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Alex Norton

Dr. Kleinman

English 1B

November 24, 2009

I Would Prefer

Herman Melville's story of Bartleby the Scrivener bears a remarkable distinction that contrasts

itself to a typical tale beginning in those three title words. While anyone would easily assume that a

story bearing the name of a character within its title would rest its center of attention primarily on them,

Bartleby is not the true focus of this story. The real main character, and the subject of Melville's work is

our peculiarly anonymous narrator. While our scrivener subject of the title's fame is undoubtedly not

lacking in character and his own unique nature, he is not the character that is truly shared with us.

Throughout Melville's story it is the lawyer narrator who is open to us, and it is through his mind that

we see into the world penned by Melville, as we share in his thoughts, and experience a first hand

account of his response to the people around him. As Todd Davis put it, “if we contend we know

anything of Bartleby, it is only what the narrator knows of Bartleby,” and it is through our narrating

lawyer that we are given our chance to experience Bartleby first hand. We are opened up to the world

shared between these two men, and as a result of this interaction between our narrator and his scrivener,

we are granted an opportunity to gain an understanding of the underlying statement that Melville has

made. He has shown us a surprisingly powerful connection between our lawyer narrator and Bartleby

that exists in an almost entirely contradictory situation, and in so he is telling us that there can be more

to compassion and a human connection than we might understand, and that such a bond can potentially

be beyond our ability to control.

As Davis recounts the initial phase of Melville's story, “Before the appearance of Bartleby, by
the narrator's own admission, he has not struggled with the ethics of justice, of good and evil; rather, he

makes his way in this world comfortable by dealing with the physical, the tangible, that which he can

know.” The narrator describes himself, speaking of his eminently safe life in which he rigorously seeks

to avoid turbulence, and the image is drawn of a man who would opt out of glory for his own sense of

snug security. This thought is made clearly apparent from our narrator's declaration, “I am a man who,

from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the

best.”. Melville's narrator is a man who had gleefully chosen to exist without conflict before the fateful

day in which Bartleby stepped into his life. That day however, would completely disrupt our narrator's

entire carefully planned existence.

“I would prefer not to,” (23) words that form a simple declaration that we all might each hear in

our every day life, a phrase not to be given a second thought, and yet as any reader of Melville's story

could tell you this simple statement becomes something far greater within the life of our lawyer

narrator. It is this declaration spoken by Bartleby that gives our narrator his first genuine conflict, and it

is Bartleby's absolute dedication to his such preference that begins the process of dismantling our

lawyer narrator's blissful security. It begins as a simple refusal to a request from a boss to his employee,

and transforms Bartleby into a man defined by his preference. He prefers not to work on one task or the

next, before he soon opts out of working entirely, yet all the while Melville's narrator begins to develop

an almost equally peculiar reaction to Bartleby. Thomas Dilworth notes that “the lawyer goes to

extreme lengths to accommodate Bartleby” and from Bartleby's first opposing preference forward this

holds true. In regards to his abandonment of work, the lawyer offers Bartleby his due salary and an

additional 20 dollars, yet he prefers against that as well. He prefers not to leave his office at all, and the

lawyer opts to allow him to remain, yet even that is taken a step further. The lawyer, unwilling to

include police assistance, decides to move his entire office away from Bartleby until he is called back

in complaint from new tenants. He even goes as far as allowing Bartleby to reside within his house to
make further arrangements, yet all the while Bartleby continues to state time and again in reply to any

suggestion that he simply would prefer not. The lawyer narrator's positive response to Bartleby is

almost absurd, until you begin to consider what the narrator might see in Bartleby.

The lawyer narrator lived his entire existence devoid of conflict at every opportunity before his

fated meeting with his peculiar new employee. He would by complete conviction, opt out of anything if

it would result in turmoil, and yet here he was faced with a man so willing to stand by his values that he

would turn complete irreverence to the world around him. Bartleby did not care about money, a job or

even a place to live, and this was beyond startling to a man like Melville's narrator, as these are all the

things that he holds dear. He locked himself of his own free will into a gilded cage of security, and

abandoned upholding any value that might disrupt his eminent safety, while Bartleby was a man

constrained by nothing, and willing to sacrifice everything to uphold his belief. The lawyer narrator

could not see this man hold so strongly to his values and be turned away. He might be deeply unaware,

but our lawyer narrator loved Bartleby for the man that he could never be.

Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener is a story of an unseen triumph. While the reason for

Bartleby's disrupting preference is never blatantly given, It did have one significant result. The mind of

our lawyer narrator was opened to a world outside his cage, even if it was for one fleeting span of time.

Melville has also given us a chance to open our minds to a true human connection, opening ourselves

to the strengths of one another, and to the compassion shared between one man and his scrivener.
Doloff, Steven. "The Prudent Samaritan: Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' as Parody of Christ's

Parable to the Lawyer." Studies in Short Fiction 34.3 (1997): 357. Expanded Academic ASAP.. 24 Nov.


Davis, Todd F. "The Narrator's Dilemma in 'Bartleby the Scrivener': The Excellently Illustrated Re-

statement of a Problem." Studies in Short Fiction 34.2 (1997): 183. Expanded Academic ASAP. 24 Nov.