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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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In "Bartleby the Scrivner," why does Bartleby refuse to do what his boss asks? What is the significance of his refusal? Why does the lawyer not fire him in the beginning?

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First of all, Bartleby does not exactly "refuse" his work; instead, he repeatedly insists that he "prefers" not to do it. At first Bartleby "gorges himself" on his work and labors "silent, palely, mechanically." It is never clear why Bartleby's attitude toward his work changes—his motives are ambiguous, and this ambiguity is a big part of what makes Melville's story so compelling. The narrator (Bartleby's boss, the lawyer) tells us that he has discovered one clue to the mystery of Bartleby's behavior—that he once worked in a "Dead Letter Office," dealing with mail that never arrived at its destination. The narrator suggests that this could indicate that Bartleby is haunted by this soul-crushing experience.

However, Melville's choice to tell the story of Bartleby from the narrator's perspective is crucial. Arguably the story is as much about the narrator's reaction to Bartleby as it is about the mysterious scrivener himself. The narrator tells us he would have fired Bartleby right away "had there been any thing ordinarily human about him." He keeps him on partly because he is perplexed by him and later because he pities him and identifies an opportunity to be good and charitable. The story traces the evolution of the narrator's feelings about Bartleby and his own personal responsibility toward him.

Certainly the story can be read through the lens of psychology, and Bartleby can be considered depressed or otherwise struggling with mental illness. In addition, from the psychological perspective, we can analyze the narrator's own rationalizing of his behavior and spot the narcissism in his moments of magnanimity. But we can also read the story as a critique of office work during the burgeoning period of American capitalism. The narrator often understands his employees through their relative value and sets Bartleby up in a position where he is available to him when he needs him and invisible to him otherwise.

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Bartleby starts off as an exemplary worker. As the narrator, his boss, explains:

At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light.

Then, suddenly, Bartleby decides he "prefers not to" do his work. At first, it seems he burned himself out temporarily with overwork, but as it happens, his condition of "prefer[ring] not to" work becomes permanent.

On the first two occasions when Bartleby states his preference not to work, there is something in his quiet demeanor that is so odd that the narrator doesn't push him, though he says he would ordinarily have been very upset. The first time, too, the narrator is in a hurry, so he lets the incident pass.

Although he never knows exactly why Bartleby stops working, the narrator finds out at the end that Bartleby once worked for the Dead Letter Office, a place where lost letters end up. The narrator speculates that there...

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was something so depressing about the futility of missed communication that the work broke Bartleby's spirit, making all effort seem futile.

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Bartleby doesn't refuse to do work: He prefers not to. The problem is that instead of firing Bartleby, the narrator reacts in astonishment the first time he gets that response. Whenever he is asked why he won't do the work, the only answer Bartleby gives is, "I prefer not to." The only answer we can come up with for the refusal, then, is that he just doesn't want to do it.

Bartleby is like a man I used to work with. When our office upgraded from paper and pencil to desktop computers, he rebelled in a Bartleby-like way. Rather than move his monitor away from the window or ask for an antiglare screen, he opened an umbrella over his desk to cut the glare. When told he couldn't do that, he started wearing sunglasses in the office. My former coworker was used to editing a hard copy manuscript with a colored pencil. He had a hard time adjusting to the new technology. Likewise, Bartleby is fine as long as all he has to do is copy what his boss has written. When asked to do something different, he just can't--or doesn't want to--adjust.

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Although Bartleby never explains why he has refused to do work, Melville gives us many clues.  The best of these clues comes on the last page, when we learn that Bartleby had worked in the dead letters office.  This office is symbolic of the lack of connection and communication between people who are caught up in a society devoted to work.  The narrator and his employees are not friends; they do not share life together.  This is emphasized by the fact that the narrator only refers to them by nicknames, as if he doesn't know or doesn't care about their real names.  They are employees only - not friends.  The narrator himself isn't known by a name - he is only the lawyer.  Again, he is known by his job, not who he is as an individual.

The depressing nature of the dead letters office seems to have seeped into Bartleby by the time he comes to work for the narrator.  He has no life outside work - he doesn't even seem to have a home outside work.  However, he must have realized how pointless the work is; just like the time put into those dead letters had become pointless.  And so, he starts to refuse to do things.  Bartleby has found work to be insignificant.  And because he has nothing but work, he will soon find life to be insignificant.  By refusing to do the work, he is making a stand against a society that has placed so much importance on it.  Unfortunately, he is also dooming himself.

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