Bartleby, the Scrivener

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Themes and Colors
Passive Resistance Theme Icon
The Disconnected Workplace Theme Icon
Isolation and the Unreliability of Language Theme Icon
Charity and Its Limits Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bartleby, the Scrivener, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Passive Resistance Theme Icon

Bartleby’s frequently repeated motto, “I would prefer not to,” echoes throughout the narrative. Always polite, never aggressive, Bartleby says “I would prefer not to” to an ever-increasing range of things as the story progresses. In short, Bartleby’s story is one of passive resistance, in which he refuses to do anything that he would prefer not to do.

Initially, Bartleby’s resistance seems to exist within a fairly common capitalist struggle: an employer (The Lawyer, the story’s unnamed narrator) wants to get the most utility out of his employee, and the employee (Bartleby) wants only to do the parts of his job he feels like doing. This is a delicate balance, and usually, when the scale of the employee-employer relationship tips too far to one side, either the employee becomes fed up with the job’s requirements and quits, or the employer becomes fed up with the employee’s disobedience and fires them. However, rather than flat-out refuse his boss’s requests (which would likely lead to his dismissal), Bartleby uses a strategy of passive resistance, which, for a long time, allows him to both stay employed and keep his daily tasks within the limited set of responsibilities he finds acceptable.

Up to this point of the story, Bartleby seems diffident and strange, but also almost a kind of hero. After all, through his method of passive resistance, he avoids having to proofread and correct his own copy, avoids being sent out to the store for errands, avoids telling The Lawyer anything about his family or his past, avoids being reprimanded for living in the office after hours and on weekends, and even avoids getting fired by “prefer[ing] not to” vacate The Lawyer’s office. But as the story progresses, and The Lawyer eventually moves his entire office to a new building as a way to escape Bartleby who still “prefers not” to leave the old one, the nature of Bartleby’s passive resistance changes as well. As he faces ever more dire straits, Bartleby resists being “a little reasonable,” resists The Lawyer’s multiple and various offers to help him (including The Lawyer’s offer that he come live in The Lawyer’s home), and, even when he is dying in prison, Bartleby resists The Lawyer’s offer of food. It’s never clear if Bartleby’s passive resistance originated simply as a refusal to perform work he didn’t want to do and grew into something more general, or was always more general but that only became clear as his situation worsened. But what is clear by the end of the story is that Bartleby’s passive resistance is more general, exemplified by his transition from preferring to eat gingernut cakes to preferring to eat nothing at all.

And yet, just what Bartleby is resisting, and what precisely the story is saying about that resistance, is also never made clear. It’s possible to argue that Bartleby is resisting the increasingly capitalistic and materialistic culture in which he finds himself. It’s also possible to argue that the story is showing how cruelly society treats any kind of nonconformist who dares to resist that society’s values. And it’s further possible to argue that Bartleby is resisting the very aspects of the human condition – the lack of compassion, isolation, inability to communicate – that makes society act in the way it does. Perhaps Bartleby, in the end, is resisting the condition of life that, as a human, is forced upon him.

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Passive Resistance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Passive Resistance appears in each chapter of Bartleby, the Scrivener. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Passive Resistance Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener

Below you will find the important quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener related to the theme of Passive Resistance.
Bartleby, the Scrivener Quotes

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 28-29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Bartleby has repeatedly stated that he “prefers not to” correct the copies he has worked on, and also “prefers not to” do any of a scrivener’s job requirements other than write. It is one of the only points in the narrative where The Lawyer overtly explains why he allows Bartleby’s behavior to spiral to the point that Bartleby is more in control of his working habits than his boss is: The Lawyer considers himself a man of “not inhumane temper,” and he also considers Bartleby’s statement of his preferences “perfectly harmless in his passivity.” So, The Lawyer “charitably” decides to consider Bartleby’s peculiar habits not as insolence, nor as disobedience, but simply an acceptable condition of his personality. The result of this is that Bartleby is allowed to work in the manner that he wants to, and The Lawyer, though it aggravates him, is able to feel he is being charitable.

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To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange willfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience. But this mood was not invariable with me. The passiveness of Bartleby sometimes irritated me. I felt strangely goaded on to encounter him in new opposition… I might as well have essayed to strike fire with my knuckles against a bit of Windsor soap.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated in the narrative after Bartleby has passively resisted correcting his own copies, but is still a useful employee in the amount of writing he is able to get done. Here, The Lawyer internally reasons with himself that to keep Bartleby on and accept his flaws and peculiarities would be a charitable gesture, but not one that requires much sacrifice on The Lawyer’s part, as he thinks it will cost him “little or nothing.” This fulfills The Lawyer’s self-proclaimed idea that he believes the “easiest way of life” to be the best, and it also fulfills his self-image as a charitable Christian man.

However, despite The Lawyer’s alleged inclination to do both what is easiest and what is charitable, he still allows Bartleby’s passive habits to bother him, and thus he breaks his vow of leaving Bartleby alone and instead decides to try to get him to correct copies of papers once more. The Lawyer’s attempt to get Bartleby to do anything outside of his preferences fails, of course, and rather than getting Bartleby to change his habits or bringing The Lawyer closer to his employee, this attempt results in The Lawyer becoming less likely to ask Bartleby to do anything that he might resist in the future. Thus, Bartleby’s passive resistance trumps The Lawyer’s urge to break Bartleby’s habit, as he realizes that his attempts to reason with Bartleby through language haven’t brought them any closer together, nor have they changed Bartleby’s mind about what tasks he will or won’t do.

“At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.

Related Characters: Bartleby (speaker), The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is situated after The Lawyer has found out Bartleby is living in the office, and he has thus resolved to find one of Bartleby’s relatives, fire Bartleby (with a $20 severance bonus), and pawn the responsibility of Bartleby off on said relative. However, after asking Bartleby a barrage of questions about his past, none of which Bartleby answers, The Lawyer breaks down and asks if Bartleby will be “a little reasonable.”

This quote that Bartleby would “prefer not to be a little reasonable” is the epitome of Bartleby’s passive resistance—not only does Bartleby resist disclosing personal information to his boss or doing fundamental aspects of his job, he now resists participating in reason, so that even though The Lawyer’s requests are entirely logical and fair, Bartleby still resists them as he has no interest in participating in fairness. Language cannot connect two people if they don’t agree on a unifying system of logic; so, Bartleby is able to resist all of The Lawyer’s requests, as a soldier would resist a general’s orders if that soldier didn’t recognize the general’s authority, or, more reflective of this scenario, if that soldier felt entirely disconnected from the general. In Bartleby’s mind, he is to The Lawyer as a German soldier would be to an American general: entirely outside his purview.

Additionally, The Lawyer’s tag referring to Bartleby’s response as “mildly cadaverous” foreshadows Bartleby’s passively resistant demise.

“…Good-bye, Bartleby, and fare you well.” But he answered not a word; like the last column of some ruined temple, he remained standing mute and solitary in the middle of the otherwise deserted room.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after The Lawyer has decided that the only solution to ridding himself of Bartleby is to fire him. After giving Bartleby six days’ firing notice, on the eve of the sixth day The Lawyer wishes Bartleby well, and leaves him with money, which is certainly a nice gesture, but it somehow seems to fall short of the definition of true Christian charity. The Lawyer could simply keep Bartleby on as an employee, agree to house him at the office but not pay him, try to help Bartleby secure housing, or even bring Bartleby home with him, but The Lawyer attempts to do none of those things (yet).

Additionally, The Lawyer metaphorically compares Bartleby to the last column of a ruined temple—the ruined temple being his office. Despite their already clear physical separation—embodied by the secluded area Bartleby works in, behind a screen and next to a window with a view of another wall—The Lawyer and Bartleby are even more so ideologically and emotionally separated. To use The Lawyer’s example, they are as separate as an ancient temple and a modern Wall Street law office. Also, this metaphor can be extended further, as perhaps Bartleby’s needs represent the ancient, biblical definition of what charity can mean (full sacrificial charity, as Jesus suffered for man’s sins), and The Lawyer represents what charity means in a modern capitalistic American context, i.e. an extra twenty bucks on top of whatever you’re owed, and a courteous farewell.

It was the circumstance of being alone in a solitary office, up stairs, of a building entirely unhallowed by humanizing domestic associations…which greatly helped to enhance the irritable desperation of the hapless Colt.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated immediately after The Lawyer has come back to his office (after firing Bartleby) to find that Bartleby, as well as his severance pay, is still in the office, as Bartleby has once more resisted The Lawyer’s wishes. After arguing with Bartleby to no avail, The Lawyer decides to wait before pressing further, as he recalls the murder of the printer Samuel Adams by his client John C. Colt. The Lawyer notes that offices are devoid of “humanizing domestic associations,” and this atmosphere which feels nothing like home (although it is, almost certainly, Bartleby’s only home) may have been partially to blame for the escalation that led to Adams’ murder. Essentially, The Lawyer is implying that the disconnected office, and the lack of connection he and Bartleby feel for one another, is a prime place and atmosphere in which a murder might occur.

Additionally, the subtext of this murder is related to the later reveal that Bartleby may have worked in the Dead Letter Office. Even worse than the missed connections that dead letters represent, Colt’s murder of Adams was entirely related to payment in regard to a textbook that Adams printed for Colt. So, the printing of language, meant to share ideas and information and potentially bring people closer together, in this case because of capitalist intervention, led instead to the most extreme kind of disconnection: one of the men ended up murdered, and the other imprisoned. The Lawyer worries that his disconnection from Bartleby might lead to his own death and Bartleby’s imprisonment, despite the fact that earlier in the narrative The Lawyer claims he trusts Bartleby completely.

…it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last the best resolves of the more generous.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Page Number: 44-45
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after The Lawyer’s internal monologue about Bartleby having entered his life via predestination (thus making it The Lawyer’s Christian duty to charitably house Bartleby for as long as he wants). Obviously, The Lawyer is justifying why he has decided to go back on his vow to be wholly charitable to Bartleby, and this is the moment where The Lawyer is the most self-aware about his shortcomings as a charitable Christian.

Although he believes keeping Bartleby in his office is the right—and even the divine—thing to do, The Lawyer admits that he allows other people—who he refers to as “illiberal minds”—to influence him to rid himself of Bartleby. Immediately after this quote, Bartleby embarrasses The Lawyer by refusing a request of one of The Lawyer’s colleagues, so, when Bartleby’s behavior begins to threaten his business interests, The Lawyer decides once and for all that Bartleby has to go. If it weren’t for The Lawyer’s own capitalist interests, he might go on housing Bartleby until the day Bartleby or The Lawyer himself died, but in mid-1800s Wall Street, charity seems to reach its limit when business dictates it should, not when God does.

The yard was entirely quiet. It was not accessible to the common prisoners. The surrounding walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them. The Egyptian character of the masonry weighed upon me with its gloom. But a soft imprisoned turf grew underfoot. The heart of the eternal pyramids, it seemed, wherein, by some strange magic, through the lefts, grass-seed, dropped by birds, had sprung.

Related Characters: The Lawyer (speaker), Bartleby
Related Symbols: Walls
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated near the end of the narrative, after The Lawyer has abandoned Bartleby by moving offices, so the landlord has had Bartleby put in a prison called The Tombs. The Lawyer has visited once before and, out of a charitable urge (perhaps brought on by guilt), he has paid someone to provide Bartleby with good food (which he “prefers not to” eat). Here he visits Bartleby again, and finds that Bartleby is not in a cell, but is instead still alone in a yard in the middle of the prison.

The Tombs is an extremely appropriate name for this prison, not only because it is literally the place where Bartleby’s passive resistance will cause him to die, but also because, just as in the office, Bartleby is as secluded from the other prisoners as he was from his colleagues at the office, effectively meaning he is just as isolated as if he were literally in a tomb or a grave.

The walls “of amazing thickness” that even keep external sounds away from Bartleby are another example of his disconnection from everyone around him, especially when considering that he’s in an area of the prison where other prisoners are not allowed. The Lawyer tries to see some good in this extremely dark situation: he notes that, somehow, as if by “strange magic” grass is blooming in the center of this “pyramid” (another allusion to tombs, as pyramids were the tombs of pharaohs), and perhaps, implicitly, The Lawyer is hoping that Bartleby’s story will, in a way, grant a rebirth to this now-lifeless man. The entire narrative of Bartleby, the Scrivener, then, can perhaps be seen as granting a glimmer of hope to the connective and communicative possibilities of language: though Bartleby and The Lawyer will never understand each other, perhaps readers of this story might understand themselves and those around them better for having listened to Bartleby’s and The Lawyer’s respective journeys.