This is in regards to "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street."  Why does Bartleby always say, "I prefer not"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"Bartleby the Scrivener" was written in 1853. C. G. Jung did not coin the terms "introversion" and "extraversion" until approximately 1921 in his book Psychological Types, in which he states:

The two types [introverts and extraverts] are so different and present such a striking contrast that their existence becomes quite obvious even to the layman once it has been pointed out. Everyone knows those reserved, inscrutable, rather shy people who form the strongest possible contrast to the open, sociable, jovial, or at least friendly and approachable characters who are on good terms with everybody, or quarrel with everybody, but always relate to them in some way and in turn are affected by them.

Introverts, however, had always existed, which explains why Jung's terminology won immediate acceptance into common language. Herman Melville's character Bartleby is an extreme example of an introvert. He has chosen the ideal occupation because it enables him to work alone. One of the most striking characteristics of introverts is that they prefer the kind of vocation that enables them to work by themselves.

It is noteworthy that whenever Bartleby tells his employer "I prefer not to" it is invariably because he does not want to work or interact with anyone else. The narrator describes the first occasion when this happens as follows:

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do--namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprie, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, "I would prefer not to."

"Prefer not to," echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. "What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here--take it," and I thrust it towards him.

"I would prefer not to," said he.

On the next occasion, Bartleby has "concluded four lengthy documents, being quadruplicates of a week's testimony taken before me in my High Court of Chancery," and his employer calls in Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut to help him proofread all the documents. He himself intends to read the original, and he calls to Bartleby to come and read the fourth copy.

"I would prefer not to," he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen.

If Bartleby did not want to work with his employer in proofreading a single document, he certainly would abhore the thought of working with four men. Bartleby is a caricature of an extreme introvert-- before the word existed. He not only does not wish to interact with his employer or his fellow employees, but he prefers not to run errands which will take him into the bustle of the outside world or to answer the narrator's questions about his personal life. When the narrator asks: "Will you tell me any thing about yourself?" Bartleby replies, "I would prefer not to." To stay inside his shell is another characteristic of the introvert.

All the other characters in the story, including the narrator himself, are obvious extraverts. Melville apparently created them as such in order to have them serve as foils to Bartleby and highlight his extreme introversion. He forms

...the strongest possible contrast to the open, sociable, jovial, or at least friendly and approachable characters who are on good terms with everybody, or quarrel with everybody, but always relate to them in some way and in turn are affected by them.


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neneta | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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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.

According to these sentences, the reader feels sympathy for the narrator, even though he confesses that he has never been an ambitious person. Instead, he has opted for a peaceful and honest life, which main goal would be to become a good professional. He is surrounding by two scriveners and an office boy. Since they do their jobs well the narrator pretends not to notice their peculiarities, to avoid unnecessary conflicts.

Then he employs Bartleby that seems efficient and always concentrated on his work, until the day he stops working and his attitude becomes very strange. He repeats, “I prefer not” whatever question or task he is asked to do. One probable explanation may be his apathy and denial. In fact, his “I prefer not” becomes more frequent and may suggest the process of being mad. Another reason for his ”I prefer not” is that he is trying to enter in an enclosed world for himself. Furthermore, closing his eyes to his surroundings suggests that he does not want to have any more contact with people. He undergoes a long process, but finally when he dies, he might have accomplished his goal.

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