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Herman Melville Bartleby the Scrivener

Herman Melville produced what is arguably the greatest American novel ever written, Moby-Dick. However, he is also well known for his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which was first published in 1853, while Melville was writing Moby-Dick.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” is told from the perspective of a wealthy New York attorney, who hires Bartleby as a legal scribe. At first, Bartleby is a model employee, until one day he simple states, “I would prefer not to” when asked to complete some work. Herman Melville Bartleby the ScrivenerSoon, this becomes his mantra and his answer to anything. Bartleby takes up residence in the office, does no work at all, and ends up starving to death in jail.

Critics have been debating the various meanings of the story ever since its publication, and much of it defies a single explanation. Some argue that Melville wrote the story following the poor reception and bad reviews of his novel Pierre, and that the phrase “I would prefer not to” detail his struggle with continuing to work on his next novel, Moby-Dick. What is clear is that Bartleby’s desk sits at an open window, which faces a brick wall and serves as one of the major metaphors in the novel and perhaps the situation that precipitates Bartleby’s descent into apathy and depression. Melville, now considered to be one of America’s greatest writers, was a critical and financial failure during his lifetime, facing his own metaphysical brick wall, blocked in his desire to be a famous writer.

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