Herman Melville’s short Bartleby the Scrivener is very enigmatic, telling the story of a scrivener, or “law-copyist,” on Wall Street that throws a kink in the system by “preferring” not to do his work tasks.
I was first introduced to Bartleby through The Bartleby Project, and, following them, I assumed that Bartleby was merely a person who sought change through refusing to work. However, that assumption oversimplified Bartleby.
In Melville’s story, the narrator of the tale is a well-to-do lawyer on Wall Street, who has a staff of three: Turkey, a copyist; Nippers, a copyist; and Ginger Nut, an office boy. Each of these characters have their own quirks. For example, Turkey and Nippers take turns being rather agitated throughout the day. My assumption is that these two represent the standard office worker, who does his or her work only somewhat begrudgingly without ever really doing anything to change their situation.
Then the narrator hires Bartleby, who the narrator says he should have “been quite delighted with . . . had [he] been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically” (18*). After several days of working very diligently, Bartleby is handed a task and responds, “I would prefer not to” (21). This refusal to work “quietly disarmed” the narrator, who thinks he can talk Bartleby into doing his work (35). However, Bartleby only responds that he “would prefer not to” work.
The narrator experiences this as an act of “passive resistance,” saying, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance” (53). The lawyer in his earnestness tries to act charitably toward the scrivener, but Bartleby continues to prefer not to do anything.
Throughout, Melville carefully notes the difference between “will” and “preference” in Bartleby’s refusal (71ff). To me, that dichotomy hangs on the difference between stubbornness (I will not to) versus principled abstinence (I prefer not to). That is, Bartleby is not acting childishly but dignified. So much so that by the time his employer and coworkers start to tire of him, they are using the word “prefer” themselves (117–125). His resistance bears fruit.
Along the way, the narrator feels “the bond of a common humanity” between Bartleby and himself, wishing to help the scrivener find some joy (89). However, the lawyer realizes that joy requires more than charity. He says to himself, “I might give alms to his body; but his body did not pain him; it was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach” (93). The lawyer was left without any of the faculties required to befriend his employee.
Soon the lawyer-narrator realizes that Bartleby never leaves the office and that he uses his small nook as a living space. At first this only alarms the narrator’s mind, but eventually this alarm grows to fear, and he chooses to fire Bartleby. Leaving the scrivener with $20 extra on his last paycheck, the lawyer expects Bartleby will leave when the term of his employ ends. Bartleby, however, prefers not to leave.
And so it goes. The lawyer, attempting to rid himself of Bartleby, moves to another office. But the landlord of the previous office space tells him that he needs to come remove his employee, Bartleby, who is hanging around the building causing people discomfort. The lawyer, for his part, tries to reason with him, to take him in, in a variety of ways. Bartleby prefers not to leave the premisses of the original Wall Street office.
The landlord notifies the lawyer that he will have Bartleby removed, and eventually Bartleby is arrested and sent to prison. The lawyer visits the prison and tries to make the scrivener’s imprisonment as comfortable as possible. But upon his next visit, the lawyer finds Bartleby dead, having preferred not to eat.
The story ends with an ominous cry: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” (251).
And thus the enigma. On the one hand, Bartleby can be seen as a revolutionary of sorts, protesting against an already broken system in the 1850s. His preference against doing the work of a Wall Street lawyer, to an extent, breaks the system. The narrator simply does not know what to do, so he allows Bartleby to do his thing in his nook, writing all the while but preferring not to do most tasks.
On the other hand, Bartleby can be seen as an impoverished person—mentally, physically, economically—who the wealthy lawyer cannot help. The lawyer only thinks in terms of wealth and economics; thus he gives Bartleby $20 extra to make him go away. That strategy fails, and the narrator is left perplexed despite being aware of the new commandment “that ye love one another” (165). The narrator lacks the ears to hear that command.
A third way that Bartleby can be understood is in terms of being an office worker. In the midst of his rather mindless-drone coworkers, he stands out for protesting against a ridiculous setup. His space in the office had only a small window (17, 92, 166; also Melville notes the small windows in the prison, 218), and I think Melville must include that detail on purpose—as if to say that humans need more than a desk and a small window. One wonders what Bartleby would do in a sea of cubicles today.
“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”
* Numbered references refer to paragraph numbers.