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Mashup: Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener + Gaitskill's Secretary

A successful lawyer hires a new scrivener to join his small firm. Enter Bartleby, a quiet, initially efficient, anti-social little man, who proceeds to work well as a copyist, but refuses to help out with any other office tasks...

"Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, 'I would prefer not to.'"

Bartleby's famous defiance has been considered a precursor to absurdist literature, anticipating the themes we would later encounter in the work of Franz Kafka (The Trial, A Hunger Artist). It is said that Herman Melville wrote Bartleby as an emotional response to the fact that Moby-Dick was not selling as well as he had expected. Sadly, Bartleby was not especially popular upon publication either.

Mary Gaitskill's infamous short story, Secretary takes place at a very different kind of lawyer's office.

"When he asked me to come into his office at the end of the day, I thought he was going to fire me. The idea was a relief, but a numbing one. I sat down and he fixed me with a look that was speculative but benign, for him. He leaned back in his chair in a comfortable way, one hand dangling sideways from his wrist. To my surprise, he began talking to me about my problems, as he saw them."

I will leave the rest of it up to you to read.

You can find both stories online:



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  • Bill W

    Having taken the trouble to look up the word synchronicity last month, I'm pleased to be able to invoke it again. While driving home from our meeting I happened to hear part of a discussion of The Feminine Mystique. The moderator, Virginia Sapiro, class of 1972, said that Friedan seemed irrelevant for her generation, but for them "the problem that had no name" was sexual harassment. It’s interesting that we had placed Secretary in that same era. (According to my dictionary, the term “sexual harassment” dates from 1975-1980.)

    March 11, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Bob Slydell: Milton Waddams.
      Dom Portwood: Who's he?
      Bob Porter: You know, squirrely looking guy, mumbles a lot.
      Dom Portwood: Oh, yeah.
      Bob Slydell: Yeah, we can't actually find a record of him being a current employee here.
      Bob Porter: I looked into it more deeply and I found that apparently what happened is that he was laid off five years ago and no one ever told him about it; but through some kind of glitch in the payroll department, he still gets a paycheck.
      Bob Slydell: So we just went ahead and fixed the glitch.
      Bill Lumbergh: Great.
      Dom Portwood: So, uh, Milton has been let go?
      Bob Slydell: Well, just a second there, professor. We, uh, we fixed the *glitch*. So he won't be receiving a paycheck anymore, so it'll just work itself out naturally.
      Bob Porter: We always like to avoid confrontation, whenever possible. Problem is solved from your end.

      March 11, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      Bill Lumbergh: Hello Peter, whats happening? Ummm, I'm gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow. So if you could be here around 9 that would be great, mmmk... oh oh! and I almost forgot ahh, I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, kay. We ahh lost some people this week and ah, we sorta need to play catch up.

      March 11, 2013

  • Matt

    It was great meeting everyone! Wonderful discussion and I'm looking forward to attending the next one. :)

    March 10, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    although it's not snowing, I'm gonna flake out...

    March 10, 2013

  • norrie e.

    I'm afraid I'll probably have to bow out--I was looking forward to discussing these two stories together- great pairing, by the way. If my car starts--which I doubt--I'll be there.

    March 10, 2013

  • Todd

    Sorry I have to cancel. I'm having a colonoscopy tomorrow, and I can't leave the house while I drink the Trilyte solution to prepare for it. Hope you all have a great discussion! (I did read Bartleby. It's still one of my favorite stories.)

    March 10, 2013

  • Valerie

    Unfortunately, have too many errands to run today.

    March 10, 2013

  • Arlinda S.

    Beware of all the time changes! Daylight savings and the time change from our usual 6pm to 7pm. See you then!

    March 10, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I'm sorry I have to cancel. I ran in the Somerville 5K Ras Na Heireann this morning and fell, got a bit scraped up and twisted my ankle. I know this sounds selfish but I'd prefer to stay in and not go out again today/tonight.

    March 10, 2013

  • Bo

    Dave's is the only photo in the mashup spirit.

    March 5, 2013

  • norrie e.

    looking forward to it. Bartleby is one of my favorites.

    1 · March 1, 2013

  • Brian P.

    Im new always wnated to try this out, can anyone pm how this works? thank you

    February 26, 2013

  • robin b

    One of my favorite authors.
    Should be lots of fun.

    February 25, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Cool! Thanks for the links. I hope it doesn't snow!

    February 24, 2013

9 went

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