A Story

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Sun 23 Jan 2011 19:20

Noon Position: 13 35.5 S 123 10.9 W
Course: 285 Speed: 5 Knots
Wind: East F3-4 Gentle to Moderate breeze
Weather: overcast, warm
Day’s Run: 137 miles

Yesterday I started reading a collection of Herman Melville's short stories. One in particular moved me, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The influence of Dickens upon Melville is easy to see in this story, the humorous development of character, balancing an increasing level of pathos. In this instance the narrator, an elderly and not very ambitious Wall Street lawyer engages a third clerk, Bartleby, in his small but growing business. Initially Bartleby, set up in a small corner of the lawyers office, is an industrious clerk copying many lengthy dull legal contracts but as time passes his reclusive and peculiar nature becomes increasingly evident. When asked to do any tasks other than copying, in particular proof reading other documents, he simply replies, “I would prefer not to.” This disturbs the old lawyer who hates a fuss and starts to worry what he should do about this strange young man he has employed. After some time Bartelby even refuses to copy but simply stands in his corner looking out the window at a blank dark brick wall several feet opposite. The lawyer is a compassionate soul and wishes to help but none of his overtures to assist Bartleby come to anything and it is revealed that Bartleby is in fact living in the office and very rarely ever leaves it. The lawyer eventually decides he has to sack Bartleby but Bartleby simply stays so the lawyer rather then have Bartelby arrested goes to the extreme of moving offices. Later the landlord of his old office comes to the lawyer and tells him his clerk is still there and he needs to do something about it. He tries, even offering Bartleby a room in his own apartments but Bartlelby refuses, “I would prefer not to.” The old lawyer (I don't think he ever says his name) can do no more and leaves the problem to the landlord who calls in the police and Bartleby is taken away to the “Tombs” - the Halls of Justice - and sent to prison. Again the old lawyer tries to lend a hand to this clearly distressed young man but to no avail and Bartelby dies in the prison in a courtyard staring blankly at a wall. Of course the reader is left wondering what on earth is this all about? The only hint we get is in the final paragraph where the old lawyer tells us that later he learnt that Bartelby had worked in the dead letters section of the post office. “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it then that of continually handling all these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring – the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity – he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”


All is well.