Franz Kafka (Smith says) says that a short story is a cage in search of a bird.
Melville’s story – like Smith’s – employs a leisurely, nineteenth-century frame in which the narrator introduces himself and his other employees before getting on to Bartleby, and ends with an epilogue in which he explains what little he can and generalizes desperately: “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” It is desperate because all this paraphernalia is being deployed in a doomed attempt to capture the soul of the competent but wilful copyist whose power over our imagination comes precisely from the fact that he would “prefer not” – to work, to leave the office, to recognize the incongruity of his position. A man who would literally prefer to starve to death in prison than explain himself. Is Bartleby as free as a bird? Hardly, but the story’s inability to capture him is the reason it’s impossible to forget.
First published in Putnam’s Magazine, Nov/Dec 1853, included in Piazza Tales, 1856, and now published everywhere, including by Melville House Publishing, 2004 and online here