Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville


Herman Melville’s most famous work is Moby-Dick, which I have not read. This book is my reading text for Coursera’s The Fiction of Relationship by Brown’s University.

This book consists of two short stories, Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno.

The first, a short 45-page story, is a narration from a lawyer, who employs scriveners, or copyists, before the invention of photo-copy machines, or Xerox, and perhaps even before carbon papers. Scriveners copy pages of legal documents, a tedious job. Before the employment of Bartleby, the lawyer has two scriveners by the nicknames Turkey and Nippers, both of whom have the idiosyncrasies of having mood swings according to  a particular part of day. Turkey works well in the morning and becomes intolerable after lunch, while Nippers is the opposite. But being the kind-hearted man that the lawyer is, the two remain employable despite working only half a day. Bartleby comes into employment and proves to be an efficient scrivener, working day and into the night. But when he was asked to proof check the copies, replied, ‘I’d prefer not to.’ This is also his reply to other errands requested of him, until one day, he’d ‘prefer not to’ do any more work and yet refuses to leave the office. The lawyer couldn’t make him leave and being the compassionate man, decides to move his office instead of getting the police. Still, Bartleby refuses to leave and is sent to jail by the landlord, where he’d prefer not to eat, and eventually starves to death.

Storyline aside, the author manages to articulate the turmoil felt by the lawyer for having such an employee. He wants to help Bartleby but is helpless. Yet he couldn’t leave Bartleby in his employment, as he, as well as Turkey and Nippers, are being affected by Bartleby, and all start using ‘I’d prefer not to…’ in their conversations. This part was hilarious to read.

The second story, Benito Cereno, is the most difficult story in the English language I have ever read. The sentence structure is abrupt, the vocabulary difficult, and the setting, being on a ship, is filled with unfamiliar nautical terms. Yet the mystery excites, the plot thickens and the character of the narrator, as he self-debates, proof the challenge worthy to the end. To prevent spoiler, I shan’t reveal the storyline, except that the narrator, an American Captain Delano, in 1799, while berthed at a deserted harbor, boarded a Spanish trading ship with African slaves aboard to render the crew and its Captain Benito assistance with water and food. He finds the relationship between the Spanish Captain and his slave Babo a strangely close one. Unbeknownst to him, something sinister is brewing before his eyes, something his intuition senses, but his rational thinking refuses to abide to.

Many times, I had to read the sentence a few times to get what the narrator is trying to describe. Patience is definitely needed in reading this book. I give an example here where he describes his suspicions on the Spanish Captain and how quickly his rational side banishes the thought:

The alleged Don Benito was in early manhood, about twenty-nine or thirty. To assume  a sort of roving cadetship in the maritime affairs of such a house, what more likely scheme for a young knave of talent and spirit? But the Spaniard was a pale invalid. Never mind. For even to the degree of simulating mortal disease, the craft of some tricksters had been known to attain. To think that, under the aspect of infantile weakness, the most savage energies might be couched, those velvets of the Spaniard but the silky paw to his fangs.

From no train of thoughts did these fancies come; not from within, but from without; suddenly, too, and in one throng, like hoar frost; yet as soon as vanish as the mild sun of Captain Delano’s good nature regains its meridian.

In another paragraph, he describes a room:

The similitude was heightened, if not originally suggested, by glimpses of the surrounding sea; since, in one aspect, the country and the ocean seem cousins-german. (huh?)

I am glad to find out that my classmates also have difficulties reading this.








About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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