I know, I know. People hear “Herman Melville” and automatically want to run. I completely understand. I was forced to read Billy Budd in high school and I HATED EVERY MINUTE OF IT. I avoid Moby Dick like the plague. I had planned to never have anything to do with Melville again.
Then, for my family reading club last month, Jason asked me to read this Melville novella. He said that it is very different from any of the whaling/fishing stories and more like a precursor to Kafka’s surrealism (which I do love). If nothing else, he said, at least it’s short. It’s only 40 pages long.
Sigh. So I tried it. I read the thing. Like he said, it’s only 40 pages. But unfortunately, unlike with other classic authors that I find I can stand on second try, Melville still put a bad taste in my mouth. The first quarter of the novella was all description and 3-page-long blocks of text. I admit to skimming it. Nothing in that first quarter ever became important for me to know. Once the plot actually started – what little plot that was there, anyway – I began to read.
The plot goes like this: the narrator is a lawyer and hires scriveners (copy-lawyers) in a small firm. He tells a story about the strange people scriveners are, particularly this one named Bartleby. Bartleby is hired and at first seems to be diligent and reliable. Then, however, our narrator asks him to do a different task. Bartleby responds with, “I would prefer not to.” No matter what he’s asked to do, he refuses with that phrase. He prefers not to. At first, he simply prefers not to run errands or check the texts he’s copied out. Then he would prefer not to copy at all and instead spends all day staring at the wall. He prefers not to eat. He prefers not to leave the office. He prefers not to be dismissed for not doing his job duties. He prefers not to have any changes at all.
I can see what Jason means. There is a certain element of Kafka-like surrealism. I’m afraid, however, that I don’t really see the point to this novella. Whereas with Kafka, there are so many layers I can pick apart, I think I’m just not smart enough to grasp what Melville is trying to say. There are apparently tons of different interpretations of Bartleby’s character, from a symbol of depression to a stand against American economics to a shade of Melville himself. But even after reading all the different ways people have interpreted this novella over the years, I still don’t get it.
Sorry, Jase, but I’m afraid Melville and I will probably never be friends.