Ben De Bono's Reviews > Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
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May 03, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: classics, favorites
Read in May, 2012

Bartleby is a masterpiece of short fiction. It's the sort of book that has a plethora of possible readings and applications. The one that struck me in particular on this read through was seeing the story as an examination of power.

Bartleby is, without question, the most powerful character in the story. His status as such is a sharp example of juxtaposition. Bartleby, given his position as a lowly clerk, ought to be nothing. He's surrounded by lawyers and businessmen who seem to possess real power, but they have no sway over him. The narrator is a perfect example of this. He ought to be in control in his relationship with Bartleby, but instead he is constantly manipulated into sympathy and charity toward his implacable clerk.

Bartleby's power comes from the fact that he wants (and perhaps even needs) nothing. He can't be bought by food, money or comfort. Nothing dissuades him. In some ways, I see Bartleby as an early, literary prototype for the Joker in The Dark Knight. What made the Joker such a fearful villain in the film is that he wants nothing - not even to live. Bartleby is a passive version of the same character. However, in his own way, he is no less frightening. In his passivity he already exercises almost complete control over those around him. If he changed from passive, to active in his approach to life he would become a singularly destructive force.

From this perspective, it's a bit odd to me that Bartleby has been used by various protest movements to bolster their efforts - including most recently by the Occupy movement. I can't see Bartleby participating in any type of protest. To protest is to admit the influence and power of that which you're protesting against. Such an admission would be unthinkable to a man like Bartleby. He wouldn't care enough to protest, and through that ambivalence he would stage a revolt far more effective than any real protest movement.

Of course, that's just one reading of the character and the story. Like most great literature, the perspectives to be taken here are endless. Bartleby is a short but great read. I can't recommend it highly enough
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