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Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street

by Herman Melville

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How does Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" disrupt the lawyer's office routine?

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Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" is disturbing to others, but his response raises the question of why anyone would respond differently to an irrational job.

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Bartleby’s response does upset his lawyer employer, although his fellow employees, Nipper, Turkey, and Gingernut, are hardly without their eccentricities as well. It always struck me as odd that doing nothing, which is what Bartleby prefers to do, is so abhorrent. Bartleby alone seems to grasp the ridiculousness of not only his job (to laboriously make hand written copies of legal documents), but of the whole business of existing as a subject with a personal history, place to live, and the rest.

I think that the effect of this negation, particularly on the part of the narrator, is to create a kind of crisis of conscience. As the narrator says, “nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance,” and Bartleby is nothing if not passive. Unable to make Bartleby do anything using his usual methods, the narrator decides to show compassion: “Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.” The attitude sums up the relevance of Christian charity for someone like Bartleby, who is, simply, beyond reach: the lawyer’s kindliness toward him is all about ”self-approval” and easing his own conscience. Ultimately, the effect of Bartleby’s opting out of life is to raise the question of why anyone would opt in.

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When Bartleby begins his automatic response "I would prefer not to," the lawyer can not believe it. What makes the lawyer bewildered and unable to discipline or fire him is how calm and confidently Bartleby utters this phrase: 

Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. 

Bartleby refuses again and again. The lawyer asks Nippers what he thinks and Nippers says Bartleby should be kicked out of the office. Nippers is typically more irritable in the morning, less so in the afternoon. Turkey has the opposite tendencies. However, both of them are affected by Bartleby's behavior and annoyed at having to do his work: 

. . . at every page or two, Turkey deferentially dropped his opinion that this proceeding was quite out of the common; while Nippers, twitching in his chair with a dyspeptic nervousness, ground out between his set teeth occasional hissing maledictions against the stubborn oaf behind the screen. 

The lawyer is frustrated with Bartleby but is also sympathetic to him, thinking that his odd behavior is involuntary. Days later, in the afternoon (when Turkey is more irritable and Nippers is more agreeable), the lawyer calls on them again to do Bartleby's work. Turkey wants to beat Barletby up and Nippers, calm in the afternoon, replies with calm professionalism: 

I think his conduct quite unusual, and indeed unjust, as regards Turkey and myself. But it may only be a passing whim. 

Bartleby's behavior only upsets the worker who's in a foul mood. If it is morning, Nippers is upset; if it is afternoon, it is Turkey who gets angry. 

The lawyer decides to live with Bartleby's eccentricities. When he finds that Bartleby has been living in the office, he is filled with melancholy and sympathy, but then annoyance once again. During another morning, Nippers loses his temper again. Turkey calmly suggests that ale might help Bartleby snap out of his odd behavior. The lawyer notices that he and the other workers have begun to use the word "prefer" without realizing it. 

Eventually, Bartleby refuses to do anything. The lawyer tries to fire him but he won't leave. The lawyer is so confounded and unsure of what to do that he decides to move his office closer to City Hall. Bartleby has disrupted their routine so much that the lawyer sees no other humane alternative than to move the entire business somewhere else. 

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