Bartleby, the Scrivener as Psychological Horror

In academic study, my professors and teachers always presented "Bartleby, the Scrivener" as a curiosity. It was pre-Modernist absurdity, a precursor to the more bizarre worlds of Kafka. The imagery was always given respect--the wall opposite the windows and the folding screen cubicle were favorite topics of discussion. The meaning of "I would prefer not to" was given its dues, as well. Yet anytime any of us tried to point out a rather blatant element of the story, we were stopped or even discouraged from further research and analysis.

I've been revisiting a lot of public domain horror stories and short novels while doing some test proctoring at a local high school. "Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville was surprisingly included in one of these horror eBook collections. Surrounding by the best and the worst of the literary Gothic, Southern Gothic, and early weird fiction, Bartleby's role as a ghost has never been clearer. This is blatantly a ghost story, and a very modern one at that.

Melville's tale is one of the earliest horror stories to prey on the tropes of the Victorian Gothic but disregard the need for a logical scientific explanation. He knew what he wanted to do with the story and didn't spare one extra word for a logical explanation. There is a bit of a play on words as a button at the end, but it's not really a traditional explanation by the standards of this genre.

A lawyer running a firm dealing with non-court law has three employees and desperately needs a fourth. He hires a very even-tempered young man, Bartleby, to hopefully calm the office. Bartleby is a model employee except for his response to any order or request,

I would prefer not to.

The indifferent, non-committal response drives our narrator to obsession. The office starts to transform because of Bartleby; it's just more of an infection than a metamorphosis.

Through apathy and deflection, Bartleby begins to haunt the office without even dying. The owner realizes, for example, that Bartleby is living in the office. His work ethic--being the first and last at the office each day--is immediately questioned.

Then he refuses to work at all. The owner assumes it is for health reasons, but the young lawyer would just prefer to never pick up a pen or paper again. He literally becomes a spectre in the office. He is the lingering memory of a promising young employee. He stands in front of the wall of windows, casting a shadow of doubt over the entire staff and office.

They all begin to suffer from the same apathy as Bartleby. No one can respond to a question with a definitive "yes" or "no." All answers are qualified with "prefer." They would prefer to not pick up the slack for Bartleby, or they would prefer to throttle him and end everyone's suffering. But the definite, the certain, the exacting language needed for a law firm is gone because of Bartleby.

It only gets stranger when the boss finally decides something must be done. Where it took months for Bartleby to the destroy the efficiency of the office, it only takes a passing moment to force passivity on everyone else he meets. It's like he pulls strength and power from the chaos he creates and only grows strong from literally doing nothing all day, every day.

I wouldn't exactly call "Bartleby, the Scrivener" light reading. I left a long hand draft of this very post on the desk when I took a break during testing. Another proctor asked what I was studying in college--I'm not--and described the story as brutal. It's not for everyone. Further, readings that eliminate the flash and dark humor brought out through the use of Gothic storytelling devices really do a great disservice to the story. If you aren't laughing or in awe like you're studying the work of Poe, you aren't really experiencing "Bartleby, the Scrivener."

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