Bartleby the Scrivener

The Preference Not To: A Study of Passive Resistance in Herman Melville’s “Bartelby the Scrivener” College

Herman Melville uses the concept of identity to highlight certain features of the characters in his short story Bartelby the Scrivener. The character of Bartelby illuminates the narrator’s unexplained feelings of innate compassion and pity through his actions of passive resistance.

Bartelby’s mantra, “I would prefer not to,” suggests powerful implications of blatant defiance while giving the illusion of only a polite refusal. While typically it is unnatural for an employee to have the freedom to exercise personal choice within the workplace and so obviously not conform to the status quo, Bartelby’s outright rebellion is masked by the polite nature of his defiance. On the surface, the scrivener’s repeated use of this phrase seems as non-threatening as the manner in which he carries himself, perhaps being the reason the narrator continuously excuses his complete lack of obedience. The word choice of the repeated refusal also evokes the question as to what Bartelby would prefer to do, if anything at all, further pointing towards a form of blatant defiance rather than one of just simple preference. After Bartelby utters, “I would prefer not to,” the narrator challenges him by questioning, “You will not?” which in turn elicits the...

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