There are very few stories that, on re-reading after re-reading, seem to become impossibly more perfect, but Herman Melville’s eerie, aching story Bartleby, the Scrivener is one such. Like a parable without an obvious moral, it is defiance raised to the metaphysical.
The plot is easily comprehensible; the meaning utterly elusive. The narrator, an unnamed New York lawyer, takes on a new scrivener, or copyist. Our lawyer describes his own philosophy as “the easiest way of life is the best” and relishes that he has a “snug retreat” where he can “do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds”. He has two clerks already, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, and a junior jack-of-all-trades, a boy called Ginger Nut.
Business is doing so well that the narrator takes on Bartleby, described as “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”. He works “silently, palely, mechanically”, and on the third day of his employment is asked to proofread a document. He says — and it is almost the only thing he ever says in the story: “I would prefer not to.” He instead prefers, if anything, to look at the blank brick wall that is the entire view from his window.
JG Ballard once wrote of a future Adolf Hitler emerging from the “timeless wastes” of “modern shopping malls”. Melville, I think, offers a more dangerously hopeful idea: that revolutionary resistance comes from a man in a conventional suit mildly stating there are things he would rather not do. It is, for Bartleby, the route to a kind of martyrdom.
A lesson for our time.