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Mrs. B's Eccentric Book Reports: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Updated on January 31, 2017

A Bit about Me

I'm a retired public school teacher with over 25 years experience with middle school students. I've put in my time! I always hated traditional, mandatory book reports. They seemed to suck all the joy out of the reading experience. But I'll never be tired of reading, talking, and writing about literature and the arts, and rambling on in general.

So this is my version of a book report, or in this case, a short story report

I want to share books and sometimes movies, short stories, paintings, and possibly other media that have impacted my life, made me think, laugh, and cry.

I deliberately have no plan, order, or logical arrangement, so with no further ado, I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite long short stories: Bartleby the Scrivner: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville.

Plot Summary

This is usually the most lengthy and boring part of a traditional book report. Just for fun, I'm going to reduce the plot summary to one sentence:

An attorney hires an office worker who works, then doesn't, and then dies, pretty much in that order.

This is a common facial expression here in Seattle these days.
This is a common facial expression here in Seattle these days.
No, this is not a photo in black and white. This is the way Seattle looks right now.
No, this is not a photo in black and white. This is the way Seattle looks right now.

My Inane Ramblings: Why I love this short story, or SAD in Seattle

My inane ramblings will take the form of several confessions. The first is that I, a lifelong reader, an English major, a teacher of literature, and a one time liveaboard, have never read the novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I've read parts of if, I've tried to finish it, but I just cannot seem to, even though it contains one of my favorite passages in all literature:

Yes, there is death in this business of whaling- a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being.

I'm not so sure I agree with the sentiments therein, but I can actually hear it: "...quick chaoic bundling..." Interesting, that I associate the exit of the soul from the body with a sound . Once I heard a sound like this.

I was in Taos, New Mexico, at the ski resort. From the parking lot, I looked up at a restaurant with a deck where many people were eating lunch. A woman had placed her baby, wrapped in a blanket, on the railing. She stepped away for a moment and the baby fell from the railing, two stories down to the ground. All I knew from the parking lot was that there was a scream, then silence. All eyes turned to the direction of the scream to see the baby fall. But in the quiet, I heard it, I swear, I heard it. "...a quick chaotic bundling ..."

Are you thoroughly depressed yet? Because "Bartleby the Scrivener" is probably the most depressing story ever written. I find even Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther less depressing. In Seattle the entire city suffers from SAD--Seasonal Affective Disorder-- all winter long.

Yeah, I'm depressed (second confession), but I'm not the only one. Seattle is the only place I've ever lived where bitching about the weather is perfectly acceptable conversation for every occasion. It doesn't seem to mark one as a social loser to be unable to come with anything better to talk about!

So back to "Bartleby," a story about passive aggression caused, in my opinion, by extreme depression. As a teacher I've encountered several Bartlebys over the years: sad, silent, little souls who never reached out to another nor responded to attempts to reach out to them. Sometimes there was a perfectly understandable reason--for example, one young man had suffered the deaths of several family members and close friends within a short period of time. Another student's mother told me how talkative and animated he was at home and that he had thoroughly enjoyed a recent field trip. I had seen no reaction of any kind during this trip, and was quite surprised to hear it. She insisted that his father was ''the same way," extremely shy, but still engaged in what was going on.

But some of these Bartlebys passed through my life without any explanation for their behavior, or lack of it. They resisted all attempts by me, by counselors, by parents to reach them. Every now and then I'm pleasantly surprised to encounter or hear of one of these former students and find out that all is well. She has overcome whatever it was that inhibited her and is making her way in the world with friends, family, and other human connections. However, other Bartlebys seem to fade away. They aren't on Facebook, and they don't come up on a Goggle search; no one seems to know them or remember them.

I'm haunted by these Bartlebys. Seung Hui Cho, who was responsible for the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, from all accounts, was one of these Bartleby-type students. His family was concerned, he did receive counseling, and school officials were alerted, but the worst still happened.

The Greatest Mind-Numbingly Boring Job Ever!

Third confession: I think Bartleby has the greatest job ever. He is, in essence, a human xerox machine. His job, in his mid-nineteenth century office, is to copy documents by hand. That's it! Just copy! He doesn't have to think, plan, or create. I'm famous (in a VERY small circle) for loving boring jobs--sanding, painting, and scraping on my boat are good examples. My mind is set free, and I actually accomplish something. It's my form of meditation.

Bartleby does well at his job until asked to edit his copy as another reads the original aloud. Human interaction, apparently, is the sticking point for our guy Bartleby. "I would prefer not to," becomes his mantra. Soon he would "prefer not to" do any work at all, and then he would "prefer not to" eat and then to breath.

Too bad! If a job as a scrivener were available today, I'd be standing in line to get it.

Some of my favorite passages from "Bartleby the Scrivener"

"I would prefer not to."

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Should you watch the movie?

It was a complete surprise to me that there was a movie. But yes, indeed, made in 2001, is Bartleby , an updated version of Melville's story. I had never heard of it, nor have I yet seen it; however, it looks interesting enough that I'll probably take a look at it one of these days. There is also a Spanish video which is actually a slide show, but captures some of the feeling of the original short story.

What do you think?

Do you plan to read this short story?

See results


Submit a Comment

  • GetitScene profile image

    Dale Anderson 3 years ago from The High Seas

    As a Melville fan, a fellow liveaboard and a reader, i can tell you that Moby Dick is a GRIND! Nowhere near his best book (which is Typee by the way).

  • Arachnea profile image

    Tanya Jones 3 years ago from Texas USA

    I recall watching Bartleby in an English class. I've never read the book though. I'll definitely have to do so now. You've included a lot of great support information here as well.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 6 years ago from New Mexico

    Thank you, James! I enjoyed writing this hub; it helped me out of my seasonal funk.

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

    I have not read the story but your Hub is fabulous. I enjoyed reading your words very much. I will look for the 2001 film you mentioned. Thank you.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 6 years ago from New Mexico

    Oh yeah, it sure does rain out here in the Pacific NW! But you're right, girltalksshop, there's a lot to like out here too, though it's easy to get a bit depressed after days of gloomy weather. Not so bad this year, however!

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, girltalksshop! I look forward to reading your hubs.

  • profile image

    girltalksshop 6 years ago

    I love Seattle, despite the known fact it rains nine months out of the year. I think your story will be interesting and useful. I miss my home state of MI which use to be known for its four seasons, but as a teen my folks moved us out to the Pacific NW...where it rains...alot! I can get down when it rains, but fortunately don't let it get to me too long. Good book report...unique and helpful. : )Looking forward to reading more from you. (I use to love writing book reports, over oral ones). I was better at putting words down on paper then through what came out of my mouth, being shy and all.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 6 years ago from New Mexico

    Glad I'm not the only one who feels that way!

  • gradeAmerican profile image

    gradeAmerican 6 years ago

    I'm with you, Lee. Moby Dick is a hard book to read. The movies are much better as they cut out all the extraneous stuff.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    I see you're making the rounds of my "literary" hubs. Thank you, Sa'ge!

  • Sa`ge profile image

    Sa`ge 7 years ago from Barefoot Island

    very interesting, :D very :D thanks :D

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Thank you, Tony! It's an interesting story and really brings up some interesting ideas and comments.

  • tonymac04 profile image

    Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

    I found this an engagingly quirky "book report" - thanks for sharing it. Love the story and love the comments people have made here - great stuff!

    Love and peace


  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    "Bartleby" really is a strange story, and somehow weirdly compelling to me. I'm STILL trying to read Moby Dick. Okay, I'm still THINKING about reading Moby Dick!

    Thanks for the heads up on the "Scrivener" app. I'll take a look at it.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Cheeky Girl! Hope you enjoy reading "Bartleby the Scrivener."

  • Cheeky Girl profile image

    Cassandra Mantis 7 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

    A strange and unusual story as you describe it in one sentence. I daresay there is a wee bit more in it than this but you make it sound more interesting, Lee. I will check it out. Melville's Moby Dick is a classic.

    By the way, there is a screen writing software app called "Scrivener", just so you know. It's rather good too! Cheers!

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Hi Doug! LOL *I could give you an alternate summarizing sentence to Bartleby, but I'd prefer not to.* Good one!

    So true--the Bartlebys of the world are maddening. As a teacher of middle school students, I sure have dealt with a few of them.

    Thanks for stopping by! Lee

  • profile image

    Doug Turner Jr. 7 years ago

    I could give you an alternate summarizing sentence to Bartleby, but I'd prefer not to. Just kidding -- I had to say it.

    How about: "An attorney's office finds their world turned upside down when they are unable to rid themselves of a new employee who refuses to do anything whatsoever, including work." -- A bit of a run-on sentence but it's past my bedtime.

    Good hub. I love this story, depressing as it is (maddening is the best word I've ever come up with to describe Bartleby). Cheers.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Glad to hear from you, Astra Nomik! I hope you do read "Bartleby." Let me know what you think.

  • Astra Nomik profile image

    Cathy Nerujen 7 years ago from Edge of Reality and Known Space

    Thank you for the very interesting review of the book. I will have to check this out. I am sure its on project guttenberg, the free ebook website. You made it sound so interesting. I never heard of it till today.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Hi JayDeck! I still haven't seen the movie but will someday. Thank you for stopping by!

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    De Greek, you are too sweet! All is indeed well--I've been very busy this summer and was recently on the road to New Mexico and back. Anyway, I've got about a million ideas for hubs and should have more time to write in the near future. I also need to catch up on reading your newest hubs!

  • JayDeck profile image

    JayDeck 7 years ago from New Jersey

    I saw the movie years ago and enjoyed it. Crispin Glover was perfect as Bartleby, just the right amount of menace.

    Thanks for the hub!


  • De Greek profile image

    De Greek 7 years ago from UK

    So what's going on? Why have you stopped writing? I hope all is well :-))

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Hi epigramman! Thank you so much for your very kind words--I love reading and talking about and writing about books and ideas.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    I'm STILL working on Moby-Dick! I think I have some kind of mental block or something! Thanks for stopping by, ralwus. Hope you enjoy the depressing "Bartleby the Scrivener."

  • profile image

    ralwus 7 years ago

    The movie looks great. I cannot remember if I read Bartleby or not, it does sound familiar, but I have read Moby Dick several times. I find it amazing that you never, being a teacher. Now I must go get that story and read it.

  • epigramman profile image

    epigramman 7 years ago

    ..this is a fabulous and most hubdelicious book report Darling and not the least bit eccentric - it is a labor of love and so artfully put together - so it's obvious you share a passion and joy for literature and you pass along this enlightened gift to your readers - lucky us - as Brian Wilson once penned: Sail on Sailor!!!

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Thanks, Micky! Actually, the movie looks a little more lighthearted. I might try it myself one of these days!

  • Micky Dee profile image

    Micky Dee 7 years ago

    Great report. I'm not sure I would read it. I'm not into much dram. There's been too much in my life. Now if you get Jim Cary or Steve Martin to play a role I might watch the movie. Thank you for a great book report though!

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Eric, I can completely relate to your brain glitch. Happens to me all the time. You're too young for those "senior moments"!

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 7 years ago from New Mexico

    Hi Jane! I'm about 20 hubs behind--got the ideas, just not the time, or sometimes the energy or motivation, so Jane Eyre might take awhile.

    I can hardly wait to read your "Sexiest Men in Lit" hub.

  • Eric Calderwood profile image

    Eric Calderwood 7 years ago from USA

    I never read Bartleby, but did read and enjoy Moby Dick. Of course I was later publicly humiliated when someone asked me the main character's name and couldn't remember it even though the first line of the book, "Call me Ishmael," is one of the more famous lines in literature. Oops.

  • Jane Bovary profile image

    Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

    Lee I haven't read this or even seen the movie but I loved the review anyway. I read Moby Dick a long time ago but can't recall whether I finished it or I do remember thinking that he was a great writer though.

    I'm still waiting for that Jane Eyre review! I was thinking of doing a hub about 'the sexiest men in literature' and of course, I'd have to include Rochester.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 8 years ago from New Mexico

    Thank you for coming by and commenting, Arthur W! Thanks also for the heads-up on the incorrect date. Alas, I have not been time-traveling. Right now, I'd rather get on a plane and travel in real time to somewhere sunny.

    I'm glad you brought up the medieval manuscript copyists. The complete title of the story is "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" which now gives me the idea that Bartleby is an Apostate monk by refusing to copy business documents. Hmmm...I'd never thought of "Bartleby" as satire before, but it's working for me.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 8 years ago from New Mexico

    Thank you, David, I do try for something at least a little bit different.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 8 years ago from New Mexico

    Hi De Greek! Thank you for stopping by! I totally agree with you that the author's intent was humorous; however, with my Seattle SAD depression, I'm unable to see anything as funny. Once upon a time, in a place where the sun shone, even dealing with the little Bartlebys in the classroom was sometimes funny. Imagine listening to a "speech to persuade" delivered entirely in a monotone!

    I'm not so sure about Melville's hopeful view of our humanity, especially in the aspect of our ability to be kind and tolerant. After all, the narrator is mostly motivated by complacency and cowardice, except maybe at the end. Perhaps the kindness and tolerance comes not from the story, but from the reader, De Greek :)

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 8 years ago from New Mexico

    chasingcars, nice to hear from you! Of course, it's true that even a slight change in characterization or setting would vastly change the plot, especially in this story. I like your comment about contemplatives using repetitive action or non-action as a starting point. Are you viewing Bartleby at a contemplative?

  • Arthur Windermere profile image

    Arthur Windermere 8 years ago

    Lee, you've blown me away. This is exactly how I think a book report or a film report or any report really ought to be written: a personal and free-form engagement with the work. You bring up a lot of insightful points, a lot that made me think.

    Sadly, I can't give you my thoughts on Bartleby itself. Even though Moby Dick is the book that changed my reading habits for life (could never go back to popular fiction after Moby Dick), I keep putting off Bartleby. No idea why.

    Interestingly, Bartleby's job is one that was a major part of medieval monasticism. (Melville would have known that, of course.) Most monks were manuscript copyists and they took they greatest pride in their work. It was a meditative act for them. I also tend to enjoy boring jobs for their meditative quality.

    Also, amazed to learn you're currently in the year 2012. You're my favourite time-traveler after Bill & Ted. hehehe


  • David Stone profile image

    David Stone 8 years ago from New York City

    Wonderfully eccentric, Lee. Thanks.

  • De Greek profile image

    De Greek 8 years ago from UK

    I would prefer to take a different position. :-)

    1. I thank you for posting a link to a site where one can read this story

    2. I have done so (read the story)

    3. Why do people ignore the obvious humorous intent of the author? Other than the sad ending, this is a hugely funny piece, even though it’s written in a 19th century type of humour which at times is difficult to comprehend with 21st century mentality.

    4. Instead of getting bogged down by looking for ways to understand the mentality Bartleby, try another approach which the author might have intended: A humorous look into a hopeful view (and a celebration of) our humanity and our ability to be kind and tolerant.

    Think about it.

    Brother Mentalist has actually written two full sentences above, which is a hopeful sign in itself and I salute him with brotherly affection..

  • profile image

    chasingcars 8 years ago

    I agree with Mentalist; characterization and setting are fascinating since a slight change in either changes the plot. Contemplatives I've studied always use repetitive action or inaction as a starting point, but if I were "scrivenining," the paper would be pretty blotchy.

  • Lee B profile image

    Lee Barton 8 years ago from New Mexico

    Thank you for your comments, Mentalist acer! I did emphasize the depressive aspects of this story, but I also agree that the unusual character of Bartleby is quite interesting. Hope you enjoy reading this story.

  • Mentalist acer profile image

    Mentalist acer 8 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

    I find things that most people find depressing as meditive as I am hyper and easily detained into delirium.If I read this story I will not find it depressing but will enjoy the unusual (to myself) character study...


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