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Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener “I prefer not to” A consideration

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will explore the significance of Bartleby’s words “I would prefer not to” when seeking to understand the text, Bartleby the Scrivener.

The lawyer narrates the story from his own perspective and employs Bartleby. In order to understand why Bartleby was actually declaring his preference not to conform it is necessary to examine how he should have behaved. The narrator employed Bartleby because he could read and write, whilst he would be a professional writer unlike Melville, however, his work would be completely unoriginal and would involve mindless copying. The nature of such employees was such, at the time, that the lawyer did not even check his references, judging on appearance and manner alone. This makes the point that Bartleby was effectively no more than a machine, one among many thousands of similar white-collar workers in Wall Street. As such, his individuality and his uniqueness had no point within the society within which he had to exist, whether he preferred to or not. Melville is, of course a Transcendentalist. As such, he considered intuition to be highest form of reason and imbued with divinity, one’s individual potential will facilitate an individual path to God. (O’Toole H., 2003.)

As Heather O’Toole states:

”Transcendentalism depends on a complete adherence to the self and individual experience. This premise is a highly democratic concept, for it regards the importance of internal authority and individualism over external authority and mass consciousness.”

Transcendentalists believe in the possibility of positive change and the ability of each individual to attain divinity or communion with God from a reliance on their innate goodness and reliability and faith in their own instinct. This is in direct contrast to the Calvinistic Puritanical view that man is inherently evil and all but irredeemable. They believed that everyone had within himself or herself divine reason and must be free to achieve their full potential. Because of this fundamental philosophy, Transcendentalists favoured reforms. Many effective opponents to war, capitalism, and slavery were Transcendentalists. They argued that right and wrong are perceptions of the mind and not matters of reason. Transcendentalist believe that only one God exists and is manifest in all religious traditions; if every man has within him Divine reason, they contended, every person must be free to realize their fullest potentiality. If people could do so, then it would be possible to realize Heaven on Earth. (Sten, C. W., 1974)

The story effectively takes place in three phases: these being the appointment of Bartleby and his increasing resistance to the Wall Street routine, followed by attempts at cajoling his conformity by the lawyer and concluding with the retribution meted out by that society when Bartleby fails to conform. Throughout the story Bartleby is portrayed as being isolated, mysterious, and surreal almost. He is also portrayed as being different and alone, but not in the sense of being lonely, to emphasise the fact that he is exercising his own free will, he is not associated with anyone and thus not subject to undesirable influence, he is relying on his own instincts to make his own decisions. The phrase “I would prefer not to” is an understated way of refusing to conform, he is demonstrating the power of the individual to resist a communal pressure to comply. The activity that he is employed to carry out, writing, is on the face of it, intellectual, stimulating and original, however, it is reduced to “mechanical reproduction ruinous to the minds and bodies of the workers”. (Weinstein, C., 1998) What should be a deeply personal and individual activity is corrupted by capitalism. There is a good deal of irony in the fact that he and his colleagues are hired to copy but that his colleagues in Wall Street do not copy his behaviour, and as such his actions are ultimately futile, in so far as they achieve no change.

Bartleby, by uttering the words “I would prefer not to” effectively, as Cindy Weinstein states, “goes on strike without ever asserting that he has done so”. By using this phrase, Bartleby forces the employer, and narrator, to think carefully, and in some depth, about his expectations of his employees and the power within that relationship that up until that time he had taken for granted. The phrase is the driving force for the whole story. The narrator becomes more and more frustrated as Bartleby uttering this phrase defies him repeatedly. The narrator actually reconsiders his role and “begins to stagger in his own plainest faith”, doubting the rules upon which his own society, as he perceives it, is at fault. (Weinstein, C., 1998).

There is an element of irony given the narrator’s profession, which of course deals in rules, protects capitalism, and defends the principal of ownership. As the story progresses the narrator actually comes to believe that Bartleby may have a point and that “all the justice and all the reason is on the other side” (Melville H., 1853). He even begins to view the conditions in which the scriveners work as being oppressive, detailing other men’s wealth in writing and copying endless documents to protect the principle of ownership in the political superstructure of capitalism; which is of course epitomised in Wall Street itself. The phrase “I would prefer not to” also suggests a mooted rebellion against capitalism, and many Transcendentalists were opposed to Capitalism on philosophical grounds.

Melville’s vivid use of imagery in the description of the office in which Bartleby is “entombed” allows the reader to imagine a lifeless, claustrophobic room, as the narrator states “deficient in what landscape painters call ‘life’”. The use of the green flimsy screen, to separate the narrator from the workers, symbolises the fragility of the class divide. This is emphasised when the narrator considers the alternative should Bartleby’s actions prove to be copied (again symbolic irony) by others in Wall Street. Of course, the entire system of property owning, and the principle of ownership itself, is dependent upon accurate and reliable record keeping. Bartleby in “preferring not to” check his work and thus safeguard the reliability of the information that they are recording is highly significant. The narrator eventually abandons Bartleby by moving away from him. (Marx L., 1953)

The symbolism of the green flimsy screen is important: it demonstrates the delicate nature of that which separates the classes, rendered even more precarious when Bartleby utters the words “I would prefer not to”. It also evokes an obvious image of something green and thus nature, this in turn is juxtaposed against the dim almost dingy image of the office environment that Melville describes. This negative description of the working environment, for Bartleby his home, together with the negative portrayal of the tedious nature of the work is an indictment of capitalism. Humans, reduced to the role of machines, forced to comply with a way of living that will not allow them to achieve their full potential, become subsumed within a group. The character of Bartleby neatly portrays the fundamental beliefs of Transcendentalism at the same time as showing that they may ultimately not be achievable. The ultimate tragic demise of Bartleby demonstrates that his stand was futile. (Widmer K., 1969)

The phrase “I would prefer not to”, on a close reading and consideration of the text, conveys the message of the whole story in one phrase: It is saying that as humans we should all be able to live as we would prefer and emphasises the importance of self in striving for divinity. It is therefore extremely useful, and important, when analysing the meaning of the text.

BibliographyAnderson, Walter. “Form and Meaning in ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’” Studies in Short Fiction 18 (Fall 1981): 383-93.

Marx L., 1987, “Melvilles Parable of the Walls”, in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Benito Cereno, Bartleby the Scrivener and Other Tales, Chelsea House Publishers, Philadelphia, pp.11-29

Melville H., 1853, Bartleby the Scrivener : A Story of Wall-Street

O’Toole H., 2003.The Blackness of Men’s Souls: Why Nathaniel Hawthorne could not Embrace Transcendentalism. Bridgewater, Virginia,


College Press.

Sten, C. W., 1974, “Bartleby, the Transcendentalist: Melville’s Dead Letter to Emerson.” Modern Language Quarterly 35: 30-44

Weinstein, C., 1998, “Melville, Labor, And The Discourses of Reception”, in The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Robert S. Levine, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, pp. 202—223

Widmer, K., 1969, “Melville’s Radical Resistance: The Method and Meaning of ‘Bartleby.’” In Studies in the Novel 1 (1969):pp 444-58.