Published October 18, 2019 in Warp & Woof
“I Prefer Not To”
Bartleby and Late Stage Capitalism
Herman Melville published his short story “Bartleby the Scrivener — a Tale of Wall Street” in 1853. It has been a staple of high school AP English classes and undergrad American Lit survey courses for at least sixty of those 160+ years.
I last read it as a college sophomore in such a class. That was more than 50 years ago. Something made me want to revisit Bartleby recently. It was probably that resonating statement of freedom that is the iconic Bartleby quote: “I prefer not to.” While there are endless life situations where one might think of Bartleby and his resistance, the one that comes to mind today is the movement of (mostly) young people to resist the dominance of capitalism in every aspect of their lives. Incur crushing student debt, says Wall Street, “I prefer not to” say many young people. Accept medical bankruptcy if you incur a serious health condition, “I prefer not to” say many with inadequate insurance coverage. Vote for the candidates we select for you, “I prefer not to” said many in 2016.
As a short story, Bartleby’s structure is perfect. There is a protagonist (the narrator, a successful corporate lawyer with Wall Street office), a symbolic foil (Bartleby himself, I maintain) and three secondary characters who are Bartleby’s coworkers in the narrator’s law office. There is setup – the narrator is hiring another scrivener (copyist, in the age before typewriters or copying machines); plot development — tension between Bartleby and narrator over work requirements; climax – where narrator is forced to move his office to escape Bartleby; denouement — Bartleby’s ultimate death — and conclusion, where the narrator tells us what he learned of Bartleby’s past (not previously revealed).
Although industrious in his copying, any further request from narrator/employer to do anything special or perform any service outside his standard routine is always met with some variation on Bartleby’s classic line, “I prefer not to.” The narrator does not fire Bartleby, although he is sorely tempted to, due primarily to his own sense of charity and fairness. The virtue-signaling narrator is an inveterate liberal. His employees, Bartleby included, are prisoners in cubicles (called “screens” in mid-19th century office layouts) but he is convinced that he has their best interests at heart, so long as it doesn’t interfere too much with his easy life.
The reader asks as the story progresses: “Why doesn’t he fire Bartleby?” The answer becomes clearer as you continue to read. It is a paradox – the nut of the story. Therein lies the best modern interpretation for a timeless work of literature. Bartleby’s alienation increases:
“The next day … Bartleby did nothing but stand at his window in his dead-wall revery”.
Bartleby, unlike his three coworkers, appears not to want to socialize, but only to stare “in revery” out a small window overlooking nothing more than the “black brick wall” next door. Both narrator and coworkers become more aware of Bartleby’s disturbed state-of-mind. Coworkers tend to make fun of him, the narrator pities him. Bartleby, you see, is homeless. He eats and sleeps in the office with a blanket “rolled up under his desk,” on an old sofa. He is alone. No family. No friends. He prefers it not be this way but is powerless to change it. Very sad.
“It was his soul that suffered, and his soul I could not reach.”
Bartleby does have a profound effect on the narrator. His occupationof the office begins to drive the narrator to distraction. Yet, this employer persists in doing what seems humane and continuously tries to reason with Bartleby. One critic, shortly after Occupy Wall Street and Zucotti Park, wrote that the OWS movement was inspired by Bartleby, using the occupy trope as their symbolic resistance to capitalism. This was, indeed, Bartleby’s strategy. Bartleby was a resistor. The narrator could do nothing about him, except try to accommodate him. He failed in this objective.
In exasperation, the narrator is forced to move his office to a new address. This leaves Bartleby continuing to occupy the building even with its new tenants. He sits on the bannister of the entrance foyer – having no “screen” any more in the office. He cannot be removed. The new tenants, fellow professionals known to the narrator, implore him to try harder to remove Bartleby. The narrator tries, weakly, but is inclined to wash his hands of the entire matter – to abandon labor. Among other things, he is afraid of what the “papers” will say. Ultimately left at the mercy of the less liberal new tenants, Bartleby is sent to the Tombs as a vagrant.
“Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.”
Bartleby dies in the Tombs, presumably of starvation – he “prefers” not to eat. This, despite the “Grub-man” receiving a bribe from our narrator to provide Bartleby with better food. Liberal amelioration of conditions fails. Resistance overcomes it. Resistance unto death – it was a hunger strike.
We learn in the conclusion of the story that Bartleby came with a history of working in the “dead letter office” in Washington. He was let go in a “change of administration” (before civil service). There he sorted undeliverable letters, often to dead people, for burning. The narrator attributes Bartleby’s “cadaverous” demeanor to that sorrowful previous job.
The timelessness of Bartleby comes from the myriad symbols and interpretations given to the story. Its language is plain for the time yet encompasses much of the human condition – Bartleby’s ghostly presence, the narrator’s sense of charity, his reluctance to confront social approbation, the question of responsibility for Bartleby, and Bartleby’s alienation from his labor. All these themes are valid, and they point to the inexorable dominance of an employer (owner) over employees (workers), and how those workers can force change by simply stating their “preference” and refusing to move – “occupying” the workplace. The General Motors sit-down strikes of the 1930s come to mind, the birth of American industrial unions.
I found no evidence that Melville was aware of his German contemporaries, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but there is some evidence to support the reverse (especially Engels from his time in England?) – the soul-crushing job of the scrivener has since been replaced by machines, as it was in the English textile mills of Engels. Bartleby is alienated from his labor, even as he is impelled to repeat it daily. He insists he “prefers not to” do any additional tasks for his capitalist employer. Alienation is clearly an important theme of the story, as with 20thcentury existentialist literature. Melville was not a Marxist, but perhaps Marx and Engels had some American literary inspiration?
The closing line of the story is — “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”