Bartleby the Scrivener, and Billy Budd, Sailor

Please note: The following contains “spoilers” for both “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Billy Budd, Sailor. But since the actual plotlines of these works seem to me among their less interesting aspects, knowing them beforehand is unlikely to detract from the experience of reading these works. 

Before tackling that monster Moby-Dick, I thought it best to ease myself into Melville’s fictional world with two shorter works – the short story “Bartleby the Scrivener”, written in the early 50s shortly after Moby-Dick; and Melville’s late novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, found amongst his papers in an incomplete state after his death in 1891. Both are works of a startling vision and originality, and, for all the solidity of the prose, seem more elusive the more deeply one peers into them.

The setting of “Bartleby the Scrivener” could not be further removed than the open seas of Moby-Dick: we are in Wall Street, then, as now, the financial centre of America. The narrator seems an affable and kindly gentleman – a lawyer, who deals in deeds, bonds, mortgages, and such-like. This fictional world seems bricked in by walls, and by the minutiae of documents and of articles. Into this world enters Bartleby, the scrivener, whose job it is to copy faithfully these documents which, to any but the most dedicated professional (and even, one suspects, to them) are dreary and dry-as-dust. Bartleby is quiet and undemonstrative, and does his copying diligently, but when he is asked, as is usual, to carry out tasks beyond mere copying, his answer, though quiet, is firm: “I would prefer not to.” And this simple little formula – “I would prefer not to” – seems to become a sort of motto for Bartleby; whatever is asked of him is met with this response – “I would prefer not to”.

As time passes, Bartleby refuses even to carry out his copying: his refusal, once again, is not demonstrative in any way, but it is firm for all its quietness – he would prefer not to. When even the narrator – a far more gentle employer than he might have been – dismisses Bartleby from his post, Bartleby refuses to leave the office: he would prefer not to. It becomes clear that he has made his office his home, sleeping there at nights, taking there his frugal meals, such as they are. The deadening world of brick walls and dead documents is also Bartleby’s world: it has ground him down, and he wants to take no further part in it: to every question, the answer remains the same – he would prefer not to.

Rather than evict Bartleby by force, the lawyer finally moves his office to different premises, but Bartleby remains fixed where he had been. Finally, the new occupiers do evict him by force, and Bartleby, in prison, effectively starves himself to death. Even his suicide – for such it undoubtedly is – is passive: he does not so much rush to his death, as allow death to come to him. He would prefer not even to live.

What are we to make of this peculiar story? As with the stories of Kafka, it invites interpretation, but as soon as one tries to interpret, one feels one is reducing the story. Is Bartleby merely suffering from what we would nowadays call “clinical depression”? Is there something more to his insistent rejection?

He certainly reminds one at times of Akaky Akakievich Basmatchkin, the downtrodden clerk in Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”, but perhaps a more interesting literary forebear is the legal copyist in Bleak House, which was published is serial form shortly before the writing of “Bartleby”. Dickens’ clerk, whose job, like Bartleby’s, was to copy out mind-numbingly dull legal documents, dies in great poverty and distress; and he had called himself “Nemo” – Nobody. A human being reduced to being Nobody, who takes leave of life without leaving behind even a trace of his existence … Could this, I wonder, have been the starting point for Melville’s imagination? Whether or not such is the case, the imagination that produced this remarkable story seems a long way off from that which conceived the infinitely vast fictional world of Moby-Dick.

With Billy Budd, Sailor, we are back at sea. This novella was found amongst Melville’s papers shortly after his death, still in, one suspects, an incomplete form, and wasn’t published till 1924, by which stage Ulysses, “The Waste Land”, and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu had already defined what we can now recognise as the high-water mark of modernism; and the posthumous publications of The Trial and The Castle were just round the corner. These were exciting times for literature, and I do not know how much of an impact was made by the publication of a newly discovered work of a writer associated with what must have seemed by then a long bygone age. And yet, Billy Budd, Sailor, seems as startling in its vision as those products of the heady days of modernism.

There is, once again, a precision, a solidity, to the prose, resonant as it is with Biblical phraseology and images; and yet, as with Kafka, the more solid the representation, the more elusive seems that which is represented. The action, which takes place on a British battleship at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, is very simple: Billy Budd, the innocent, is victimised by John Claggart, and when Billy unintentionally kills his tormentor, the ship’s captain, Captain Vere, insists that Billy be hanged, even though he knows Billy to be innocent. Once again, this story invites and at the same time rejects interpretation.

What is the cause of Claggart’s evil? Melville, who comments on the action throughout, suggests that Claggart had been born with it. Not for Melville the Wordsworthian view of humans born in innocence, and of Evil as a force that enters our being only as we become older:

…in [Claggart] was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short “a depravity according to nature”.

Neither is Billy’s innocence entirely admirable: innocence is merely the absence of the awareness of evil, and in this world, such naiveté is not an admirable quality.

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

But not in Billy case. He has remained a child, but the innocence which characterises the child is not an admirable trait: it is a consequence merely of a lack of intelligence, and, in Billy’s case, intelligence has not waxed. His innocence is, indeed, a danger.

And it is Vere who has to bear the responsibility of it all. Vere sees himself almost as a father to Billy, but it is his sworn duty to maintain order on the ship. And, at a time like this, in the wake of naval mutinies and at war with a dangerous enemy, Vere feels he has no choice but to sacrifice Billy, whom he loves. Billy seems to accept his fate with equanimity: such innocence as his, indeed, such ignorance as his, has nothing to fear. But it is the more knowing Vere who has to take upon himself the burden of the tragedy. Shortly after Billy’s execution, Vere himself dies after being mortally wounded in a conflict: his last words are “Billy Budd”. The physical agony may have been Billy’s, but the mental agony is Vere’s.

The above is a gross simplification of a deeply complex story – a story complex not in its outline, but in its implications. It is not, it seems to me, about the problem of Evil: rather, it is about the problem of Innocence. That Melville sees Innocence as a problem is in itself startling, but the conclusion seems inescapable: Vere could have dealt with the Evil that was Claggart, but dealing with the Innocence that is Billy is another matter. If we are to live together in this world, and prevent it sinking into anarchy, Innocence itself is a danger, and must be suppressed. Such, it seems to me, is the deeply pessimistic final testament of Melville.

And yet, such an interpretation leaves open many questions. Why is Vere in such a haste to convene a drumhead court in which to condemn Billy? Why could he not have deferred the case to the higher authorities? Presumably, Vere does not wish to abjure the responsibility he has voluntarily undertaken, but the fact of Vere’s haste is one of the many knots in the wood that refuse to be planed away. And what is one to make of the miraculous absence in Billy, after the execution, of rigor mortis, or of the erection that accompanies a hanging? If this is to be regarded as Nature’s vindication of Billy’s innocence, should it also be regarded as Nature’s condemnation of Vere’s justice? I think, at this stage, we find ourselves in deeper waters than I, for one, am capable of navigating. Perhaps there are some questions which we are not intended to solve.

Billy Budd, Sailor seems to me one of the finest masterpieces of fiction. The simplicity of the story it presents on the surface is at odds with the dizzying depths that lie below.

Right, now I am ready – or as ready as ever I can be – for Moby-Dick.

12 responses to this post.

  1. I have not as of yet read Bartleby, but Billy has been a favorite of mine for many years. I have a copy around here somewhere. It’s about due for a re-read.


  2. Posted by Erika W. on January 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    My daughter has presented me with a KIndle for my upcoming birthday with the comment “Now you can move into the 21st century”. This was so far down on my mental list of wants and needs as to be over on the final page but after sitting down and deciding “No–I don’t hate her” I may use it for non-copyrighted materials and what better to start with than “Moby Dick” which I have never read and had no inclination to.
    I am curious to see if it is true that Melville pirated huge chunks from Captain William Scoresby’s whaling accounts–which held me entranced many years ago when I took a seminar on Arctic climate and exploration and discovered Polar writings.


    • I must confess I hadn’t heard of Scoresby till today, but earlier this evening on the commuter train, as I was returning from work, in the chapter of Moby-Dick I was reading (entitled “Cetology”), Melville mentions Scoresby by name, and specifically quotes from his writing. Are there other bits of Moby-Dick that are pirated from Scoresby without acknowledgement?

      But of course, pirating is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the loveliest passages from Shakespeare – the speech in Antony and Cleopatra that starts with “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne …” – is pirated from North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives. But Shakespeare makes those apparently little adjustments and changes to north, and what had been a fine piece of prose becomes an imperishable piece of poetry. Never was the difference between good writing and writing of genius quite so obvious. (Of course, I can’t answer for Scoresby’s prose, or for what Melville makes of it.)

      I suppose if someone presented me with Kindle, I’d try it out: I can see its attractions. but I am too used to paper books. I know it’s silly, but I do find a pleasure in physically handling books. But most of the books I read are out of copyright thesedays, so this may be something to consider.

      As far as I’ve read, I don’t know that moby-Dick is a novel I’d be recommending too widely. Not that it isn’t impressive – quite the contrary – but it is a very idiosyncratic work, and anything so idiosyncratic is bound to split opinions sharply. At the moment, I am trying to gather my thoughts about it. It is certainly unlike any other novel that I have read.


      • Posted by john on October 28, 2012 at 9:20 pm

        Can anyone detect the disguises that Melville hides in these two reads?

      • Hello John, I am not sure I understand your question. Could you please expand a bit on what you mean by “disguises”, why you think they exist in these stories, and why you think Melville hides them?

  3. Melville had a very, very black sense of humor – I think you have to keep that in mind reading Bartleby. He also tends towards a sort of cosmic nihilism. How better to join the two than with a character that simply refuses to partake of the absurdity of life?

    Have you read Benito Cereno? A very strange story, but similar to Bartleby in that it has a simple minded good-soul as the narrator: someone who just doesn’t get what’s going on. There are also similarities to Moby Dick. Wall Street, a whaling ship…two rather tight communities of professionals. Quee Queg makes his own coffin, Bartleby just lies down to die… Sitting in a whaling boat, or a desk in a clerk’s office, is just as much on the edge of the great abyss of Nothing as sitting before your fireplace at home…or so he writes in Moby.

    Billy is on my re-read list: I remember the movie better than the novel!


  4. Posted by Mark David Dietz on June 16, 2011 at 11:30 pm


    Well I finally decided to add a comment out here. I actually read this one a few weeks ago, but did not add a comment. I love Bartleby. I’ve read it twice and hope to read it at least twice more before I shuffle off to that great I-would-prefer-not-to in the sky. The humor is decidedly black, but Bartleby and the lawyer seem somehow anything but laughable.

    With Billy Budd, it may sound odd, but I have always associated that story with the 1920s, not only from knowing that that was when it was published, but because somehow it seems to me to fit into that age better than it would have had it been published in the 1890s. Its surface simplicity ironically masks a complexity of depth that seems to me very modern, and, while it’s been some time since I read it, I thought it read as quite different in style from the rest of Melville’s stories. Although, if you haven’t done so read the whole of the Piazza Tales (of which Bartleby is the second, Benito Cereno the third) — the stylistic variety is quite astonishing.

    On interpretation: I think the comparison to Kafka better suits Bartleby than Billy Budd. Kafka seems to be forcing us to “interpret” his stories by giving them something of the quality of a parable, knowing all along that no consistent interpretation is possible. His imagery seems to shift between the modern naturalism of the novel and seventeenth and eighteenth century emblematic images that were created to be interpreted (but that often had their own ambiguous qualities — see in particular Blake’s emblem books). In other words, the struggle with interpretation was probably fully intended, and not to be too post-modern, that ambiguity is itself, I think, at the very heart of any reasonable interpretation.

    With Billy Budd, this sort of self-referential interpretation is not, I think, part of the mix. I left Billy Budd thinking I had been dealing with some of the most unquestionably human characters in all of literature. In other words, even if we find our interpretations of the story complex and ambiguous, the complexity and ambiguity are meant to be naturalistic, to be the real complexity and ambiguity of real humans. This quality hides under the surface of Kafka’s longer works, and peeps out now and again in some of his shorter works, but is not present at all in many of his shortest pieces where the only possible reading seems to me to be emblematic.

    Nonetheless, Bartleby has its own naturalism. Bartleby and the lawyer can be read as comic characters, even to the point of reading the lawyer moving his offices and Bartleby dying because he would prefer-not-to, as happy endings. However, they can also be read as naturalistic characters which means reading them not as tragic in the Sophoclean sense in which the tragedy achieves something of a kind of grand and noble apotheosis, but as tragic more in the sense of Euripides or what today we want to call modern — that is to say a tragedy (isn’t all naturalism tragic?) in which the story refuses to resolve itself into something unambiguous and easily interpreted. I think this is because, since, Shakespeare, tragedy has become the last refuge of the truly human — and humans are never unambiguous, never not complex — and this is true even when they are, to put it vulgarly, simpletons or innocents. The only real simpletons exist in literature, but we project them upon those others with whom we share the world who refuse to reflect the comic simplicities of our own particular utopian visions.

    [I’m out of my depth on Sophocles and Euripides, whom I know you know much better than I do — so tell me if it sounds at all like I am hitting at something relevant to either.]


    • Hello Mark, it’s so good to see you here!

      When reading literature, it is natural to look for connections. This is not to be able to tick off boxes, and to say “Aha! Writer X got this from Writer Y!” But, rather, it is to enable us to see the work and the writer not as isolated phenomena, but as part of a wider literary context. No book is an island, if you will.

      Melville is an author so very individualistic – some may say eccentric – in his outlook, that it is often difficult to connect his works to the literary mainland. Works like Moby-Dick or Billy Budd seem to have few if any, literary precedents or antecedents, and our desire to see these works as part of a spectrum – even in a very extreme part that spectrum – is often frustrated. “Bartleby” is different, in that connections to Kafka, to Gogol, and especially, I think, to Dickens (whose presence looms large in the works of Kafka as well) seem apparent. This is not for one moment to suggest that “Bartleby” is in any way derivative, or less brilliant than Moby-Dick or Billy Budd. Rather, it is to suggest that “Bartleby” can be seen as part of a certain literary tradition, while the other two cannot. These other two must be seen purely in their own highly idiosyncratic terms.

      And even given this, Moby-Dick or Billy Budd are very different from each other. With Moby-Dick, we are in the author’s laboratory, following his experiments as he does all he can think of, and achieves what he can. We are witnesses to the failed experiments as well as to the successful ones, because even records of the failed attempts are part of the overall pattern. Billy Budd, on the other hand, is drawn with firm lines, with clear unbroken outlines.

      I am fascinated by your distinction between Sophoclean and Euripidean tragedy, and describing the latter as more modern. (I do appreciate that your usage of this term “modern” does not imply that Sophoclean tragedy is dated, or unsuitable for the modern sensibility.) With the tragedies of Sophocles, one does have a sense that – as Orwell once put it – humanity is greater than the forces that defeat it. Sophocles was arguably the most pessimistic of the tragedians:

      Not to be born is best
      When all is reckoned in, but once a man has seen the light
      The next best thing, by far, is to go back
      Back where he came from, quickly as he can.
      [From Oedipus at Colonus translated by Robert Fagles]

      Cheerful chap, wasn’t he? But despite such pessimism, one is left with a sense of the nobility of humanity. With Euripides, there’s little nobility in sight. Quite frequently, he refuses to give his protagonists any sense at all of tragic grandeur. And this, as you say, is more “modern”: what that says about the modern age, I’m not sure, but I doubt it’s too complimentary.

      Going back to Bartleby, it may be said that the lawyer has some elements of nobility: he is, after all, a kindly person, and he feels compassion for Bartleby, refusing to evict him even after he has stopped working. But while we are aware of the general decency of the narrator, it is hard not to see him in a predominantly comic light: in so harsh a world as this, such soft-heartedness is sufficiently incongruous as to appear comic. But, decent though he is, there’s little he can do. Indeed, rather than evict Bartleby himself, he moves out of his office, effectively letting someone else do the dirty work for him. Not that we blame him: there are limits to everyone’s decency, including our own, and we recognise that the lawyer/narrator’s decency stretches further than most.

      And I think that, limited though this decency may be, and powerless though it may be in most cases (as Dickens all too sadly realised in his later novels), it is nonetheless worth celebrating. It is this simple humanity that Joyce celebrated in Ulysses: where, once, writers celebrated the superhuman heroism of the likes of Ulysses, Joyce gives us his modern counterpart – Leopold Bloom. And if this entails a deflation of the heroic, it also entails, more importantly, an elevation of the everyday. Comedy (and Ulysses is, primarily, a comic novel) can elevate as well as tragedy can.

      “Bartleby” is profoundly comic and profoundly tragic at the same time. It encompasses all extremes, and the reader’s feelings are so mixed by the end, that it becomes almost impossible to describe them. It is among the most remarkable things I have read, and I shall certainly goon to read the rest of the Piazza Tales.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  5. I’m happy to have found this old post in the “related” section of your most recent (on Akutagawa). I don’t have much to say about the interpretation itself (I think your point about the problem of innocence is illuminating, and probably applies as much to Bartleby as to Billy Budd), but I did want to leave a recommendation: the film Beau Travail by Claire Denis. It’s an adaptation of Billy Budd, and an adaptation of the best kind, namely one that gives no sense of being beholden to the original, but instead is a complete reworking of the story in the service of something related, but new.


    • Hello, and thank you for that. It has been so long since I wrote this post, I had to go back and read over what I had written, and I came across an outrageous error which had slipped the net. I had misquoted a passage:

      “And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as ignorance waxes.”

      It should have been “…as intelligence waxes” rather than “…as ignorance waxes”. I have corrected this now.

      thank you for the recommendation of the film Beau Travail: i had not known about it, and will try to get hold of it. You’re right, I think, that the best “adaptations” tend to be those that take an existing work as a starting point for something new: the process of one work of art inspiring another is something that particularly fascinates me, and I have often written about it here. But there is something also to be said, I think, for the successful adaptation of a work from one medium to another. There is a very fine film of Billy Budd directed by peter Ustinov with Ustinov himself as Vere, Terence Stamp as Billy, and Robert Ryan as Claggart. And, of course, there’s the opera by Benjamin Britten.

      All the best, Himadri


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: