Preferring not to: The Paradox of Passive Resistance in Herman Melville's 'Bartleby'

Desmarais, Jane H.. 2001. Preferring not to: The Paradox of Passive Resistance in Herman Melville's 'Bartleby'. Journal of the Short Story in English, 36, pp. 25-39. ISSN 0294-0442 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) is a story of passive resistance. And as the narrator is forced to admit, “Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.” Refusing to kow-tow to the demands of his employer, and working to his own individual rule, Bartleby represents a challenge to capitalist, corporatist ideologies. He declines to do what is asked of him over and above the basic task of copying documents. He is an unostentatious figure, “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”, who works “silently, palely, mechanically”, but he exercises enormous power by refusing to comply with simple and undemanding requests. On the third day of being installed in a legal office in Wall Street, he is asked by his boss to examine a paper with him, but “without moving from his privacy”, he replies “I would prefer not to”. Towards the end of the story, he is discovered occupying the office at weekends. Bartleby’s verbal obstruction becomes physical.

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


March 2001Published

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Date Deposited:

12 Mar 2009 15:41

Last Modified:

23 Jun 2017 15:45

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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