Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (Audiobook): Review

Half the reason I listened to Bartleby the Scrivener this weekend is that he keeps popping up in my life: Jess reviewed it, Rebecca mentioned it and then appeared in a NYT article. So yeah, I figured I needed to read about this guy. The other half? I was being lazy and needed a short audio book.

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, starts out like an episode of The Office or a Monty Python skit, with a mediocre lawyer recalling his tangling with Bartley. The lawyer already has a couple of characters in his office, Turkey and Nippers, whose personalities change with the time of day. He's pretty laid back about it so when the stuff with Bartleby, his new employee, starts it's not so surprising he puts up with it... for awhile.

Bartleby's career as a scrivener begins well; he's hardworking, keeps to himself, all good things. Then the lawyer asks for Bartleby to perform a small task for him. He's completely stunned when Bartley's reply is, "I would prefer not to." This is an odd situation, an employee coming right out and saying he won't do his job. My reaction was, "Um, tell him to do it or fire him" but the guy is not a fan of confrontation so he lets it go. Later in the story it's gotten to the point that the lawyer is begging Bartleby to do his job and still he refuses.

While the story's beginning is rather funny, it quickly turns both frustrating and sad. The lawyer is a compassionate guy and can't bring himself to firing Bartleby. I was maddeningly frustrated by his lack of authority. But what would you do if faced with a Bartleby? It's like dealing with a stubborn toddler. You can't win.

So what is wrong with Bartleby? Is he depressed? Is he making a statement to the world by not participating? What is it? That's never really answered. Bartleby is an enigma and it's up to the reader to decide what he represents. I wondered if Bartleby told the lawyer what he was thinking if he'd end up like the people in the video Just by Radiohead. Would everyone just 'prefer not to'?

About the Audio: I downloaded this from an itunes podcast, Classics Narrated by Scott Gadwa. He is an excellent reader. Loved the accents.


  1. I didn't make the connection to that Radiohead video when I read it but yeah I do now! I think its about the souless environment that is the office.

  2. I think that has a lot to do with it. But why didn't he leave? He could have became a hermit or something!

  3. Isn't this one sad! At first it seemed so funny, then you start to worry about him, then...

  4. I enjoyed this review! I wrote an essay on Bartleby in an Am. Ren. Lit. course in college. It was one of my favorite essays to write. I think Melville uses some very sly symbolism to warn us of Bartleby's tragic end. He compares Bartleby to Jesus and a cadaver, and I think there were some ominous Greek or Roman references in there somewhere. But to compare it to Radiohead, very thoughful.

  5. I think yes, Bartleby has a problem of some sort. but also, it's a commentary on agency, the ability to choose. I haven't read it for years. Definitely need to pull it out again.


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