Overworked employees, endless legal documents to be copied, the futility of the dead letter office—it’s no wonder Bartleby, the anti-hero of Melville’s 1853 short story is in a bad way. Though whether he’s mad or not depends on who you ask, as in Melville’s world, the law copyist, or scrivener, who goes on strike yet refuses to leave his office is the sanest one on staff. Things start out optimistically enough—Bartleby seems to be an ideal addition to his alternately intoxicated and cranky co-workers, but in this story there is no great satisfaction in work, not in this kind anyway:
“It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair…I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperament, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in crimpy hand.”
Indeed. By day three of Bartleby’s new job, he suddenly refuses his copying responsibilities, and when the demands come in makes the now-classic rejoinder, “I would prefer not to.” He takes refuge in his office carrel and remains unavailable for comment, spending nights alone in the gloom of a deserted Wall Street. Things get worse, the police are called in, and Bartleby is arrested and sent to The Tombs, where he refuses to eat and—well, if you haven’t, you should really read the story.
In “Bartleby,” Melville is said to have found affinity in a character “who obstinately refuses to go on doing the sort of writing demanded of him.” It’s possible too, that the mixed reviews for “Moby Dick,” published two years earlier, added to the author’s bleak outlook. Bartleby’s despair over his plight of copying reminds me of a quip by Truman Capote, a critique of an author’s work he disliked. “This isn’t writing,” he said. “It’s typing.”
It’s no wonder Bartleby went mad. As an emotional stand-in for Melville, he’s condemned to the bleakest thing next to the despair of a writer’s own inadequate words: having to endless type ones that mean nothing to you. An eternity in boilerplate.