville (1819-1891) wrote some of the greatest American novels, including Moby Dick and The Confidence-Man.

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