Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

When the proprietor of a law office in New York hires a new clerk for his practice he seems to have found a colorful yet beneficial addition for his already colorful team. But when the new employee begins to inform the proprietor that he "would prefer not to" perform his duties things get really interesting.

I have heard about this book from a friend of mine, who's read it with her book club, so I generally knew what to expect in terms of plot developments. I was however pleasantly surprised by the characters in this novella. They were all remarkable in one way or another and since they were all very distinct their differences stood out all the more. It seems that authors in the middle of the 19th century weren't afraid to make their characters full of personality, take Dickens for example, and Melville definitely followed the same tradition. I particularly enjoyed the character of the proprietor, who is the narrator of this story. He tries so hard to be on good terms with all of his employees, regardless of the trouble they cause him, and makes up excuses to not take any action that would make him look good in his own eyes.
What I didn't expect is how plodding the pace is. Now that I've read Benito Cereno I think that's something that is common in Melville's work. The same type of scene seemed to repeat over and over without furthering the plot or developing the characters. The only thing this repetition seemed to accomplish was to convince me further of utter and complete spinelessness of the proprietor, but I already knew that so it wore on me. I did enjoy the ending though. It seemed somewhat abrupt because events moved along faster than the rest of the story but it was very satisfying. In a way it was the only appropriate ending, anything else wouldn't have worked quite as well. It also redeemed the proprietor in my eyes somewhat, he did have a good heart even if his will was lacking. Despite the extremely slow middle of the novella the ending saved it for me and for a few days after finishing it I kept thinking about the characters and the story. I can see why Melville is considered such an important figure in American literature and why this particular piece is still widely read. I would recommend Bartleby if you want to read a work that will inspire you to think about people, their motivations and how they relate to each other.

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