A Modern Adaptation of the Short Story Bartleby, The Scrivener.
By Herman Melville.
I am a rather elderly man. The last thirty years has brought me into contact with what would seem to be the most interesting of men, and yet nothing has been written of them. These are the law clerks. I have known many of them, professionally and privately, and if I wanted to, I could relate diverse histories, which might make a good nature person smile or a sentimental soul weep.
However, I will not bore you, the reader or listener (does anyone actually read anymore?) with stories of my other clerks. I will tell you of the one Bartleby, who was the strangest law clerk I ever saw or heard of. While of the other law clerks a sketch of their complete life can be written, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done.
It is an irreparable loss to literature that this Bartleby was so elusive in life, so ordinarily mundane, that to attempt to capture his life in written words is utterly futile. What I saw of Bartleby, with my own eye, that is all I know of him, and that is all I will tell.
Before I introduce our law clerk, as he first appeared to me, it is fitting that I describe who I am, my work life, my business and general surroundings; because such a description is indispensable to form an adequate understanding of the chief character; who is about to be presented.
To begin with, I am a man who, from his youth upward, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. So, even though I belong to a profession with a reputation of being energetic and nervous, even turbulent at times, I have not allowed anything of that sort to ever invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who has never addressed a jury, marketed myself on tv (or for that matter on the side of a bus, billboard or google ad campaign), or attracted any sort of public attention. Instead, I comfortably conduct a steady business from my quiet office, drafting wills, trusts, property deeds, that sort of thing.
I prefer my relaxed, peaceful atmosphere to the frenzy and theatrics of a courtroom or local attorney politics, dog fighters, pouncing for the latest catastrophic injury or semi truck accident case.
All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man. The late Pastor Doak, of the local universal unitarian congregation, had no hesitation in pronouncing my first and foremost spiritual gift as prudence; my next, methodical plodding through life’s structures.
I do not say this in vanity, but simply record the fact, I was once employed by Pastor Doak to represent his church (a term I use loosely, having visited the congregation myself once or twice). Yes, he hired my services and I’ll admit I enjoy dropping his name, it rolls off the tongue nicely with a rich, ringing quality. And I won’t deny that I valued Pastor Doak’s high opinion of my work.
Sometime before the events I’m about to describe, I had significantly expanded my legal work. I had been appointed to the now-defunct position of Court Commissioner over the probate matters in New York. It was not a very arduous office but provided a nice additional income.
My law office was upstairs, at an antique office rental in the heart of the New York financial district. Out of one window I looked out upon a white wall of an interior spacious sky light shaft, penetrating from top to bottom. My view might have been considered rather tame otherwise, deficient in what landscape painters call “life”. But the view from the other end of my rental offered, at least, a contrast, if nothing more. In that direction my window commanded an unobstructed view of a lofty red brick wall, blackened by age and an eternal shade.
Owing to the great height of the surrounding buildings and my office being on the second floor, the space between the wall and my office felt like a giant square pit.
Prior to hiring Bartleby, I had two employees, along with a promising intern that answered phones and kept the coffee pot filled and warm. The first was Blanche, second Mario and the intern Joshua. Blanche was a 70 year old curmudgeon of a lady, a widow with a dog. Not a pleasant bone in her pudgy body. Mario was a short, pursy Englishman of about my own age, that is, somewhere not far from sixty. In the morning, one might say, his face had a healthy hue to it. But after noon, when he’d sit down for lunch, his face would become flaming red, like a fireplace packed with Christmas coal. That fiery glow would continue burning, though gradually fading, until around 4 p.m. After that, I’d usually see no more of this man’s face, as he generally went home an hour early, though with no reason or excuse.
The fact is that after lunch, when Mario displayed his fullest beam of red and radiant countenance, just then, at this critical period of work, the most busy of our practice, at this period of time, most days of the week, Mario would discontinue work of any sort. Not that he was absolutely idle, or averse to working; far from it. The difficulty was, he was apt to be altogether too energetic. There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him, which generally involved his thumbs swiping across his phone.
Nevertheless, as he was in many ways a valuable person to me, especially between the hours of nine a.m. to twelve noon, the quickest and steadiest of workers, accomplishing quite a great deal of work in a style that could not be easily matched, for these reasons, I was willing to overlook his eccentricities, and his phone addiction. So, valuing his morning services as I did, and being resolved not to lose him and being a man of peace, unable by my personality to call out any unseemly efforts from my employees, I took it upon myself one Friday noon, to hint to him, very kindly, that perhaps now that he was growing old, it might be better if he just worked the mornings and take every afternoon off. In short, he did not need to stay at work after noon.
But no; he insisted upon his afternoon devotions.
“With respect sir,” said Mario on this occasion, “I consider myself your right hand man. In the morning I marshal and deploy your pleadings with research and case law; but in the afternoon I put myself at their attention and gallantly charge the foe!” And he made a violent thrust with a ruler.
“But the afternoon productivity?” I inquired, not accusingly, but inquisitively.
“True”, Mario responded, but sir, look at my grey hair and wrinkles. I am getting old. Surely sir, with respect, we are both getting old.
His appeal to my humanity and finite mortality was met with compassion. It was clear to me that Mario had no plans on leaving and I had no plans on letting him go. Nevertheless, I resolved to have him work on less vital activity in the afternoon.
Joshua, our intern, was a whiskered, biblical and upon the whole, rather pious looking young man of about twenty five. I always considered him the victim of two evil powers, ambition and indigestion. The ambition was evidenced by a certain impatience of the duties of an intern, a calling and paygrade that he felt was beneath his intellectual acumen. The indigestion manifested itself in a constant nervousness and grinning irritability, causing his teeth to audibly grind together and his whole self to be always on the edge of perilous anxiety. In short, Joshua seemed to not know what he wanted, but know fully well that he wanted something other than he already had.
So, concerning the habits of Mario, I had my own private reservations but with Blanche, I had very little opinion. She had worked with me for over thirty years and had very little that could be considered personality or human warmness and would huff and puff under breath when she had to get out of her chair for any menial task. Yet, she was an untouchable fixture of the firm, somehow migrating into a tenured position. I largely removed her from my thoughts, quite unsure of how she contributed to the success of the law firm or environment, but also unwilling to make any drastic changes to her lifestyle, which seemed completely miserable, but structurally so. Which in a comparison of lifestyles, a structurally miserable one is much better than one with no purpose at all.
Yet, touching Joshua, our intern, I was well persuaded that whatever might be the symptoms underlying his nervousness, he was, at least, a talented young man. But indeed, nature or genetics or environment (and quite possibly his religion, which seemed to drive him to misery), charged him so thoroughly with an unlikeable ambition that all around him felt on the edge of existential irrelevance unless they were constantly thrusting from one task to another without thought or rest. This constant anxious activity coming from the corridor of his cubicle worked to sequester me in the stillness of my office, with door closed.
It was fortunate, for me, considering Joshua’s position as an intern, this was a temporary infusion of anxiety into our otherwise serene, though complacent, work environment.
Due to the extra pressures and workload from my recent commissioner appointment, along with the issues I was having with my current employees, I needed to hire a new law clerk. I was in need of additional help, so I posted an ad online. In response to that ad, one morning a motionless middle aged man appeared at my office doorway, the door being open since it was summer. I can still picture him now, neatly dressed, shabbily respectable, and hopelessly desolate!
It was Bartleby.
After briefly discussing his credentials, I hired him, pleased to have on my team a young man so uniquely calm yet professional that he might be a good influence on Mario’s lazy afternoons, Joshua’s anxious temperament, and Blanche’s standoffish hostility.
I should mention my office was divided into two sections by folding glass doors – one area was occupied by my clerks and intern and the other by myself. Depending on my mood, I’d open these doors or keep them closed. I decided to give Bartleby a corner desk near the folding doors on my side, so I could easily call on this quiet man if any minor task needed doing. I placed his desk right by a small side window in my section – a window that originally glimpsed some grimy backyards and bricks but now, due to subsequent construction, viewed nothing at all, though it did provide some light. To further optimize the setup, I got a tall green folding screen that could completely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not from earshot. So, in this manner, privacy and accessibility were joined.
At first Bartleby did an extraordinary amount of legal work. He was a researching genius and could find citations to legal precedent that referenced any issue, regardless of how vague my instructions. He seemed to gorge himself on my documents and there was little pause for digestion. He paced his work from morning until afternoon, working silently, mechanically, with a hint of melancholy. He had a brilliant legal mind.
It is, of course, an indispensable part of a clerk’s business to verify the accuracy of his work, word for word. Where there are two or more clerks in a firm, they assist each other in this examination, swapping materials for peer review. It is a very dull, wearisome and lethargic affair. I can only imagine that to some animated temperaments it would be altogether intolerable.
Now and then, in the haste of business, I assisted in this review process myself. One of the reasons I put Bartleby’s office so close to mine, was to avail myself of his services on such occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his employment that I abruptly called to Bartleby. Expecting instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original paperwork on my desk, and driving my right hand sideways, I extended a copy to Bartleby, so that he might snatch it and proceed to proofread it without delay.
I was sitting in this very position when I called out to Bartleby, quickly telling him what I needed him to do – specifically, to review a document with me. Imagine my shock, no my dismay, when without budging from his corner, Bartleby responded in an oddly calm, firm voice:
“I would prefer not to.”
I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could muster. But in as clear as one came the previous reply:
“I would prefer not to.”
“Prefer not to?” I echoed, my excitement level rising and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you being sarcastic? I need you to proofread these documents, here take it.” And I thrust the papers again towards him.
“I would prefer not to,” he said.
I stared at him intently. His face was composed and calm, his gray eye dim. Not a hint of agitation, anger, impatience or impertinence disrupted his demeanor. If he had shown even the slightest bit of ordinary human emotion, I would have angrily thrown him out immediately. But as it was, dismissing him felt as odd as tossing my goldendoodle out of my house for misbehavior. I stood watching him for a while as he continued writing, then sat back down at my desk. This is very peculiar, I thought. What should I do? But work pressed on, so I decided to ignore the matter for now and address it later when I had more time. I called for Mario from the other room and we quickly looked over the paper.
A few days later, Bartleby completed four lengthy documents, pleadings from a week’s worth of testimony taken before me as Court Commissioner. I took them for examination. It was an important case and great accuracy was imperative. Having all things arranged, I called Blanche, Mario and the intern from the other room, meaning to place three copies in the hands of these clerks, while I read the original. Accordingly, Blanche, Mario and the intern took their seats in a row, each with a document in hand and I called Bartleby to join the group.
“Bartleby! Quick, we are waiting for you.”
I heard a slow scrape of his chair legs on the uncarpeted floor, and soon he appeared standing at the entrance of my office.
“What is wanted?” He asked mildly.
“The copies, the copies,” I said with some intensity. “We are going to examine them, here.”
“I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared from the view of those of us in my office.
For a few moments I was turned into a pillar of salt, seated at the head of a roundtable of clerks. Recovering myself, I left my office and found Bartleby.
I demanded the reason for his extraordinary conduct.
“Why do you refuse?”
“I would prefer not to.”
With any other man I would have flown outright into a dreadful passion, scorned all further words, and thrust him without response from my presence, my office and my work life. But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched me.
I approached him again: “I understand this is an uncomfortable situation. However, I must kindly ask again for you to reconsider my reasonable request, which aligns with your job description, not to mention common courtesy.”
“I prefer not to,” he responded gently. I sensed that as I spoke to him that he considered carefully every statement that I made, fully understood the meaning and could not deny the obvious conclusions. However, it seemed some greater concern led him to reply as he did.
When someone is unfairly berated in an extreme and unreasonable way, they may start to doubt their own judgment. They wonder, incredibly, if justice and reason may actually rest with their oppressor. So, if there are any neutral parties present, the victim seeks their perspective to bolster their shaken confidence.
“Mario,” I asked, “What do you make of this? Am I in the wrong here?”
“With respect, sir,” Mario replied in his congenial tone, “I believe you are correct and Bartleby is in the wrong.”
“And Blanche,” I asked, “what is your take on the situation?”
“I think he should be dismissed from the office,” she said bluntly.
“Joshua,” I continued, curious what the intern, a fellow from the younger and more inclusive generation might say. “What do you think?”
“I think he’s off the charts crazy,” Joshua replied with a grin.
“You heard what they say,” I said, turning in the direction of Bartleby. “Can’t you just comply with the work that needs to be done?”
But Bartleby offered no response. I was sorely perplexed. However, work pressed on and I decided to postpone resolving this dilemma until a more convenient time. With some effort, we managed to review the papers without Bartleby, though Blanche noted every so often how frustrated she was with him. Joshua, twitching nervously in his chair, occasionally muttered bitter curses under his breath about Bartleby. He declared this would be the last time he did another’s work.
Meanwhile, Bartleby remained seated in isolation, absorbed in his own peculiar tasks and oblivious to everything else around him.
Some days went by as Bartleby worked diligently on a lengthy assignment. His unique ways led me to observe him more intently. I realized he never went out for meals – indeed, to my knowledge, he never left the office. He was a constant presence in the corner. He snacked on trail mixes and popcorn during the day and sometimes brought in mini carrots to munch on.
Nothing distresses an earnest person more than passive resistance. If the resistor is harmless in their passivity, the earnest one may charitably try to understand what they cannot comprehend. So for the most part, I viewed Bartleby and his peculiar ways. Poor fellow, I thought, he means no harm or insolence; his eccentricities seem involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I dismiss him, he may find a less understanding employer and be treated poorly, even cast out miserably to starve. Yes, at little cost I can buy delicious self-approval by befriending Bartleby, humoring his odd willfulness.
This will store up a sweet morsel for my conscience later. But this charitable mood was not constant for me. Sometimes Bartleby’s passiveness irritated me, goading me to provoke some heated reaction from him. But any attempt would be as fruitless as striking flint against soap. One afternoon my vexation got the better of me, prompting this little scene:
“Bartleby,” I said, “I’ll review all the copies with you when they’re done.”
“I would prefer not to,” he replied.
“What? Surely you don’t mean to continue this stubbornness?” I said, immediately regretting my sharp tone.
I threw open the folding doors near by, and turning to Blanche and Mario, exclaimed in an excited manner—
“He says a second time that he will not proofread the work and that his writing has no need to be proofread. What do you think of it now Mario.”
Granted, it was already in the afternoon, and Mario sat glowing like a brass trombone, his bald head steaming, his hands reeling among his disarray of papers on his desk.
“Think of it?” Roared Mario. “I think I’ll step over there and blacken his eyes for him!”
More than just saying so, Mario rose to his feet and threw his arms into a boxer position. He was moving towards Bartleby to make good on his promise, when I detained him, alarmed at his follow through.
“Sit down, Mario,” I said, “let’s hear what Blanche has to say.” “What do you think Blanche? Should I just fire him?”
“Excuse me, that is for you to decide. I think his conduct is quite unusual, and indeed not fair to Mario and myself.”
I closed the doors and approached Bartleby again, feeling drawn to provoke him once more. I craved to be rebelled against again.
“Bartleby,” I said, “Joshua has stepped out. Would you mind walking over to the Post Office for me? It’s just a three minute walk to see if I have any mail.”
“I would prefer not to,” he replied.
“You will not?” I asked, striving to remain patient.
“I prefer not,” he said again gently.
I staggered back to my desk, lost in troubled thought. My unreasonable persistence returned. What other perfectly reasonable, trivial task might I request that he will surely refuse, allowing me to feel justified in my indignation?
“Bartleby!” I called out, my voice echoing in the empty office. No response came from the silent clerk’s corner.
“Bartleby!” I tried again, louder this time. Still no answer.
Frustration rising, I drew in my breath and bellowed “Bartleby!” at the top of my lungs. Like a specter summoned by an incantation, at the third call of his name, the pale, slender figure of Bartleby emerged from his lair and stood before me.
His calm gaze met my own as I commanded, “Go to the next room and tell Mario to come to me.”
“I prefer not to,” came the gentle reply, spoken with an air of melancholy resignation. Bartleby’s form receded back into the shadows, leaving me alone once more.
“Ok, then” I said calmly but sternly, hinting that I was ready to severely punish him. At that moment, I was half-tempted to do just that. But as it was nearing time for dinner, I decided it was best to put on my hat and head home for the day, quite troubled and distressed in mind.
I’m quite ashamed to admit that Bartleby became a permanent fixture at our office. I lacked the courage to fire him, even though he permanently exempted himself from any proofreading duties, errands of any kind, and normal responsibilities expected of an employee. As far as his legal writing and skills are concerned, his talent exceeded my own.
As days passed by, I became considerably reconciled to Bartleby. His steadiness, his apparent freedom from vices, profound silence and unwavering demeanor under any circumstance, all endeared him to me. One prime thing was this, he was always there, first in the morning, continually there throughout the day and the last to leave at night. Now and again, in my eagerness to complete an urgent assignment, I would inadvertently summon Bartleby to do something menial for me, like make a copy or fax a document. Of course, the reply “I prefer not to” was sure to come from behind the cubicle. This oversight always worked to deepen my resolve not to repeat the oversight. What was the oversight? Asking Bartleby to do anything.
One Sunday morning I happened to go to Trinity Church, to hear a celebrated preacher, and finding myself early I thought I would walk to my office to waste some time. Luckily, I had my office key with me; but upon inserting it into the lock, I found that it was resisted by something inserted from the inside. Quite surprised, I called out; and Bartleby responded from the opposite side of the door, saying quietly that he was sorry but that he was in the middle of something and couldn’t answer the door. He recommended that I walk around the block two or three times and by then he would have likely concluded his affairs and could answer the door.
I slunk away from the door, my own door, and did as he desired. It was his wonderful mildness that disarmed me and unmanned me. Who else would tranquilly permit their own hired law clerk to dictate to him and order him away from his own premises.
But, what could he be doing there?
I walked around for a time and with restless curiosity, I at last returned to my door. Without hesitation I inserted my key, opened the door and entered. Bartleby was not to be seen. I looked around anxiously, but it was evident that he was gone. Upon closer examination, I surmised that for an indefinite period of time Bartleby must have eaten, dressed and slept in my office. The cushioned seat of an old sofa in one corner bore the faint impression of a lean, reclining form. Rolled away under his desk, I found a blanket, soap and a ragged towel. Yes, I realized, it is clear enough that Bartleby has been making his home here.
What miserable loneliness! This street turns into a ghost town on Sundays, empty of people. And every evening, no matter the day, it becomes deserted. This once lively building Bartleby lives in also becomes vacant at night and dreary on Sundays. Bartleby stays here by himself, the only one witnessing the once busy metropolis become an empty, lonely place each day.
For the first time in my life, an overwhelming feeling of melancholy took hold of me. I had experienced sadness before, but the bond of common humanity now drew me to irresistible gloom. A fraternal melancholy! A brotherly sadness! Both Bartleby and I were sons of Adam after all.
Suddenly I was attracted by Bartleby’s closed desk, the key in open sight left in the lock.
I meant no harm, and was not acting out of heartless curiosity, I told myself; besides, the desk is mine, so I will look inside. Everything was neatly organized, with papers smoothly placed. I reached into the corner of the drawer to leverage the stack of papers with my pointer finger and pulled the stack upwards. At the bottom of the stack of papers was a folded deposit receipt from the Chase bank around the corner. Unable to resist, I unfolded the receipt and saw the account balance – a respectable sum that was more than I had in my own accounts.
I now thought back on all the odd behaviors I had noticed in this man. I realized he only ever spoke to respond, and though he had ample free time, I never saw him scrolling the internet – not even a glance at facebook or the drudgereport. He wasn’t excited by politics, sports or religion and for long stretches he would stand staring out his pale at the blank brick wall. I was certain he never went to any cafeterias or restaurants; his modesty indicated he didn’t even drink beer, tea or coffee like other men. I couldn’t figure out where he went, as he never took walks or went anywhere in particular that I knew of. He had declined to share anything about his background, relatives or where he came from. Despite being so thin and pale, he never complained of poor health. Most of all, I remembered a certain unconscious air of pale haughtiness, or rather a stern reserve about him, which had intimidated me into unquestionably going along with his eccentricities. I had been afraid to ask him to do the simplest favor, knowing he would be standing in his cubicle, lost in one of his dead-wall dazes.
Thinking over all these observations, along with the recent revelation that he had made my office his permanent residence, in spite of his apparent considerable means, my initial emotions of sadness and pity shifted into suspicion, fear and the embers of repulsion.
I did not end up going to Trinity Church that morning. Somehow, the things I had witnessed made me unfit for church-going. I walked home, contemplating what to do about Bartleby. I finally decided I would calmly ask him some questions the next morning about his history and present living conditions. If he declined to answer openly and honestly (which I presumed he would), I would give him a small severance and tell him I no longer required his services.
The next morning arrived.
“Bartleby,” I gently called out to him behind his cubicle.
“Bartleby,” I said again in an even gentler tone, “come here. I’m not going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to do – I just want to talk to you.”
At that, he silently slid into view.
“Will you tell me where you were born, Bartleby?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“Will you tell me anything about yourself?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“But what reasonable objection could you have to speaking with me and answering some of my questions?”
As I spoke, he didn’t look at me but kept his eyes fixed on my bust of Lincoln, which was directly behind me about six inches above my head.
“What do you think, Bartleby?” I asked after waiting quite some time for a reply. His expression remained unchanged, except for the slightest quiver of his pale, thin lips.
“Right now, I prefer not to give an answer,” he responded, and retreated into his corner space.
I confess it irritated me somewhat. His manner seemed to contain a calm disdain, and his stubbornness felt ungrateful, given the good treatment and accommodation I had shown him.
Again, I sat thinking about what action to take. Though mortified by his conduct, and resolving to dismiss him upon entering my office, I strangely felt a superstitious warning not to carry out my intent. Instead, casually pulling my chair behind his cubicle, I sat down and said:
“Bartleby, never mind revealing your history then; but let me urge you, as a friend, to comply as much as possible with the routines of this office. Tell me you will help me proofread the documents tomorrow or the next day. Tell me that you will begin to be a little more reasonable – at least tell me this, Bartleby.”
“At present I would prefer not to respond,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.
Just then the folding doors opened and Mario approached, looking like he had endured a particularly bad night’s sleep. He overheard Bartleby.
“Prefer not, eh?” Mario gritted out. “I’d prefer him gone if I were you, sir,” he said to me. “I’d give him preferences alright, the stubborn mule! What is it he prefers not to do now, sir?”
Bartleby did not move an inch.
“Mario,” I said, “I would prefer you leave for now.”
Lately I had somehow gotten in the habit of using “prefer” inadvertently in all sorts of unsuitable situations. And I worried that interacting with Bartleby was beginning to seriously impact me mentally.
The next day I noticed Bartleby just standing at his window, lost in his dead-wall stare.
He remained ever-present in my office. Indeed it seemed he became even more firmly planted than before. What should I do? He would only do the work that stimulated him and would rarely do anything that I asked of him? Why do I pay him? Frankly, he had become a burden to me now, not just useless like a pointless office fixture, but tiresome to endure. Yet I pitied him. I understate it to say he caused me personal unease. Had he but named a single family member or friend, I would have instantly written urging them to take the poor fellow to some suitable refuge. But he seemed utterly alone, isolated in the universe – a bit of wreckage in the mid-Atlantic. Eventually, demands of my business overruled all other considerations. As decently as I could, I told Bartleby he must unconditionally leave the office in six days. I advised him to make arrangements in that time for finding a new place to live. I offered to help in this effort, if only he would take the first step towards leaving. “And when you finally part from me, Bartleby,” I added, “I’ll see that you do not go away entirely unsupported. Six days from today – remember that.”
After six days came and went, I peeked behind his cubicle, and there was Bartleby still.
I buttoned my coat, steadied myself, slowly approached him, touched his shoulder and said, “The time has come; you must leave this place. I am sorry; here is money; but you must go.”
“I would prefer not to,” he replied, back still toward me.
“You must,” I said.
He remained silent.
I had unlimited confidence in this man’s basic integrity, at least where matters of money and honesty were concerned. So, what followed was not extraordinary.
“Bartleby,” I said, “I owe you three thousand dollars for your final pay period. Will you take it?” And I held out the final check to him.
But he made no movement.
“Then I’ll leave it here,” I said, putting the check under a paperweight on the table. Taking my hat and cane and going to the door, I calmly turned and added: “After removing your belongings from this office, Bartleby, you’ll of course lock up – since everyone is gone now but you – and slip the key under the mat for me to find in the morning. I won’t see you again; so goodbye. If I can be of any help in your new residence, don’t hesitate to text or email me. Goodbye Bartleby, I wish you well.”
But he didn’t utter a word; like the last pillar of some ancient ruined temple, he remained standing silent and alone in the now empty room.
As I walked home pensively, vanity overtook my pity. I couldn’t help priding myself on my masterful handling of getting rid of Bartleby. Masterful I call it, and any impartial thinker would likely agree. The beauty of my approach seemed to be its perfect calmness. There was no vulgar bullying, blustering, or angry commanding Bartleby to bundle up his pitiful belongings. Nothing like that. Without loudly bidding Bartleby depart, as a lesser mind might have done, I simply took the position that depart he must, and built all I said upon that premise. The more I considered my approach, the more impressed with it I was.
Nevertheless, awakening the next morning, doubts crept in – somehow in sleep I had lost the fumes of confidence. A man’s coolest, wisest hours are often just after waking in the morning. My method still seemed as effective as ever, but only in theory. How it would work in practice – there was the rub. It was a masterful idea to assume Bartleby would leave; but after all, that assumption was just my own, not Bartleby’s. The key point was not whether I had assumed he would quit me, but whether he would prefer to do so. He was a man of preferences more than assumptions.
After breakfast, I walked downtown, arguing the probabilities of whether I would see his chair empty. As I had intended, I was earlier than usual at my office door. I stood there, listening for a moment. All was still. He must be gone.
I tried the knob. The door was locked. Yes, my theory had worked like a charm; he must be gone! Yet, a certain melancholy came mixed with my relief. I almost felt sorry for my brilliant success. I was fumbling under the door mat for the key, which Bartleby was supposed to have left there for me, when I accidentally knocked my knee against the door, producing a knocking sound, and in response a voice came from within – “Not yet; I am occupied.”
It was Bartleby and I was stunned to see him still here.
“You’re not gone”? I finally murmured. I tried to reason with him. “Bartleby, I’m not happy,” I said entering my office with quiet sternness. “I thought more of you, I thought you would leave.”
“Will you leave or not?” I demanded, advancing closer to him.
“I would prefer not to quit you,” he replied, gently emphasizing the not.
“What right do you have to remain?” I challenged. “Do you pay rent? Do you own this office? Are you the lawyer and boss?”
Bartleby and I were alone. Though not a religious man, I recalled the divine injunction: “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I love you.”
I believe that this wise and charitable mindset towards Bartleby would have continued with me, was it not for the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks made by Mario who had just entered the office.
“This Bartleby is a menace”, Mario quipped and continued, “and he needs to be removed.”
I agreed. But, what shall I do? I said to myself, buttoning up my coat to the last button. What shall I do? What ought I to do (a more formal way of asking the same question). What does my conscience tell me to do with this man, or rather ghost. Rid myself of him, I must. Go, he shall.
But how? You will not thrust him out, the poor, pale, passive mortal, you will not thrust such a helpless creature out your door? No, I will not, I just can’t do it. I’d rather let him live here and die here and mason up his remains in the wall then force him out. What then will you do? For all your coaxing, he will not budge. My bribes he doesn’t take.
Then something more unusual must be done towards this vagrant wanderer who refuses to budge. This is too absurd. Since he will not leave me, I will quit him. I will change offices; I will move elsewhere and give him fair notice that if he remains on these premises he will be tried as a common trespasser.
Acting in accordance with my plan, the next day I addressed him: “Bartleby, I find that this office is too far from the courthouse, the air is more polluted here and I’ve frankly grown tired of this place. I will be moving offices next week and don’t think I will require your services anymore. I’m giving you this notice so that you have plenty of time to find something else.”
He gave no reply, and nothing more was said.
On the appointed day I arranged to have office movers remove what little furniture that I had. Throughout the process, Bartleby remained in his cubicle, which I directed to removed the last thing. It was taken down, folded up and he was left a motionless occupant in a lone room.
As I watched him from the doorway, a nagging voice inside me questioned my actions.
I re-entered his room with my hand in my pocket and my heart in my mouth.
“Goodbye Bartleby: I am going. Goodbye and God some way bless you, and take this,” slipping something in his hand. But it dropped to the floor, and then, I tore myself from him whom I had so longed to be rid of.
Several days passed, and I heard nothing more; and though I often felt a charitable prompting to call my old place and see if poor Bartleby was still hanging around, a certain squeamishness prevented me.
But, coming to my office one day, I found a group waiting for me, seemingly agitated. “You must remove that vagrant – my tenants can’t stand it anymore.” Bartleby was haunting the building, sitting on banisters and sleeping in hallways. Customers were leaving because of his presence.
Though at this point Bartleby was nothing to me, I still felt accountable. To avoid a spectacle, I met Bartleby in the lawyer’s office.
“What are you still doing here, Bartleby?” I asked.
“I have nowhere else to go,” he mildly replied.
“Bartleby,” I started, and trying to appeal to his sense of loyalty to me, if any were there, I asked him: “are you aware of the problems that you are causing me?”
“Now”, I continued, “one of two things must happen. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now, what sort of job can you do? Can you do administrative work? How about a greeter at Walmart?”
“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”
“How about being a bar-tender, would that suit you?”
“I would not prefer that.”
“Bartleby,” I said, with the kindest tone I could muster, a tone that came surprisingly natural in the moment, given the circumstances, “will you go home with me now, not to my new office, but my home, and you can live there until we find other arrangements for you?”
Bartleby lifted his gaze to meet mine at last. Behind the gray calm flickered something new show on his face, pained yet firm.
“You show uncommon kindness to me. But I would prefer not to abandon this solitude you so revile.”
He bowed his head once more, retaining composure where I had lost mine. I could coax no more words as he withdrew into himself beyond my reach. Disheartened by failed attempts yet haunted by the glimpse of lonely resilience, at last I took my leave.
I perceived that I had now done all that I possibly could, both in respect to the demands of the new landlord and with regard to my own sense of obligation towards Bartleby. I now strove to be entirely care-free and justified in my attempt, though unsuccessful as it was.
Still afraid of being hunted out by the landlord and his exasperated tenants again, I surrendered my business for a few days and left on vacation.
Upon my return, days passed hiding from the infuriated landlord and tenants before a note informed me Bartleby was removed to jail as a vagrant. Relieved yet compelled, I went to the jail to provide any facts to ease his stay.
Because he was in under a mere misdemeanor trespassing offense and seemingly harmless in all his ways, they permitted him to freely wander about the prison, and especially in the enclosed yard. And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall, while all around, from the narrow slits of the jail windows, I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves.
“I know you.” He said.
“I didn’t send you here, Bartleby,” I responded in reply to a perceived suspicion. “And this isn’t such a vile place, it’s not as bad as one might think. Look, there is a blue sky and places to wander.”
“I know where I am,” he replied softly.
And with little else to say, I left him.
As I entered the corridor again, a broad uniformed man approached me. “Is that your friend?”
“Yes.” I responded.
Some few days later, I again obtained admission to the prison and went through the corridors to find Bartleby.
“I saw him coming from his cell not long ago,” said a uniformed man, “he might be walking in the yard.”
“Are you looking for the silent man?” said another. “There he is, sleeping in the yard there, I saw him lie down twenty minutes ago.”
The yard was quiet and not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls of amazing thickness kept out all the sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. The walls like ancient guardians, stood tall and imposing, their weathered surfaces etched with the passage of time. But amidst the desolation, a soft grass grew under foot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed and by some strange magic, grass-seed, carried by birds had taken root.
Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up towards his chest, and lying on his side, his head resting on cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused; then went close up to him; stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise, he seemed profoundly sleeping. Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet.
The round face of the uniformed man looked at me now. “His dinner is ready. Do you think he will want to eat today? Or does he live without eating?”
“Lives without eating,” I replied, and closed his eyes.
“Oh!—He’s asleep, isn’t he?”
“Yes, with kings and princes”.
Little more needs telling of poor Bartleby’s quiet passing. But before we part, indulge my curiosity about what manner of man led to such an end – his life remains a mystery that provokes unrelenting intrigue…
Rumors floated that Bartleby once practiced law, even ascending the bench before an abrupt fall from grace. His alleged wrongdoings were never proven, yet he was cast out all the same, reputation ruined beyond salvaging. Maybe it takes a certain resigned loneliness to accept such a fate without a fight.
Before I left the prison that day, the uniformed man at the prison delivered a letter that Bartleby addressed to me.
My Dear Boss and Friend,
I have finally left your world, a place of such miserable interest. I shall leave, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Your kindness persuades me more than the Bible of our potential immortality.
I leave you as executor of my estate, which is modest but adequate. In the upcoming weeks you will receive notice of the details. However, no instructions towards its administration will follow.
I have no preference and prefer not to guide your disposal of its assets.
Regarding your employees, Mario, Blanche and Joshua, I am a man enchanted in his grave and happily oblivious to all gossip. You may find it well to pay your employees generously from my estate for their kindness to me and their extra time they spent in making up for my lack of production. I was a most miserable wretch of a comrade.
It is impossible for me now to assert that I was anything more than an unwise and slothful servant to an unloving deity. The principal purpose of my life was extinguished many years ago and I found truth only in moments of contentment, the enemy of aspiration. Those who knew me may have thought of me as a vagrant soul with an unworthy character. There is strong evidence to convict me of such a judgment.
Though it may not matter to God, I am a better man for knowing you, even briefly.
Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!