25. ‘Bartleby the Scriverner,’ 26. ‘Benito Cereno,’ and 27. ‘Billy Budd, Foretopman’ by Herman Melville

For this week, I am giving you not one, not two, but three reviews courtesy of the great writer Herman Melville. I picked up this trilogy of tales some time ago, and they were short enough that I thought I would do my first ever triple review! On first reading these stories, I thought that they had nothing in common. After thinking about it for a few weeks, I realized that these three very different stories do share a similar theme. Each story in this collection is titled after its main character who is misunderstood by those around him. Although the settings are all completely different, the titular characters of each piece stand out in a significant way.

25. Bartleby the Scriverner: 

Until I read this, I thought Melville had only penned sea yarns.This story is narrated by a lawyer about a rather strange employee who worked for him for a very short time. Bartleby arrives one day in response to a job opening as a scrivener, someone who does writing and copying for legal offices. At first, Bartleby is quite helpful. Then one day the narrator asks him to proofread a document for him and he simply responds, “I would prefer not to.” Soon Bartleby is refusing to do all manner of requests, each time replying with those exact words “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer is confused about how to handle the situation with this rather unique employee. At first, he doesn’t want to fire Bartleby because he isn’t exactly rude with his refusals. The lawyer can’t argue or force him to do the work, so Bartleby continues to get away with it. Even when he is finally asked to leave, Bartleby replies calmly that he “would prefer not to.” This results in the lawyer having to take drastic measures to rid himself of Bartleby whose fate is quite tragic.

I really loved the claustrophobic setting of this story in the tight little office. It was amusing how at one point, Bartleby’s catchphrase became contagious among the other members of the law firm. The other scriveners were soon saying “I would prefer not to” without even realizing it. Although Bartleby continues to cause all types of problems, his quiet indifference is met with confusion from everyone around him. Despite his refusals and getting to do only what he wants to do, Bartleby never seems happy. Instead, he appears lost and quite friendless. In the end, we finally learn the source of Bartleby’s sadness, which makes the ending for his character even more heartbreaking.

Analyzing this story brought to mind the importance of working with others. The character of Bartleby stands out due to his individuality and his refusal to “obey the system.” However, is there such a thing as too much individuality? Literature is full of examples of characters who march to the beat of their own drummer. Although I completely agree that this is not a negative characteristic, it is also important to remember the need to work together with other people. Look carefully at those around you. Remember to recognize each person’s uniqueness, while also recognizing the importance of interpersonal relationships. We don’t want to succumb to Bartleby’s lonely fate. I was often reminded while reading this story of jobs I’ve had in the past where I had to perform tasks that I didn’t necessarily want to do. Although I know I wouldn’t have been able to get away with Bartleby’s method, I suppose it’s a little nicer than other phrases I could have said.

26. Benito Cereno:

The second story in this collection, Benito Cereno, is set in the year 1799 in a bay near Chile. The narrator is Amasa Delano, the captain of an American ship. One day Captain Delano spots an unidentified ship moving clumsily toward the harbor. Arriving to investigate and offer assistance, he comes about the Spanish vessel which has fallen into disrepair. The captain of the ship, Don Benito Cereno, is weak and can do no more than directed by his servant. Cereno, who maintains a strange demeanor, says that the majority of his crew have succumbed to illness and dangerous weather. The captain reports that he has been unable to maneuver his ship, the San Dominick, to safety and have been at the mercy of the sea. Captain Delano notices the odd behavior from the slaves and remaining crew and decides to stay for the day offering assistance. Realizing that things are not what they seem, the captain works to figure out the truth behind the enigmatic Don Benito Cereno.

I have to admit I was a bit bored with this one at first, but quickly changed my mind as I delved further into the story. Something is definitely amiss as Captain Delano struggles to get to the bottom of Don Benito’s erratic behaviors. Melville does a great job of creating a tension that follows throughout the story. As with the tale of Bartleby, this is a short tale that has a lot more going on beneath the surface as it addresses the issue of slavery. I was impressed with how Melville used this issue to explore the feelings of those in slavery and to demonstrate both the intelligence and humanity of those forced into slavery.

27. Billy Budd, Foretopman:

This was the book I had been looking forward to the most as Billy Budd is on the 1001 Books list. Despite being another short work, I had the most difficulty getting through this one as Melville is at his most verbose here. It often seemed like this was written by a completely different author as the style and structure is so much different than the previous two stories. The plot is simple. During the Napoleonic wars where the fear of mutiny was high, a beautiful and innocent young sailor named Billy Budd is forced from a ship called the Rights of Man to one called the Bellipotent. On this ship, he is loved by all, except for the master-at-arms, named John Claggart. Billy is described as perfect with the exception of two faults, that he is uneducated and that he possesses a severe stutter. When Claggart falsely accuses Billy of mutiny, he is brought forth by the aristocratic Captain Vere to answer the charge. Unable to answer the accusation due to his speech impediment, the enraged Billy Budd strikes out at Claggart, inadvertently murdering him. Billy is placed on trial. Despite his own personal beliefs, Captain Vere is swayed by his sense of naval duty to make sure Billy is condemned for his crime. 

This synopsis does not account for the literary weight of Melville’s text. The amount of allusion and metaphor with which Melville loads his novella is immense. Often, it felt like I was reading Shakespeare. At times, I was feeling lost. If i have learned one lesson from the books on the 1001 list it is that sometimes several readings of a work are necessary to even begin to capture a fraction of its meaning. I will definitely revisit this titular character some day. Billy Budd is compared to everyone from Christ to Apollo.  His beauty is explored in-depth. Like the lonely Scrivener, Billy stands out from the crowd. However, unlike Bartleby, Billy is loved and adored by all that surround him. He represents the best of humanity, with the exception of two important elements of civilization: knowledge and language. This tale can be looked at under several lenses: as a morality play, a debate between the individual and a sense of duty, or as a veiled exploration of homosexual desires. Melville also goes to great lengths to describe the physicality of the members on the ship. Could Claggart and his “natural depravity” possibly be the reason for his anger at Billy Budd? Just take a look at the spilled soup incident and decide.

In preparing for this review, I did some research. Billy Budd was the work Melville was composing at the time of his death. It was published posthumously about three decades later. I look forward to exploring more of this incredible writer in the future when I attempt to tackle his greatest novel (you know the one about a whale). Until that battle, I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these stories, or all of them.

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.” -Billy Budd, Foretopman


One thought on “25. ‘Bartleby the Scriverner,’ 26. ‘Benito Cereno,’ and 27. ‘Billy Budd, Foretopman’ by Herman Melville

  1. Pingback: Lesser Known Works from Classic Authors – I would rather be reading

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s