Into this office comes Bartleby, whom the narrator sets up in a corner of his own office, behind a high green folding screen, out of sight but within earshot. Things start off well enough; the copyist does his work and does it scrupulously. And as the narrator himself admits, this is not easy work. To verify the accuracy of a copy, one copyist will read the copy aloud while another checks it against the original. “It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair,” the narrator tells us. “I can readily imagine that, to some sanguine temperament, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet Byron would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in crimpy hand.”
The problem, of course, is that Bartleby turns out be no more willing to work than the mettlesome poet. On Bartleby’s third day at the office, the lawyer summons him over to assist in checking a copy of some document or another:
Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when, without moving from his privacy, Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume, but in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”
“Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moonstruck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it toward him.
“I would prefer not to,” said he.
The story follows the consequences of Bartleby’s refusal not only to copy but to cooperate with any sort of instruction whatsoever. He remains where he is, behind his screen, day and night, impervious to requests, entreaties, blandishments. The other copyists become resentful, clients ask questions, colleagues gossip. The formula “I would prefer” works its way into the conversation of everyone in the office. Eventually the lawyer decides to relocate his office; Bartleby stays behind in the building. The landlord, finding this bad for property values, has the copyist shipped off to prison, where he wastes away, preferring not to eat or drink or exercise. The story concludes with a rumor that the narrator heard in the months after Bartleby’s death. Before coming to work at the law office, it seemed, Bartleby had worked in the Dead Letter Office, delivering undeliverable mail to the incinerator. “Sometimes from out of the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a banknote sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”
Some of the greatest minds in modern criticism and philosophy have pondered the meaning of Bartleby’s refusal to work. Their interpretations range from brilliant to clever to silly. I would only add that there is nothing particularly surprising about Bartleby’s one-man job-action. I wouldn’t want to copy a five-hundred-page legal document “closely written in crimpy hand” either. And once I realized what I could get away with—get away without—why stop there? By withdrawing his labor, he forces us to recognize that what he does is labor. To recognize that paperwork is also work.
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