The Bartleby Decision

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street
by Herman Melville (1819-1891)

“Some few great stories have the peculiar power that comes from the presence of an intense, isolated, single insight. By the brilliance of their narrow image, they extend far beyond the actual plot of the story and throw a concentrated light upon the human condition generally.”

Bartleby demonstrates Melville’s skill at both telling a sad story and at the same time doing so with such skill that he both delights and entertains the reader. The irony of this essay is that although Melville’s narrator viewed the Bartleby character as “the strangest I ever saw, or heard of,” we chose Bartleby precisely because his behavior is so common as to be universal in our human community, an “Everyman” in P-B.

A scrivener is a “law-copyist,” necessary in the 19th century before copy machines, who hand-copied legal documents like mortgages and title deeds. The narrator of the story describes himself as an “elderly man” and a lawyer and does business, as the sub-title of this short story indicates, in what is now lower Manhattan with an office on Wall Street.

As the story begins, the lawyer/storyteller’s business has picked up and he hires a third scrivener “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn! It was Bartleby.” Bartleby turned out to be an industrious copyist but that is all. To ensure the accuracy of copies was crucial in legal documents and it was common that the original be read while the other scriveners followed along on their copies to ensure that no errors in copying had been made. When asked to do this Bartleby’s reply was always “I prefer not to.”

When asked to run errands, relate something of his history or circumstances or to refrain from occupying the office premises 24-7, having no other place to live, his reply was always the same—“I prefer not to.”

To ascertain that his requests were not unreasonable, Bartleby’s employer appealed to the other copyists and the office errand boy for their opinions.

“Turkey,” said I, “what do you think of this? Am I not right?”

“With submission, sir,” said Turkey, in his blandest tone, “I think that you are.”

“Nippers,” said I, “what do you of it?”

“I think I should kick him out of the office.”

“Ginger Nut,” said I, willing to enlist the smallest suffrage in my behalf, “what do you think of it?”

“I think sir, he’s a little luny,” replied Ginger Nut with a grin.

In the end the lawyer succumbed to this passive resistance and concluded that his eccentricities could be tolerated.

“He is useful to me. I can get along with him.”

After discovering that Bartleby was living on the premises, causing critical comments from visiting lawyers, and finally when Bartleby refused to do any more copying and was simply standing beside his desk, ghostlike, staring out the window at the brick wall across the narrow alleyway, his boss concluded:

“The time has come; you must quit this place; I am sorry for you; here is money; but you must go.”

“I would prefer not to” he replied, with his back still towards me.

“You must.”

He remained silent.

Bartleby defied conventional explanations. Initially, with a superficial examination, his obstinate refusals could be rationalized or could be overlooked and perhaps more would be learned that would place his quirky refusals within the boundaries of eccentric but not insane behavior. But as his story progressed, we would learn that beneath the façade of unhealthy habits lurked a kind of madness.

Bartleby’s employer was finally driven to the point of imagining violence in ejecting Bartleby but he remembered the injunction of Jesus. “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” He seemed to take a deep breath, count to ten, and allow his better nature to emerge. He chose compassion.

“Men have committed murder for jealousy’s sake, and anger’s sake, and hatred’s sake, and selfishness’ sake, and spiritual pride’s sake; but no man that ever I heard of, ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity’s sake. Poor fellow, poor fellow! Thought I, he don’t mean anything; and besides, he has seen hard times, and ought to be indulged.”

The saga continues. Utterly exasperated the lawyer finally discharges Bartleby but remaining sympathetic offers to help him find other employment.

“No; I would prefer not to make any change,” was Bartleby’s predictable reply.

Upon returning from a short excursion into the countryside, the narrator finds that his landlord has not been as indulgent of Bartleby as he had been and has had Bartleby hauled off to prison.

What finally happened to Bartleby given his behavior as I have revealed it thus far? We might as well ask, what will happen to humanity given our behavior as we know it thus far? Are we now staring at the walls of a prison of our own making? Have we chosen, as Bartleby had, to be paralyzed by our fears? Have we reached a point where we have a critical decision to make, a crucial choice that will determine what our future will be? What will that decision be? I suspect that for most of us it will be the Bartleby decision: “I would prefer not to make any change.”

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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