One day, while reading the morning newspaper that came to me every day as I sat in my room, I saw an advertisement for a job as a scrivener at a high-powered law firm on Wall Street. I was curious about this, despite the fact that I did not feel particularly up to talking to anyone. For the most part, I tend to find myself feeling very withdrawn, almost catatonic, unwilling to engage with the outside world or expend energy in order to actually get things done. Even so, I felt a desire to try to break those habits, as some unexplainable pull drew me to the job – maybe it was necessity, or maybe novelty; it could have even been the high status that working on Wall Street would bring me, which nonetheless intrigued me even as I found myself caring little for outside society (Beja 555). However, for whatever reason - I knew not why - I preferred to answer the advertisement and go on to the interview.
At the interview, I made sure to look my best – keeping my suit neat, my manner kind and my responses short and sweet. The man I met was pleasant enough; I answered his questions, and he seemed to consider me an amiable but withdrawn fellow, a notion I did not disagree with. He seemed incredibly glad to have me along, as he relished the fact that I did not care to ask questions or challenge him in any way. Part of this was the curiosity of working at such a prestigious location, but also I simply did not care what the job entailed. I just wanted to give it a shot.
Taking me around the offices and their cubicles, I was ushered in to a small corner office, a large green folding screen being placed in front of me. This disappointed me, as I felt that I was being alienated, which depressed me further. However, I also felt as though the lawyer and I felt a similar sense of alienation, as I picked up an impression that the lawyer put the partition up for his sake as much as mine (Beja 559). As time went on, I became more and more enraptured by the folding screen, becoming comforted by its ability to wrap me in silence and isolation from the outside world. I never felt like I was a poet or anything; still, I was content to do my work as needed.
I relished the opportunity to do my work by myself, with few if any people around to bother me. I cared not for people, and could pour myself into my work, something which the boss seemed greatly happy about. In my first few days, I felt a renewed sense of purpose, if not happiness; I had a job at a high-powered Wall Street law firm, and the amount of work the lawyer continued to give me showed, to me, a tremendous faith in my ability to do something. As I had nothing else to do, and I felt an incredible, almost psychotic pull to keep myself busy, I chose to continue my work as much as possible (Beja 559).
However, as the days went on, I felt more and more unmotivated to work. Being left to my own devices, a small cog in the giant working machine that was this company, that sense of purpose started to wane. In many ways, I felt a kinship with the other workers on Wall Street who started to strike in order to meet their demands – the New York labor movement of the 1840s was still fresh in my mind, as many workers were stopping work in order to improve conditions for themselves and others (Foley 88). I must confess that I never felt a deliberate act of defiance in order to better my own conditions; there was nothing more I wanted than to do this work. But even then, I found myself wanting even less than that, and the ideological struggles of my fellow workers only made the paltry comforts I took from my prestigious workplace worse.
This continued apathy came to a head one day when the lawyer told me to look over a small paper with him. Looking at the paper, and then him, I opened my mouth and told him, honestly, “I would prefer not to.” I am not completely certain what prompted me to say that, but I did nonetheless – as soon as it escaped my mouth, I knew that I meant it. At this point, I became locked in my decision to not do anything about this new set of work; considering the piece of paper, I knew I did not want to do it.
As a result, this became the only answer I could offer the lawyer. There was no uncertainty or pause in my decision. Once my mind was made up, it was made up. The boss seemed singularly confused and perplexed; the very idea of me not doing work was confusing to him. I had no other answer for him than “I would prefer not to.” It was a strange feeling; I didn’t have a solution for him as to how to get me to work. I was not angry, or sad, or discontent; just bored and apathetic. No matter how many times he tried to explain to me that this bucked the trend of common sense, or good manners, I could not bring myself to care enough to change my mind.
As the weeks rolled on, I found that not only did I prefer not to do the paper, I preferred to do nothing else either – eat, drink, sleep, or anything. I was overcome by a tremendous sense that, once I stopped doing things for the lawyer, I was no longer tolerated in his business (Sundararajan). As a result, I found myself feeling like I could not understand the lawyer’s desire for me to do the things he wanted me to do, just as he did not understand my desire to not do them – the typical alienation between high-powered executive and everyday worker that was so prevalent during this time (Foley 92).
However, while I preferred to do nothing, I still chose to be, which felt like its own sense of rebellion in a way. I felt no connection to the idea that you had to do a job, have a house, be kind, and behave in a certain kind of way in order to be accepted in modern society (Foley 102). To that end, I simply stopped. As I continued to do this, I began to notice the boss giving up on me; no longer would be try to convince me to do the work, but just sit there and notice my existence. He came around less and less, and I started to sleep at the office, keeping the key to the boss’s office so I could sleep there at night. To that end, I recognized myself as having a place to sleep and a job; what more could I want? At the same time, even if I lost it all, I knew I would not care, so I still refused to do the work, and didn’t even have the energy to leave the office. One day, the boss found me sleeping in his office; I was already occupied with a thought I was attempting to reconcile, so I chose not to let him in even though he wanted to be there. I did not understand his frustration.
After a while, however, I just took to standing and looking at my window at the office. The boss engaged me once more, and I chose to finally tell him I had given up copywriting – or doing anything else for that matter. He asked me to quit, seemingly with great trepidation; I told him I preferred not to quit. This back and forth continued for several days, before the boss actually told me he was going to move his offices elsewhere in the city; I chose to remain . As the weeks passed, I understood that others were taking to the boss (and myself) about trying to have me removed; however, as I preferred not to go, I chose to stay there. The boss came by once more to bargain with me, giving me other fields and businesses to go into; I understood that I was not particular, but did not want to be a bartender or a dry-goods clerk, or a companion to a rich man going to Europe. None of these things appealed to me, but I could think not of an alternative that would suit me. I just wanted to stay there.
Eventually, the police came to the door and forcibly removed me; I came peaceably once they began to physically move me from the office. Still, I felt nothing. Once I was out the door, I wandered the streets for quite some time as a vagrant, eating when I could (or when I felt like it). After some time passed, however, I was picked up by the police once more and sent to a large jail – I overheard people referring to it as The Tombs. I was sent to the Hall of Justice, where they chose to put me for quite some time. While I was there, I heard the chaos and terror of the other inmates, but I cared little for it. It did not matter to me how bad the conditions were; I just knew it would take too much time to change.
Over the course of my stay there, I met with some doctors and psychologists, who tried to help me in various ways. These individuals tried to tell me I was ‘schizophrenic,’ which was evidenced by my lack of care for my surroundings and complete apathy towards everything that was around me. Even the repeated assertions of “I would prefer not to” was indicated as a schizophrenic preoccupation with certain words and phrases (Reja 561). This seemed, somehow, the only rational choice to make, as I could not in any way relate to the world I was living in. They also noted that I expressed symptoms of learned helplessness, in which I simply felt like I could not change my surroundings, and therefore refused to try to change them (Seligman xvii). Therefore, it simply made sense to me to stop everything I was doing if I did not feel like doing them (Beja 561). Even so, they felt that I was not a danger due to my apathy; they even let me wander about the place from time to time, which occupied the majority of my time.
At one point, the boss visited me in the Tombs; even after seeing no familiar faces, I felt nothing for the boss even as he looked out at me as I stood in a group of other people (all of whom had committed worse crimes than me). He called my name; it was all I could do to say “I know you – and I want nothing to say to you.” I could see him begging the grub-man to give me food, and even introduced him to me. I politely refused his offer of food; I had already eaten so little that I did not really want to have any more. The boss soon left, and that was the last I would ever see of him.
Eventually, I was released from the Tombs; they did not really know what to do with me, and I did not make any real effort to change my current apathy. I felt no different going out of the Tombs than I did going in, or even since that first day I chose to not do the work my boss had laid out for me. Even after leaving The Tombs, I still preferred not to eat because of my depression and schizophrenia; I just did not have the motivation to do anything about my hunger or thirst, what little of it I actually felt. As I awaited death from starvation, I felt little reason to actually keep going. If I had chosen to eat, I would not have known what to do next.
Even as I laid down on the street, feeling little to no energy, feeling the world close in on me, I could not bring myself to get up and get something to eat. Amongst the crowds and the hustle-bustle of New York traffic, I looked around at everyone running about, doing things, eating food and reveling, and I simply did not feel the need to join them. I felt both that I did not relate to these people, and that I saw no point in participating in the same system that would oppress my fellow worker. For these reasons, and more, I died there on that street with little resistance.
Beja, Morris. "Bartleby & Schizophrenia." The Massachusetts Review (1978): 555-568.
Foley, Barbara. “From Wall Street to Astor Place: Historicizing Melville’s ‘Bartleby’.”
American Literture 72.1 (2000): 87-116.
Seligman, M. Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death. W.H. Freeman and
Sundararajan, Louise. "Being as refusal: Melville’s Bartleby as Heideggerian anti-hero." Janus
Head (1999). http://www.janushead.org/jhsumm99/sundararajan.cfm.