“I Prefer Not To”: Herman Melville’s Bartleby: The Scrivener

Literature’s great refusenik remains as ambiguous as ever – the everyman protestor who rebels of all stripes feel represents them.

New York in the 1850s was a rapidly modernising city: as it grew, new strata of white-collar workers emerged to prop up its systems, rules and regulations. A new generation of people, educated and trained, took up their places in offices where some of them embodied the new culture of competitiveness and industry and some – didn’t. Office work doesn’t present the dangers that many working-class professions could boast, but being sat at one’s desk performing a host of tedious tasks certainly, well, took people in different ways.

The short story of Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street appeared in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853, and it’s a testament to passive resistance, of opting out of the world of white-collar work completely. Its author, Herman Melville, is renowned these days as one of America’s great novelists, the author of Moby Dick who based many of his seafaring storylines on personal experience. But Bartleby is a different proposition altogether, speaking to an extent to Melville’s own personal frustrations with the unglamorous world of making your living by your pen: he had found the process of writing and editing Moby Dick an onerous proposition, and while it’s highly regarded now, its reputation was quite slow to grow after its publication, and not particularly lucrative. Bartleby is the story of a Wall Street legal practice and a narrator who believes that the “easiest way of life is the best”, which is one reason he tolerates a small crew of unpleasant and careless co-workers with bizarre nicknames. Turkey is a man of the narrator’s age who veers between fully inept and bad-tempered, especially after a liquid lunch. Nippers is a young man who embodies the kind of directionless ambition to ‘do better’ in life without much in the way of aptitude or focus. And then there’s an office boy, Ginger Nut, whose working-class father wants him to have a job with a desk instead of a cart, and so has passed him on to the firm as a dollar-per-week apprentice. The narrator observes with satisfaction that, whilst both Turkey and Nippers have dreadful tempers apiece, they take it in turns – so when Turkey is apoplectic about something, Nippers is thankfully quiet and sullen, and vice versa. Small mercies and all that.

Into this melee comes Bartleby, when an expansion in the business necessitates another scrivener (or copyist). Bartleby is frequently described as a ‘cadaverous’, pale man who says almost nothing, but – at least initially – he works indefatigably, and our narrator is pleased with him. But something happens to Bartleby: he begins to shut down. It starts with a polite refusal to do any further work, as expressed in what’s now become a slogan for anyone disaffected with their day-to-day occupation: “I prefer not to”. Bartleby refuses to read through completed documents. Then he refuses to write anything at all, instead standing in what the narrator calls a “dead-wall reverie” – looking out of the window at the teeming buildings that have crowded out all but a little daylight in the office. Later, the narrator discovers that Bartleby has been living at the office, too. Finally, having dissuaded Turkey from blacking his eyes, our narrator sacks the scrivener; well, he has a go. Bartleby won’t leave. He prefers not to.

The narrator does what anyone would do in such a situation, and actually moves the firm to a new address, leaving Bartleby still in the old premises. Still, Bartleby refuses to leave, and when the new business ejects him from the office, he takes to living under the stairwell. Eventually, Bartleby is removed to jail – namely, The Tombs, the infamous Manhattan prison. Here he refuses to eat and refuses to speak to the guilt-ridden narrator when he finds him there. Eventually, Bartleby lays down and dies, where he is discovered by the ever-vigilant, ever-curious narrator.

Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby. But nothing stirred. I paused; then went close up to him; stooped over, and saw that his dim eyes were open; otherwise he seemed profoundly sleeping. Something prompted me to touch him. I felt his hand, when a tingling shiver ran up my arm and down my spine to my feet.”

It’s a deceptively simple story, but ultimately neither the narrator nor we get to know any essential truths here, and the story sticks with you as a result, its questions recurring. For me, it’s the finest short story ever written. And the ending: it delivers a serious punch, a conclusion which invites you to reconsider Bartleby’s entrenched refusals to comply. That last paragraph is unparalleled: almost as a footnote to the story, the narrator adds that he made enquiries after Bartleby’s death, and found that he had been previously employed at the Dead Letter Office in Washington; all of the undelivered mail in the vicinity would get returned there and opened by a clerk. We don’t know for sure if that is the case, but the narrator raises the tantalising possibility that such a job was the perfect storm for a morbid, sensitive person such as his scrivener. Being confronted, daily, with messages that were never received, gifts that never reached their destination and with an array of lost missives, both there and yet not there, could have so damaged Bartleby that he was no longer able to engage with the world, with the crisis coming shortly after he made one last push to seek employment and to sustain himself. The Dead Letter Office is a suitably evocative place, a liminal location in much the same way that Bartleby’s desk, both inside and outside the main room, is there and not there. Bartleby is a man on the periphery of life, seen but not heard, heard but not seen – a former employee who is still there every day. It’s also interesting that the Dead Letter Office has found its way into horror literature, too, featuring in Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show as the means that another miserable employee first becomes acquainted with a covert occult organisation: he spots references to it in the dead letters which he has to deal with. There’s surely a little bit of Bartleby in that.

But we never hear from Bartleby on this, or on anything. He simply reiterates the same sentiment: “I prefer not to”. Many critical essays have pondered what the story is all about on a deeper level. On the most straightforward assessment, it’s about a man so damaged that he breaks down completely, albeit quietly. We’d probably call it a nervous breakdown today, though that’s frankly as unhelpful an umbrella term as ‘neurasthenia’ was in the 19th Century; again, psychology has debated with itself as to the exact nature of Bartleby’s state of mind and can draw no definite conclusions. Outside of the whole diagnosis aspect, other critics have suggested that the narrator is rather oddly attached to a man about whom he knows nothing, and so may see something of himself in Bartleby. Certainly, the narrator ponders whether Bartleby has been sent to him by ‘Providence’ – as if he views Bartleby as some kind of spiritual signifier, a contrast to the commercial interests and market forces that would ordinarily drive a man to sack an unprofitable employee on the spot. The narrator never stops caring about his former scrivener; he even pays the prison to prepare good meals for Bartleby, though of course, he won’t eat them – and it’s insinuated that he dies of starvation, but again, that’s inference.

It’s a maddening, fractional story, but its greatest strengths are still in its mysteries. Now, Bartleby has become a kind of poster boy for sticking it to the man, his immortal line transferred onto placards and tee-shirts, invoked for all manner of political protest. I don’t know what Melville would make of that, quite honestly. He’d likely be quite entertained, though, that his antagonist has lent his name to a well-known internet repository of literature; bartleby.com also offers a service where it will read and check your writing, which is something the original Bartleby utterly refused to do. It’s a dash of irony and another link to the short story itself, and to a character still being interpreted, pondered, and discussed, perhaps especially today, when so many of us have needed to reevaluate our relationships to what we do for a living in light of the pandemic. As long as we have this kind of a dynamic with our working lives, then Melville’s story will continue to resonate, offering both a victim of the system and a strange kind of anti-hero, depending on the moment and the reading. It’s a story subtle and enigmatic enough to sustain either or both in turn. Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!


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