What is meant when one says, "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" is a manifesto of political resistance?

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amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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"Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tall of Wall Street" is open to so many interpretations. It can certainly be interpreted as a manifesto of political and/or social resistance. Consider the details. Bartleby is refusing to copy legal documents. Ergo, he refuses to continue to produce documents which enforce legal precedents and applications of the law. Bartleby is quite literally "preferring not to" help carry on the mechanisms of the legal system into the future. The legal system is an extension of government. 

In a more general sense, Bartleby is refusing to participate in society as a worker, as a social being (he's ceased making meaningful communication other than refusing to work), and as a citizen who plays by the rules of economy and authority figures in the workplace. It is a complete refusal to perform his job, his so called "role" in society. In abandoning society and society's expectations of him, Bartleby is abandoning his society's principles and this includes his society's political beliefs and practices as they relate to all aspects of social life. 

There is one overt historical clue that provides evidence that this story is a manifesto resisting political and economic structures. In the first few pages of the story, the lawyer brags about one of his former employers: 

I do not speak it in vanity, but simply record the fact, that I was not unemployed in my profession by the late John Jacob Astor; a name which, I admit, I love to repeat, for it hath a rounded and orbicular sound to it, and rings like unto bullion. 

The name Astor is not mentioned again but the reader might presume Bartleby could have heard this from the bragging lawyer or from one of the other workers. John Jacob Astor was the first multi-millionaire in the United States. The lawyer benefited from Astor. If Bartleby is resisting politics and economics in general, he's certainly going to refuse to work for someone who's associated with Astor, who achieved success by using the social, political, and economic systems Bartleby is rebelling against. 

Keep in mind that this degree of subversive or rebellious activity is, to varying degrees, a rejection of social and personal roles; a rejection of a society's proposed "ways" of life. Those personal and social roles are endorsed and/or conditioned by social authorities. These authorities include business people, politicians, lawyers, and others in charge of social institutions. What makes this story so open to interpretation is the guesswork critics have had to make in order to suppose just what aspects of society Bartleby is rebelling against. Perhaps he's rebelling against one or two, or maybe them all. But in general, to rebel so absolutely, one could argue that he's rebelling against society as a whole. And since political ideology plays a significant role in the formation of social realities and roles, Bartleby is resisting the political ideologies which condition those roles. 


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