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Quotes in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street

Below are several of the most famous quotes from "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" by Herman Melville. Each has an accompanying annotation with analysis.

Quotes Examples in Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street:

Bartleby, the Scrivener

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"Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Bartleby’s first words serve as a common refrain repeated throughout the narrative. Many scholars have heralded Bartleby’s statement as a declaration of passive resistance. While it certainly can be read this way, it is important to consider the grammar and meaning of the words employed. The past tense modal verb “would” is used to indicate polite deference; the verb “to prefer” means to indicate a preference or a predisposition for one thing over another. Bartleby is essentially indicating that he would rather not perform such work, but he is also not refusing to do so. That he is allowed to have his way is entirely due to the lawyer’s willingness to indulge him.

"“At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable,” was his mildly cadaverous reply...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

At this point in the narrative, the lawyer has resolved to find one of Bartleby’s kin, fire him, and pass responsibility off to said kin. The lawyer asks Bartleby a series of questions and begs him to be “a little reasonable,” to which Bartleby replies with this statement. This is one of the stronger pieces of evidence for Bartleby’s actions as passive resistance; Bartleby has no interest in participating in logical and fair reason.

"Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none. ..."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Having just discovered that Bartleby has been living in the law offices, the lawyer considers that he and the other workers may be the only people that are close to Bartleby. Yet they know nothing about him. The lawyers here states that while happiness is easy to see because people are willing to share their happiness, misery and depression is often hidden below the surface. Unless Bartleby decides to share, the lawyer will have no way of knowing how Bartleby actually feels.

"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...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

This is another rare moment in which readers learn of the lawyer’s rationale for humoring Bartleby. The lawyer notes that Bartleby is still a useful employee. By accepting Bartleby’s flaws, the lawyer can perform what he considers a charitable gesture that requires little effort on his part, fulfilling his desire to lead an easy life and present himself as a charitable Christian. Thus the lawyer can be seen as acting out of his greed for self-righteousness, rather than genuine good will.

"Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance...."   (Bartleby, the Scrivener)

Bartleby has repeatedly stated that he “prefers not to” join the others in reviewing his proofs. The lawyer’s response here is one of the few moments in the narrative when he explains his rationale for allowing Bartleby to have his way rather than follow the orders of his superior. Since the lawyer decides to humor Bartleby, he ends up giving more work to his other employees and himself. What would be easier for him is to have Bartleby perform the work required of a scrivener. This contrasts with how the lawyer originally presented himself as someone who is “filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best.”

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