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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street

A while ago Joel recommended this short story to someone. I just finished reading it  nline but didn't quite get the message.

So who's Bartlebly? what's the lesson learned here? did Meliville  portray Bartleby to metaphorically rant about lack of compassion among human beings? what's so great about this story?

me_in_the_corner
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Do you have a URL?

Konrad
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

http://www.online-literature.com/melville/159

me_in_the_corner
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

I haven't read the story, but I recall that he recommended it in the context of someone either looking for a job or looking to keep a job or something like that.

The impression I got was that he was trying to say "work hard, you're easily replaced so make yourself as valuable as possible."

Do you think that message can be found in the story?

www.marktaw.com
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Could be.

Bartleby is an scrivener with peculiar demeanor who refuses to leave the company after being fired.

me_in_the_corner
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

I wonder if Bartleby used a red Swingline stapler.

Mister Fancypants
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Here's a link to Melville's story from the site named after him.

http://www.bartleby.com/129/

Comparing content, I would say that online-literature stole the content from bartleby.com (an older site) and is cashing in on their hard work.

Welville, in addition to being a real adventurer, was an insightful observer of the human condition, and one of the funniest humorists of the 19th century.

Criminal Intent
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

If I remember correctly, Bartleby worked fine for a while, although he was literal minded, and he kept saying "I prefer not to" when asked to do any work outside of the narrowest definition of his job. At some point he just stopped working altogether and did nothing but say "I prefer not to."

I brought up the story in reference to someone who had asked what to do when they don't want to do the work they're told to do.

(By the way, Bartleby might have been a metaphor for the productivity enhancing office innovations of that era, like the typewriter. Melville is probably making fun of the typewriter for being good at what it does but completely useless at doing the whole range of proofreading type jobs that were done by scribes before you had typewriters. If you read the story with Bartleby as a typewriter it makes total sense)

Joel Spolsky
Wednesday, July 09, 2003

I hadn't thought of the typewriter angle. Interesting.

Just reread it for the umpteenth time. Had to restrain myself from peeing my pants!! Melville is the absolutely riproaring most hilarious author I have had the good fortune to encounter.

When people complain about Moby Dick, I don't know what they are thinking. Moby Dick is so outlandish I don't know how anyone couldn't read it without having to take regular breaks to get control of themselves due to the uncontrollable fits of laughing to tears. The scene where Ishmael spends his first night in the inn is so wickedly over-the-top I don't know what to say except read it. Or the mystery concerning the dark painting. And this is just the start of the book! Folks who find Moby Dick boring must be totally humorless since it's the funniest book ever written.

Maybe people don't realize that Melville is the ultimate down-to-earth man's man. That puts a sort of a spin on the sort of language he uses: " I love to repeat [his name] for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion" This is funny material!!! Or check out the names of his characters -- Queequeeg and Starbucks, Nippers and Ginger Nut!! This, my friends, is some real humorous genius at work here.

So, yeah, all his pieces are brilliant metaphors for all kinds of cool things, but don't miss out on the hilarity of history's greatest humorist.

Tony Chang
Thursday, July 10, 2003

Thanks Joel and Tony. Have a great one!

me_in_the_corner
Thursday, July 10, 2003

I see where you are coming from with the typewriter, but I don't see it that way myself. Here we have the world's most boring job -- doing title searches and mortgages and copying real estate contracts and documents by hand, then meticulously checking for errors one word at a time.

The job is so dull that a person has to do something to compensate. Turkey knows that he will never be more than a scrivener. So he becomes an alchoholic in order to handle that. He gets a buzz on at lunch, and then believes himself a warrior attacking the nefarious legal documents and boldly defeating them, even though his work after lunch is of negative productivity. This distracts his mind from the fact that he smells bad and has filthy clothes. Turkey numbs the pain.

Nippers deals with the despair of being a scrivner by believing himself something more. He has ambition. He dresses beyond his means and puts himself into debt. When the creditors come to bother him at work, he tells himself that they are his clients, as if it is he who is the attorney.

Bartleby on the other hand, deals with his fate by accepting it. He does dehumanizing, dull and boring work. He does not numb the pain. He does not have ambition for something greater. He accepts his fate, of mechanically reproducing documents by hand. No thought, no creativity, and no meaning. He looks out the window and sees a brick wall 3 feet in front of him, but that is no problem since he has no interest in views. He does his job and that is all he does. He mechanically repreduces. His soul is gone. On evenings and weekends, he strips down and lives in the office. No need to go anywhere else because there is no life to be lived. He does his job. He does not need to interact with humans. Any task beyond that what he has given up into is beyond his ability to comprehend.

Being a Scrivner is pretty much the same as being a Programmer in many shops. Programmers lead lives just like Bartleby's. They work 16 hours a day. They work weekends. They sleep in the office. They have given up on life. They communicate so infrequently that they hardly know how. They just want to be left alone to do their job without interruption. "Professionalism", meaning productivity and 'flow' are their main values. They pride themselves in the flawless, efficient code they generate mechanically hour after hour, working alone behind a screen.

Tony Chang
Thursday, July 10, 2003

Interesting Tony, the programmer twist on that sort of life is that it is somehow 'cool' and that by living it you are somehow '3l33t'.

Paul Lazier
Thursday, July 10, 2003

After Joel's comment I read the online copy of Bartleby the Scrivener and it's one of the most horrible stories I've read. By that I don't mean it's badly written, I mean it's macabre and bizarre like an existential horror story.

It left me in a depressed mood for several days, that story did.

Bill Rayer
Thursday, July 10, 2003

Its highly unlikely that anyone stole that story from anyone else. Melville has been dead a very long time and his work is in the public domain. Furthermore most online book places get their works from Project Gutenberg, which freely distributes them to anyone that wants to use them.

Chris
Thursday, July 10, 2003

I dunno if PG had this one, unless it was buried in an anthology.

www.marktaw.com
Thursday, July 10, 2003

I'm not sure if the typewriter analogy flies.

The story was written in ~1855. The first commercial typewriter was ~1876.

One way (among others. presumably) to read it is as a cautionary tale of what might happen if you don't fire "problem" employees early.

If Bartleby was canned at the start  of his recalcitrantcy, his employer would have had less headache and Bartleby's problem behaviour would not have been reinforced by his employer's tolerance of, and ultimate inability to deal with, it.

njkayaker
Friday, July 11, 2003

I agree with njkayaker.

The boss should have spent much less time internalizing and analyzing the problem, looking for his own shortcoming.

He would have had a new employee and much less grief earliy on. 'N-e-x-x-t-t!'

BTW - hadn't read this in years. Made for a pleasant lunch.

Wolf
Friday, July 11, 2003

The real mystery is what is in Bartleby's head. *Why* does he 'prefer not do' and why can't he explain? To me this is why it's a horror story. In many respects he's normal, but there's this black hole inside. He can't explain. Melville doesn't explain. Can you as a reader explain?

Bill Rayer
Saturday, July 12, 2003

Okay, but try this: it is arguable that, since the Industrial Revolution, people have been valued for their ability to resemble machines.

If you view Bartleby as, not a typewriter, but some other kind of machine, then I agree with Joel that the story makes sense.

As for his "I prefer not to," well, sometimes machines just break, and you can't always fix them.

Even further - perhaps what broke Bartleby was a society which seemed to want him to be a machine?

Fernanda Stickpot
Monday, July 14, 2003

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