Bartleby the Scrivener

Since the day I read it I’ve been haunted by Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener.  It’s the story of a man who hires Bartleby.  Bartleby starts work at his new office and shows great promise, only to stop working bit by bit while uttering the phrase “I would prefer not to,” when asked to perform a normal work task.

It’s an implausible story as any normal boss would just fire the worker, but this boss ends up moving his offices to get away from Bartleby.  The story goes on at length about their relationship and it shows through its wonderful prose the worldview of the boss more than it tells the story of Bartleby, though the two are inextricably entwined.

It’s a bleak story and not to everyone’s liking.  If you haven’t read it, it can be done in one sitting, but it’s a novella so be ready.  Also there have been a few movie adaptations of it.  I own one starring Crispin Glover as Bartleby and David Paymer as the boss that gives the feel of the story in a more modern setting.  Glover gives his usual creepy performance which is perfect for the creepy character of Bartleby.

I posted a story to my online critiquing group that was supposed to give a sense of the bleakness of Bartleby The Scrivener, but I didn’t quite pull it off on my second draft.  But that’s what critique groups are for, pointing out where you’ve failed and offering suggestions for making it better.  I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation trying to emulate a master like Melville, but at the same time it made me very intentional about the writing of that story.  We’ll see if that helps me turn a corner in my writing.  I need to be stretching myself a bit more if I’m going to go to the next level.

The competition I’m writing for is The First Line’s spring 2017 contest.  Entries are due February 1.  Go to The First Line’s webpage for more information.

Submissions for the February/March issue of Pilcrow and Dagger close January 4!!  Not much time left, so be working on those stories about Armageddon.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *