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.
Passive Resistance ThemeTracker
Passive Resistance Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener
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.
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.
“At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply.
“…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.
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.
…it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last the best resolves of the more generous.
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.