Bartleby, the Scrivener | The right to dissent
When a Wall Street lawyer asks Bartleby, his new employee, to do some additional work, he meets a polite, but decisive refusal: he “would prefer not to”. His defiance is quiet but unmovable, and has become emblematic of a mode of being and living that, after 170 years, still feels contemporary.
Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street was first published in 1853 and is one of the most famous short stories by American author Herman Melville. Born in New York in 1819, Melville is best known for his masterpiece Moby-Dick which, at the time of publication, was greeted with some unfavorable reviews. Bartleby, the Scrivener is, in a way, also a response to the pressure society puts on writers.
Defined as flawless and ambiguous by The Independent, this novella inspired plays, operas, radio series, and movies. Five film adaptations were released; the last of these came out in 2001, directed by Jonathan Parker and starring Crispin Glover as Bartleby and David Paymer as his boss.
Cultural references do not stop here. Different authors have referred to Bartleby, the Scrivener or its famous line in their works, such as Abdulrazak Gurnah in By the Sea. The British weekly newspaper The Economist has a column called Bartleby, while the Occupy Wall Street movement chose “I would prefer not to” as one of their slogans.
A plot that defies simple interpretations
The plot has a linear structure, with one main setting and a limited number of characters. Apart from Bartleby and his boss, two other clerks work in the office, Turkey and Nippers. The author describes them as eccentric but somehow balancing each other in their peculiarities: if Turkey loses his concentration and temper mostly in the afternoon, Nippers seems to be irritable and nervous only in the morning. The arrival of Bartleby constitutes a break in this equilibrium.
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.”
As the story proceeds, Bartleby increasingly “prefers not to” work, thus quietly defying his boss, his colleagues, and, in general, any expectations put upon him by society. He remains a mysterious figure till the end, quiet and almost invisible, were it not for his continuous rejections to do anything. He even refuses to move from the building once his boss sells the office space. Moreover, after he goes to jail for vagrancy, he does not accept any offer of help, and finally dies of self-neglect.
The very ambiguity that characterises Bartleby has given rise to different interpretations. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, this short story reflects Melville’s pessimism during a critical time in his career. However, moving beyond a biographical reading of the work, critics have offered psychological, philosophical or even political analyses of its characters. The American writer and Professor of Literature Louise Barnett, for example, sees Bartleby as the prototype of the alienated worker; others, such as the literary critic Sanford Pinsker, suggest that the lawyer’s first-person narration offers a limited and biased view of the events.
The Great Resignation
Although written in the 1850s, the story told in Bartleby, the Scrivener still feels modern. Especially in the digital age, which values skills such as speed and multi-tasking, neglecting one’s own well-being is not so uncommon, as the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han examined in his essay The Burnout Society.
Bartleby, however, does not only exemplify neglect and lack of care. He is also representative of those who prefer not to work overtime and not to take any extra responsibilities, but choose to do the minimum effort needed to keep their job. This phenomenon, which significantly increased after the Covid-19 pandemic, is known as quiet quitting, and results from a concern for one’s own well-being, a shift in priorities, or the desire to achieve the right work-life balance.
A related occurrence is that called the Great Resignation, a term indicating the high number of workers quitting or changing their job since the beginning of the pandemic. The main causes seem to be unsupportive work environments, callous employers or a desire to feel more valued as a worker. If Bartleby does not actually want to quit his job, he does not want to comply with his boss’ expectations either. In that sense, his defiance is still emblematic of a way of being in the world.