Bartleby, the illegible
Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is a story about a man who, one day, declares that he “prefer[s] not to” perform the duties of his job as a copyist in a law office. Consequently, he is fired, starves, and dies. Capitalism!
But, not just that. It’s also a story about the intersection of moral duty and legibility — a concept that I hope will be familiar to our readership, since it’s been taken up by Venkatesh Rao, Scott Alexander, Lou Keep, Hotel Concierge, and our very own Natural Hazard. If somehow you’ve missed all of these, let’s just say legibility is about the push to define things in the terms of those with power — and the concern that something may be lost in translation.
The first time Bartleby declares “I would prefer not to,” we’re only 25% of the way through the story. So if Melville was trying to write about a guy who defies his boss, gets fired, and dies in destitution, he wrote an awfully baggy story — surely he could’ve gotten from point A to point B a bit more expeditiously. So let’s review the story in more detail.
The first part of the story doesn’t even mention Bartleby. The narrator, a “rather elderly man” who runs the law office, employs two other copyists, known only by their nicknames, “Turkey” and “Nippers.” These two are hardly model employees, but the narrator doesn’t mind, because he has a system for managing them. Turkey gets a bit erratic after lunch (possibly because he’s having a lunch beer), and tends to make errors in the afternoon; whereas Nippers suffers from indigestion, and tends to be belligerent in the morning. The narrator accounts for their behavior, with, essentially, humorism; Turkey is sanguine, and Nippers is choleric. So we might suspect that he’ll try to understand Bartleby as melancholic. And, indeed, he is introduced as “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forelorn!” The narrator even expresses a hope that his disposition “might operate beneficially upon the flighty temper of Turkey, and the fiery one of Nippers.”
From the beginning, and throughout most of the story, Bartleby is actually an extremely diligent copyist. In terms of his primary responsibility, he gets documents and copies them, working at seemingly all hours. He “prefers not to” perform any of his secondary responsibilities — reviewing work, running errands, and so on — but he’s far from useless.
We might imagine that the narrator would find a way to work around Bartleby. After all, he’s able to overlook the quirks of Turkey and Nippers. The difference with Bartleby is that he cannot explain why Bartleby behaves the way he does. Bartleby simply “prefers not to,” and explanation comes to an end there. For one thing, this makes him a greater threat to the narrator’s authority. If Turkey acts out in the afternoon, the narrator can explain his behavior by reducing it to biology, and that still gives him a quiet sense of superiority. (Compare with how a man might smugly write off an angry woman: “well, I see it’s that time of the month.”)
The narrator’s problem, really, is not that Bartleby won’t work — it’s that he refuses to explain himself in a “reasonable” (= legible) way to the narrator. So in scene after scene, when he confronts Bartleby, his main demand is: explain yourself. Even when he does ask Bartleby to do work, it seems more like a provocation, an attempt to get at his real goal.
At some point, Bartleby stops working entirely, and takes up residence in the office, but still, the narrator doesn’t kick him out. What finally spurs him to action is that the clients who visit the office also find it strange. The narrator can live with something inexplicable to himself; but once he has to explain it to others, Bartleby has to go.
So the narrator denies and forsakes Bartleby. The exact series of events is…aggressively analogous to the betrayal of Christ, silver and all. Then Bartleby dies in prison.
Ah! But there’s one more thing. The narrator has figured out why Bartleby was…like that! (The reader must be excited as well.) As it turns out, Bartleby previously worked in the Dead Letter Office in Washington! Dead letters! That sounds so depressing! Well, no wonder it turned out like it did. The narrator cries: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
This explanation is very compelling until you think about it for two seconds. If Bartleby was so depressed from working at the Dead Letter Office, why did he take another job as a copyist? Why did his depression manifest in this particular way, where he like, mostly did his job, until he didn’t? Why don’t all the other people who worked at the Dead Letter Office act like this? The narrator provides some eloquent imaginary scenarios that might occur in such an office, engagement rings lost forever and such. But he actually explains nothing at all.
But lucky for him, Bartleby is dead, and cannot refute this account. So the narrator is able to return to the world of the reasonable and legible, and shake off the feeling that he might have had some responsibility to Bartleby, which was inexplicable but nonetheless real.