“I would prefer not to.”
These words, uttered again and again by the titular figure in Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, comprise a riddle that torments today’s literary critics just as surely as they torment the Manhattan lawyer who serves as the novella’s narrator. According to Professor Arnold Weinstein, whose Coursera offering I have been enjoying very much these past three weeks, the postmodern consensus is that Bartleby isn’t even a character – the copyist who would prefer not to is either a metaphysical challenge to a lawyer’s humanity or a symbol of the death of storytelling. These readings are certainly justified. One cannot behold Bartleby standing inert in the middle of the office “like the last column of some deserted temple” without imagining him as an object or a symbol; this is a person who cares so little for himself that he starves to death after deciding that he would prefer not to eat.
Yet at the end of the day, postmodern readings aside, Bartleby is a man. He is a man who can suffer and die. He is a man who came from somewhere, and like the narrator we wish we knew where. His annoying but ultimately sympathetic behavior prompts a grizzled old Wall Street pragmatist to recall his Christian upbringing:
But when this old Adam of resentment rose in me and tempted me concerning Bartleby, I grappled him and threw him. How? Why, simply by recalling the divine injunction: “A new commandment give I unto you, that ye love one another.” Yes, this was what saved me. Aside from higher considerations, charity often operates as a vastly wise and prudent principle – a great safeguard to its possessor…Mere self-interest, then, if no better motive can be enlisted, should, especially with high-tempered men, prompt all beings to charity and philanthropy. At any rate, upon the occasion in question, I strove to drown my exasperated feelings towards the scrivener by benevolently construing his conduct. Poor fellow, poor fellow! thought I, he don’t mean anything; and besides, he has seen hard times, and ought to be indulged.
Note how the narrator scrambles for a utilitarian explanation for his acts of mercy, but lets slip that his motives are emotional, even religious. Postmodernists should reexamine this passage, especially the moment when Melville reminds us that Bartleby is a “poor fellow” who “don’t mean anything.” There’s a lot of the metaphysical in our scrivener, just as there is a lot of the metaphysical in Melville’s other great creation, Captain Ahab, but if Melville had wanted to write philosophy he would have done so. The story hinges of Bartleby’s eccentric humanity, which is humanity nonetheless. The last lines of the novella are “Oh Bartleby! Oh humanity!” for chrissakes.
I would also argue that while you cannot have a crush on an idea, you can have a crush on a character, and I have a crush on Bartleby.
Melville describes Bartleby as thin (“cadaverous” by the end of the story) with a pale face, gray eyes, and a neat, forlorn manner of dress. He walks through life in eerie tranquility, keeping his thoughts to himself – so unlike me! Everything about him is attractive, from the tidy austerity of his living situation to his passive resistance to the very principles of capitalism. It would be impossible to have a relationship with Bartleby – “Dear, the gutters are clogged. Can you clean them this weekend?” “I would prefer not to” – but one imagines creeping into the office to embrace him on the surely uncomfortable sofa where he sleeps at night…although I would’t put it past him to respond to any and all advances with “I would prefer not to.”
Bartleby is the remedy to the literary crushes women always seem to have on fictional men like Mr. Darcy, Edward Cullen, Heathcliff, and Christian Grey, who are rich, temperamental, commanding, and even violent. Bartleby has none of their wolfish bluster, but he quietly changes everything. When a 19th century lawyer encounters him, he is forced to lay down his pragmatism and confront the mysteries of human relationships. When today’s reader encounters him, they have to wonder whether their scientific-capitalist outlook is sufficient for understanding the world. When a young adult who is sure that she’s a lesbian and in fact just attended her first gay pride parade encounters him, her assumptions are called into question as well. This capacity to change things is one of the signs of a well-crafted and unforgettable character – sexy or not.
- A Census of Everything Bartleby Said (“Who Never Spoke but to Answer”) (longstreet.typepad.com)