“I would prefer not to.” I’ve seen this phrase all over the bookish internet: on totes, mugs, t-shirts. Bartleby’s refrain always struck me as petulant. It reminds me of a kid whose parents have just asked them to do their chores. I would prefer not to do the dishes. The response to this usually some variation on, “Tough, kid. Do them anyway.” So this was my impression of Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener. I confess that I only picked it up because it was so short and I didn’t have enough time to read another pre-1950 classic for my monthly reader’s resolution goal. Now I think I see why readers are so endlessly fascinated by this story. We know very well what Bartleby would prefer not to do. We don’t know the answer to the unasked question: what would Bartleby prefer?
We learn about Bartleby via his unnamed employer. Our narrator is a lawyer who employs two copywriters—a lost profession in which men with good handwriting would make copies of legal documents—who have problems with alcohol. Because lack of alcohol makes one belligerent and too much alcohol does the same to the other, they’ve basically canceled each other out in terms of productivity. Our narrator essentially has only one one functioning copywriter at any given time, so he hires Bartleby. At first, Bartleby does good work. When his employer asks him to do anything but copy documents—proofread, run errands, etc.—Bartleby declines. He would prefer no to. If our narrator were a more hard-nosed man, Bartleby would have been fired at this point and the story would be even shorter.
Over time, our narrator learns that Bartleby never leaves the office; he even sleeps there. Even after our narrator decamps to a new office—because he can’t stand Bartleby hanging around and refusing to do anything—Bartleby stays in the office. He is described in so many words by the new tenants as haunting the building. At times during this part of the story, I wondered if Melville was writing under the influence of Poe because Bartleby’s quiet insistence and lack of motive make him downright creepy. Eventually, the new tenants of the old office have Bartleby arrested and sent to New York’s notorious and aptly named, the Tombs. There, Bartleby starves to death because he would prefer not to eat prison food.
Bartleby, the Scrivener is a story of withdrawal. I don’t mean physical withdrawal—as Bartleby refuses to leave his former employer’s old office until forcibly removed—but of withdrawal from life. He would prefer not to work, talk about his past, or leave the office. Bartleby is passive in spite of his constant resistance to the people around him. He doesn’t take any offer of help or employment. He would prefer not to. His passivity and withdrawal from life manifest in his refusal to find something he does want. His is the kind of character one can’t help but label as fundamentally wrong; he desperately needs fixing. (His employer, at one point, theorizes that Bartleby is a test from god.) Bartleby is a mystery, a creepy mystery—the kind that invites readers to try and puzzle out what motivates this man.
I know critics and scholars have numerous theories about Bartleby. He’s such a cipher that its tempting to abandon psychology altogether and view the Scrivener as a metaphor. Perhaps I’m too grounded in psychological and historicist criticism, but I never find metaphor theories satisfying. Weirdly enough, one theory that did satisfy occurred to me while I was reading was that Bartleby might be a figment of the narrator’s imagination. Most of Bartleby, the Scrivener is the narrator agonizing about what to do with this exceedingly weird man. Of course, this theory has problems since other people interact with Bartleby in the story. Maybe I just liked this explanation because I read the story at Halloween.
The other big reason I stayed away from this story was because I had a bad experience in college with Moby-Dick. Bartleby, the Scrivener is very different from Melville’s magnum opus. While some of the sentences and paragraphs are punishingly long, the story rolls along at a good clip. There are even moments of snarky absurdity. I think readers should give this story a chance. If nothing else, we need all the brains we can muster at work trying to figure out what Bartleby—character and story—mean.