What if you just go to office and tell your boss, ‘I prefer not to”, if you are saddled with some mundane task? What if you refuse to do all work and still persist on going to your workplace? You do not want pay, but just occupy a place in your office, refusing to leave. Here, we all can imagine your boss’s next step. However, what would a 19th century employer have done in similar circumstances? He would probably just let his employee come and go as he wishes and even let him live there, till his patience runs out, of course.
You may have guessed that the previous paragraph speaks about Herman Melville’s, ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’. Bartleby is a ‘copyist’ who joins the narrator’s law firm. He is diligent for a short period of time, until one day he refuses to proofread his work. The narrator is momentarily lost for words when Bartleby says, ‘I prefer not to.’ After a few days, Bartleby absolutely refuses to do any kind of work, complaining of a problem with his eyesight. His boss tries to get him to move out of his office, but in vain. He also discovers that Bartleby lives and sleeps in the office. Though he looks pale and seems silent, Bartleby holds a power over the lawyer with his passive resistance, ‘I prefer not to.’ His boss considers calling in the police to move Bartleby, but somehow does not have the heart to do that. Does Bartleby leave or does he start working again for the lawyer? What exactly is his problem?
Herman Melville’s short story dwells into the emotional imbalance of a young employee and its impact on those around him. Apart from Bartleby and the narrator, there are two more important characters, Turkey and Nippers. Middle-aged Turkey is efficient in the morning, but loses his temper in the afternoons, making mistakes. Nippers, a young man, is just his opposite, preferring to work in the afternoons, but idle away the morning with stomach problems. The narrator is a highly tolerant employer and there is no question of turning anyone away. Though hilarious in the beginning, the story turns sad and miserable. Behind Bartleby’s blank expression, silence and mechanical attitude, there perhaps lurks some vulnerable man with a dreary past. If you have not already read this, check it out now to find the ending to this sad masterpiece.
Here is the link.