Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” scrutinizes the impersonal, harsh, and isolating labor conditions in America soon after the industrial revolution. Bartleby is presented as a foil to his repressed and ignorant coworkers: Turkey, Nippers, and Gingernut who participate, however dysfunctionally , in the brutal system. In contrast, Bartleby distinguishes himself to the narrator and the reader as “the strangest [scrivener] I ever saw or heard of”( ) by rejecting the mundane work of copying legal documents and proof reading them.
He embodies passive resistance through the repetition of the response “l would prefer not to” when faced with a command from his employer. Through the use of key words such as “would” and “prefer”, Melville gives Bartleby the appearance of submitting to his employer’s, the lawyer’s, judgment and authority. This display of subordinance, however, is only an illusion. Bartleby rejects the capitalist hierarchy on which Wall Street is built and thus also rejects the lawyer’s authority. What exactly does Bartleby “prefer not to do”?
He prefers not to comply with the dehumanizing reality of the American capitalist economy. As scriveners, Bartleby and his coworkers live an automaton-like existence, robotically reproducing documents written by others. Unlike Bartleby, however, his coworkers have been indoctrinated into conforming through the never-fully- satisfying reward of wages. As stated by Karl Marx, a German economic revolutionary, “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives he more, the more labor it sucks. (Marx) By “preferring not to” , Bartleby protests against alienating, mundane labor. The life- sucking effect of capitalism is also demonstrated by Bartlebys previous occupation as “a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office” ( ). This Job consisted ofa “pallid hopelessness”( ) of “continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames”( ). Both of Bartleby’s jobs provide no outlet for communication, individuality, creativity or growth.
The apitalistic economy has stripped him of his humanity, and he would “prefer not” to continue taking part in it. By using the phrase, “l would prefer not to”, Bartlebys also causes the lawyer “to stagger in his own plainest faith” (1 1 and to doubt the rules upon which his own society is built.
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