Bartleby the Scrivener | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Bartleby the Scrivener | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Herman Melville's 1853 short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street" has been widely praised as one of the greatest achievements of the genre. In this work of short fiction, the well-known author of the novel Moby-Dick narrates the final days of Bartleby, a legal clerk whose task is to copy documents by hand. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" raises existential questions of free will and ethical questions of the dehumanizing effects of capitalism.

Written at a time when the working world of America was becoming increasingly mechanized and supervised, the story also gives readers a glimpse into the lives of the multitudes of workers who went about their monotonous routines with little joy or independent thought. Bartleby's iconic phrase, "I would prefer not to," serves both as an act of philosophical rebellion and as a death sentence for a character who can no longer function in society.

1. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" was first published anonymously.

The story first appeared in two consecutive issues of the magazine Putnam's Monthly (November and December 1853) with no author credited. It didn't appear under Melville's name until 1856, when it was republished with a collection of short stories called The Piazza Tales.

2. The 1999 film Office Space has been compared to Bartleby.

In this film starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston, the main character stops coming into his soul-sucking workplace after being hypnotized. Rather than getting fired, he gets promoted. His failings continue to be rewarded as the movie raises valid concerns over what our culture values.

3. Melville probably based the eccentric Bartleby on himself.

Many scholars have argued that "Bartleby, the Scrivener" was influenced by Melville's circumstances as a writer after arduously working on Moby-Dick. Although now a legendary classic, the whaling novel wasn't well received upon publication. "Bartleby" may be symbolic of Melville's own depression and disenchantment with the writing profession.

4. A 2006 comedy film pays homage to "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

The movie Accepted, starring Jonah Hill, features a character named Bartleby Gaines, who shares the characteristics of being a slacker and resisting the establishment with Melville's protagonist.

5. Stephen King was inspired by "Bartleby" to write about writer's block.

The acclaimed horror author's 1998 novel Bag of Bones was influenced by Melville's short story. King focuses on the theme of a depressed writer suffering from writer's block and uses literary allusions to "Bartleby" to develop his own protagonist's psychological turmoil.

6. Critics have interpreted Bartleby as a Christ figure.

Much like Christ, Bartleby is enmeshed in a systematic way of doing things he cannot readily combat. Christ couldn't change Roman ways; Bartleby succumbs to the mindset upheld by Wall Street.

7. Bartleby is quoted in the popular television show Archer.

In the acclaimed animated comedy series, the titular protagonist quotes Bartleby's famous line "I would prefer not to," also stating Melville is "not an easy read."

8. "Bartleby" is linked to an important 19th-century court case.

The 1850 case of Brown v. Kendall, three years before the publication of "Bartleby," set a precedent for what constituted legal negligence and underperformance. Though working in the legal profession himself, Bartleby's increasing inability to function and subsequent decline can be viewed as products of shifting attitudes in legal theory. The narrator's handling of his listless employee shows he exercised a degree of good judgment, but it also demonstrates limits for effectiveness.

9. A Brady Bunch actor starred in the first film version of "Bartleby."

Barry Williams, who played the oldest Brady son, Greg, appears in the 1969 Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation adaptation of "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

10. "Bartleby" was turned into an opera.

The first opera version of the story was created by Walter Aschaffenburg, and it opened in 1964. In the opera Bartleby sings tenor, while Ginger Nut is a boy soprano.

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