Herman Melvilles Bartleby the Scrivener is perhaps more relevant today than when he wrote it in 1853. Bartleby is the account of a talented young scrivener who possesses great talent and potential in his career of duplicating and composing documents. The tale takes us to the upscale Wall Street area of New York City, among the buildings and law offices of the city. The young Bartleby is thrown into the typical office drudgery associated with the type of employment he was seeking. The theme of the story questions why we do, what we do, when we go to work. Also the question of why do we feel certain things are just expected of oneself when we choose to enter employment.
When Bartleby took the job of a scrivener it was understood that in addition to recording documents, one also is responsible for the editing and proofreading of their own and others work. However, Bartleby had different expectations for himself and his work. Bartlebys behavior questions all that is thought to be universal behavior while at work. Bartleby worked very hard, never taking breaks or even going home. These aspects of Bartleby were viewed as peculiar by his superior and coworkers, but were not undesirable traits. Bartleby also kept to himself most of the time, and did not get involved with office politics or affairs. Like many new employees, Bartleby had a small shared office near the boss so that he could be monitored.
A comparison to life by todays office employees trapped in small cubicles could be made. The feeling of privacy is not there, and one could almost feel overwhelmed with only with their work and a small desk. These conditions may have weighed heavily on Bartleby, causing him to not feel very sociable with the others in the office. The life of drudgery as a scrivener grew weary on Bartleby. The odd behavior expressed by Bartleby continued until one day in a act of rebellion he said the words; I would prefer not to.
He was referring to the request by his boss the edit his copy. The boss, shocked by this insubordinate behavior and politely asked again, and drew the same response from Bartleby; I would prefer not to. His boss assumed this was a temporary problem with Bartleby and assumed that it would pass in a day or so. His coworkers viewed his action as very odd, and even suggested as loony by one worker. His phrase now consumed every conversation he had with those in the office.
His standard response to a request by someone in his office was; I would prefer not to. These words of defiance eventually led to Bartlebys dismissal from his job, and when asked to leave he refused to. This eventually led to his boss being forced to abandon his office in that building and move to another. His boss felt this would end all of his problems with Bartleby and he could go on with his life and business. However, Bartleby could not leave his mind.
He was puzzled by the entire situation. The phrase, I would prefer not to., is not accepted in the workplace of then or today. It is understood that while we are at work certain things are expected of you, regardless of what you would rather do. When Bartleby spoke those words he went against all that is assumed by being employed. Bartleby carefully chose his words when being defiant.
If he would have simply said no, it would be viewed as plain ignorance. However, the phrase; I would prefer not to. implies that he had put thought into his response and has reason to be defiant. In the todays world of disgruntled employees taking machine guns to work to solve problems, it would be interesting to see if speaking the words of Bartleby the Scrivener would be just as effective.