Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Contact Us

BBC Radio 7, 16 August 2008
At one level, Melville’s short story satirizes the provincial values of mid-nineteenth century New York, a world dominated by routine which cannot admit the presence of strangers. The two employees in the lawyer-narrator’s office, Turkey and Nippers (David Collier, Jonathan Keble) are typical products of this society; both imprisoned by their own linguistic clichés (“with submission”) and obsessed with order and propriety. They consider it an affront when Bartleby (Adrian Scarborough) is given the screen to segregate himself from them. Even the lawyer-narrator (Ian Holm), who tries his best to convince us that he acts from the best motives, is not immune from such values. When he discovers that Bartleby has been living in the office, the narrator assumes quite arbitrarily that the scrivener has committed an act of “moral turpitude” by appearing at the front door on a Sunday in a state of undress.


Cherry Cookson’s production devoted most of its attention to Bartleby himself. He did not say much except for his familiar catchphrase (“I prefer not to”) but he spoke his lines with such conviction that it soon became evident that no one would dissuade him from his purpose. Nor did he feel it necessary to explain himself – silence was far more effective than words. In many ways he deserved our admiration; even when his material circumstances declined, and he was sent to jail, he refused to open up. Mental composure meant more to him than material possessions. For Melville, who so often dealt with romantic themes, Bartleby’s resistance assumed heroic proportions in a society so preoccupied with banalities.


The only slight snag with this quite admirable production was the ending. The narrator rummages through Bartleby’s possessions, and comes across a letter revealing that the scrivener worked in the Dead Letter Office in London, which dealt with unanswered mail inadvertently sent to deceased relatives. It seems that the mystery of Bartleby’s life has been resolved; having spent so much time in a place dealing with no-hopers, the scrivener had become one himself. In Melville’s story this is offered as an explanation, but we are under no obligation to accept it. Nor should we, in the light of what we have discovered about the narrator so far. He is simply endeavouring to tie up the loose ends of the plot. Bartleby remains triumphant, even in death. Cookson’s adaptation removed this element of doubt, as an elegiac melody played in the background while the narrator delivered his final words. It seemed like a coda designed to explain everything for the listeners’ benefit, while retaining a modicum of respect due to the dead. The element of doubt was removed. Apart from this, Ian Holm’s characterization was consistently interesting, as his voice registered conflicting emotions as he repeatedly tried and failed to deal with the recalcitrant scrivener. He might have been imprisoned by the parochial values of his society, but we could admire his persistence.