Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Bartleby the Scrivener
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is a short story by Herman Melville. The story first appeared, anonymously, in Putnam's Magazine in two parts. The first part appeared in November 1853, with the conclusion published in December 1853. It was reprinted in Melville's The Piazza Tales in 1856 with minor textual alterations. The work is said to have been inspired, in part, by Melville's reading of Emerson, and some have pointed to specific parallels to Emerson's essay, "The Transcendentalist ."
The narrator of the story is an unnamed lawyer with offices on Wall Street in New York City. He describes himself as doing "a snug business among rich men's bonds and mortgages and title-deeds." He has three employees: "First, Turkey; second, Nippers; third, Ginger Nut," each of whom is described. He advertises for a fourth, and Bartleby appears, "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn!"
At first Bartleby appears to be a competent worker, but later he refuses to work when requested, repeatedly uttering the phrase "I would prefer not to." He is also found to be living in the lawyer's office. Bartleby refuses to explain his behavior, and also refuses to leave when dismissed. The lawyer moves offices to avoid any further confrontation, and Bartleby is taken away. At the end of the story, Bartleby slowly starves in prison, finally expiring during a visit by the lawyer.
"Bartleby the Scrivener" is among the most famous of American short stories. It has been considered a precursor to Existentialist and Absurdist literature. "Bartleby" touches on many of the themes extant in the work of Franz Kafka, particularly in The Trial and "A Hunger Artist." However, there exists nothing to indicate that the Austrian writer was at all familiar with Melville, who was largely forgotten until after Kafka's death.
Albert Camus cites Melville (explicitly over Kafka) as one of his key influences in a personal letter to Liselotte Dieckmann printed in the French Review in 1998.
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