I Would Prefer Not To

bartleby shirtThis weekend I am starting a period of unemployment – or retirement. That hasn’t been determined yet. But it is definitely a new phase and perhaps it was more synchronicity than coincidence that I found this weekend an annotated version of the Melville story “Bartleby, the Scrivener, a story of Wall Street.” Andrew Kahn has added the commentary and they have added the option to see notes based on categories like history and Melvilliana.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is an odd story about a lawyer who hires Bartleby to work in his office as a scrivener. It’s an old profession from the times when humans were the office copy machine.

Bartleby is quiet and initially he is efficient. But he soon begins to refuse to help out with any other office tasks. Well, not refuse, but, as he states, he would “prefer” not to. The lawyer and other employees are startled and confused but unsure of how to respond.

Bartleby is always in the office. He does his copying and often stares out the window at a neighboring wall. We discover he is living in the office.

He reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld when Kramer begins going to an office where he is not employed and just hangs out, interacting with employees, but not doing any work.

Bartleby eventually announces that he will no longer do any work at all, but he prefers to stay in the office. The lawyer asks him to leave, but he just doesn’t.


Don’t take this as real life and ask why didn’t they just throw him out. The story is, as Kahn says in his introduction, “part office comedy, part ghost story, part Zen koan.”

Kahn says that in 1852, the year before the story’s publication, the once best-selling author of tales of adventure, had literally been declared “crazy” in a newspaper headline about his writing.

Herman Melville wrote this story after Moby Dick, which was his masterpiece, but was not well reviewed and didn’t sell. He followed the white whale with the novel Pierre which was not subtly subtitled “The Ambiguities” and that subtitle is accurate.

In this story, he seems to be trying to make meaning as frustrating as the lawyer’s relationship with Bartleby.

The lawyer’s frustrations mirror the reader’s frustrations.

“In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.'”

When I read this story in my college literature class, I wrote a paper around the idea that one of the few things we hear about Bartleby’s life is that he was rumored to have earlier been a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in the Washington, DC post office. What a beautifully symbolic place to work. Here’s how Melville, through the lawyer, ponders that job of sifting through letters that could not be delivered.

“When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”

Spoiler alert: Bartleby ends up being imprisoned in the New York prison known as “The Tombs.”  There, he begins to prefer not to eat, and in a short time dies.

This story was first serialized anonymously in two parts in a magazine in 1853. Anonymously, probably because the Melville name would not help sales. Today it is viewed as a masterwork of his short fiction.

Let the critics and students of literature continue to ponder the story and how it uses philosophy, free will, ethics, depression, economics and all the other analyses. I’m rereading it this time as more of that Dilbert cartoon (above) interpretation of just preferring not to do anything and also preferring not to explain why.

Ah Bartleby! Ah Melville! Ah humanity!

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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