• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #224: Bartleby the Scrivener


No one cares what you prefer.

Herman Melville wrote Bartleby, The Scrivener: A Short Story of Wall Street in 1853. It is the tale of a nonentity, an office clerk who is clearly capable of excellent work but whose production dwindles accompanied by his repeated line, "I would prefer not to." His elected inaction befuddles the narrator, his boss (much as Peter's determined apathy stymies Lumbergh in Office Space), and eventually Bartleby isn't just failing to work but is sleeping in the office, apparently never leaving even while doing nothing, and meeting all exhortations to do anything with that same line, "I would prefer not to." In the end, Bartleby is taken to prison, where he dies because he prefers not to eat.


This tale has always fascinated me, dating back to - I think - sophomore year in high school when it was an assigned reading. There are no shortage of interpretations of Melville's story, some of which may be as relevant today as they were a century and a half ago. In the 1850s, America was very much in the grip of both an industrial and an economic revolution, and increasingly men were divorced from meaningful, satisfying labor, becoming cogs in a vast wheel rather than independent farmers or tradesmen. Bartleby, a clerk in a law office on Wall Street, copies over documents. He is a living Xerox machine (not unlike Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol), and this soul-deadening work deadens his soul. Even though he is good at his work, he is utterly replaceable, an interchangeable part in the great machine of industry. Some critics have observed that Bartleby is depressed; others argue that his stated preference not to write the same thing over and over represents Melville's frustration with the life of a commercial author, trading creativity for predictability (see: Patterson, James). Bartleby is isolated, something Melville alludes to repeatedly with images of cubicle walls and other literary devices, and that isolation is central to life as a working-man in modern society. It's why so many of us seek fulfilling connections outside our paying gigs, with family or social media or the local watering hole. Bartleby does none of this. He simply taps out, choosing not to play the game any more, and is slowly ground into nothing.


The narrator's closing line - "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" - is a chilling reminder that each of us is fundamentally alone, easily replaceable, and that even our choices are illusions.

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