Exploring the Most Enigmatic Line in American Literature

Melville's sentence exposes the fiction between employers and employees that employees have any choice in the matter. 

Melville is so profound.  That’s not to say that he offers easy solutions.  In fact, the more profound Melville gets, the more elusive the solutions he arrives at.  In a story called Bartleby, the Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street, Melville gives us a portrait of a copyist - a thin, efficient, anonymous figure named Bartleby, who is in a sense a human photocopy machine.  And in this story, Melville follows the benign, kindly reflections of an employer.  An employer of a man who at a certain point decides he just doesn’t want to be a copy machine any more.  But he can’t protest because he’s actually become too traumatized and frozen by what life has brought him so far.  


And so he becomes instead a fixture in the office, a burden, a constant moral reminder of all that’s wrong in the world, a symbol of a world turning people into human copy machines. The narrator of this story does everything any of us would do, and more, to try to solve the problem of this man he has employed who will no longer work.  He’s just a burden on the payroll.  What would you do if someone you fired wouldn’t leave? 

Melville tells the horrible, horrible story of a guy who’s laid off and is told to collect his belongings and leave.  And he won’t leave.  He’s there the next morning. In fact, he not only won’t leave his job; he won’t leave the office, and he begins to live there.  

And Bartleby doesn’t say, "I will not leave," he says, “I prefer not to.”  

Now that “I prefer not to” is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic sentences in American literature because just what it means to say, is not "I won’t do it, try to make me do it," but I “prefer not to.”  Really, that’s a sentence that really does ask questions about coercion in the work environment and how important it is, how much we cherish that code of manners and courtesies that create a pretense between employers and their employees, create the fiction between employers and employees that the employees have any choice in the matter. 

Can you imagine if your boss said "Would you mind getting me coffee?" The discourse of our work world has evolved in such a way that it’s impossible anymore to say, “I’d prefer not to.”  

Well, Bartleby, the Scrivener presents the sort of nightmare scenario of your employee not getting it or deciding no longer to get it and no longer to say either, “Yes, of course, I’ll do your copying for you” or “Hell no, I won’t do your copying,” but instead appealing to you in a more human way. 

The story of Bartleby is of course a terrible one.  Our narrator not only offers Bartleby the option of coming home to his own home. Because he cannot get rid of Bartleby he moves out of his own office. But Bartleby won’t leave then either and the next people who rent the office have Bartleby hanging around on the stairs.  Bartleby is eventually sent to the tombs in New York, where imprisoned, he dies.  

Melville’s not kind to his readers.  He doesn’t feel the obligation to pamper us, in fact, probably because by the time Melville wrote Bartleby, the Scrivener, he was almost as poor as Bartleby.  And he wasn’t sure he had any readers anymore anyway, and so he just spoke the truth.  

What Melville says to us, reminds us of, is that our systems produce persons so damaged that although we may put them out of our minds, evict them from our offices, they are still there.  And in some way we are accountable to them.  And the sign that Melville has no terrific solution is that he ends the story, “Ah, Bartleby; ah, humanity.”  Right? 

He directs our attention to a kind of cruelty that is the human condition.  I’m looking for some cheer to offer in that story.  I think what Melville does though, is he takes us further and further into the dark heart of modernity, where a growing complexity of the world produces more and more dysfunction and victimization.

Melville also admires the complexity.  How amazing is it that we can light all of our lamps and we can all be reading all night because one thing you can’t do if you don’t have any light at night, is you can’t read.  It was for readers that the oil industry was so important.  

How amazing that we can – that we can illuminate whole cities out of out of these complex systems and at the same time – how amazing that we can create paper that gets shipped all over the world and at the same time what – what human cost this productivity leads to.  

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.