The Difficulties of an Affirmative “No.”

by Ezekiel Fry

I have been reading a fair amount of “Bartleby” criticism of late (yes, my life is filled with heroic adventure) and it has come to my attention that “Bartleby,” of all Melville’s works, is perhaps the most difficult to discuss. In his study The Silence of Bartleby, Dan McCall endeavors to strip aside the many critical jumps that have been made in what he terms “the Bartleby industry.” McCall desires to return to the reading of “Bartleby,” rather than the superimposing of one’s own critical attitudes or needs upon the text. It is always hard not to give Bartleby himself more motivation, or to put words in his mouth, as this central figure of Melville’s story speaks only some 30-odd lines throughout. His world remains shrouded in mystery. No amount of probing will give us a clearer view of the man behind the phrase, “I would prefer not to.” As we attempt to understand this enigmatic figure this statement calmly resonates in our ears. Bartleby may have secrets, he may indeed be a figurehead for something deeper than we (or even Melville himself) will ever understand, but he will not surrender a thing out to the world. While I certainly agree with McCall insofar that tacking identities onto Bartleby, or using him as a figurehead for Marxist ideals, seems stifling and stretching, there is perhaps a thread found in Bartleby’s great statement, “I would prefer not to,” that may help us better understand the position from which this unrelenting figure functions.
If we are of a mind to look back to the works that gave rise to Melville’s greatest writings, we find ourselves, as usual, face to face with Shakespeare. Being an Early Modern playwright, Shakespeare functioned in a world where the spoken word was everything. Whether or not there were extensive stage directions on the now lost original manuscripts of the bard’s great works, the emphasis was, and is, always on that which is spoken, or, perhaps more tellingly, that which is not spoken. For an artist who must express the inner-workings of his characters through their own voices, this voice and its silence becomes the greatest tool for uncovering, or obscuring, the motives of each figure. Take for instance the two most verbose characters in Shakespeare—Hamlet and Iago, respectively. Each of these great movers expounds throughout the play, only to lapse into silence at the penultimate moment. As he lies dying, Hamlet attempts to express himself to Horatio:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time—as this fell sergeant Death
Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you—
But let it be. (Shakespeare 5.2.276-80)

In these words we see, if not hear, the silence of Hamlet. “O, I could tell you,” but I can’t, or, rather, I won’t, as there are more than several lines from Hamlet left in the play. If this unnamed “it” that Hamlet references is the great inner-world that audiences and critics alike have puzzled over for some 400 years, then it stands to reason that without too much difficulty we might insert the line, “I would prefer not to” as an addendum to Hamlet’s “let it be.” How can we let it be? Of course, this line of thinking assumes that Hamlet’s final words hold a clue to his motivations, that his “O, I could tell you” is a nod to “that within which passeth show” and can perhaps never be explained (Shakespeare 1.2.85). Nevertheless, Horatio, much like Bartleby’s lawyer, attempts to speak for Hamlet upon his death (the distinction must be made that Hamlet asks for Horatio to tell his story, while Bartleby never asks anything of the lawyer) and cannot draw any closer to that unspoken truth that seems to linger in the air, or rest tangibly in the now silent corpse of the prince of Denmark. The lawyer, in his epilogue to “Bartleby,” attempts in his own way to make sense of Bartleby’s existence, to tell his story after the fact, how close he comes is certainly a matter of perspective, and the same might be said of Horatio’s words to Fortinbras in the final moments of Hamlet. Each man struggles to unwrap the enigma of their “hero,” to, as Hamlet himself says, bind the enigma “in a nutshell” (Shakespeare 2.2.248). In the end however, we are drawn no closer to understanding what makes either figure the way they are. The inquiries into these most secret of minds are much like the dead letters which the lawyer uses to explain Bartleby’s fate—they shall never reach their intended destination. Try as we might, we cannot crack into the skulls of either Hamlet or Bartleby. Hamlet’s final words are telling, “The rest is silence” (Shakespeare 5.2.300).
In the case of Iago we find a very different dilemma. Here is a character that has exposed himself intensely to the audience throughout the play. We know more about the inner-world of Iago than perhaps any other figure in Shakespeare, but the key to his silence lies in the very obvious fact that Othello knows nothing. Othello has seen a very different Iago than the audience. Upon the exposure of his plot, Iago, the great boasting, soliloquizing villain, shuts his mouth forever. He will not give Othello the satisfaction of learning his motives. I have previously discussed the impact this has on Othello, but, viewed in respect to Bartleby, Iago’s silence takes on new significance. Iago’s work is complete. The plot against Othello is a success. Iago’s greatest weapon, his voice, has served its purpose, and now he no longer needs it. What more would he say? Would he dance a jig and laugh in Othello’s face? This would only lessen the impact—the brutal weight—of the evil act he has perpetrated. While Bartleby does not speak as verbosely as Iago, his words have no less impact. We grow accustomed to hearing him say “I would prefer not to” much in the same way we have grown accustomed to Iago’s soliloquies. When he turns to face the wall of the Tombs even this small phrase is denied to us. He has completed his work, whatever that might be, and we, like the lawyer, Melville’s Othello, are left with deafening silence.
Looking at these two Shakespearian predecessors we might now say that we see something more of Bartleby’s function within the tale. Although I would love to say that these fascinating parallels bring us closer to Bartleby, I would venture to propose that they actually draw us no closer to Bartleby’s inner-world than we were before. Technical aspects of Melville’s composition certainly come into focus, the role of the lawyer too is more readily accessible, but we have yet to gain any real ground on Bartleby himself. To understand Bartleby is more than I can hope to do here. I can, however, attempt to shed some light on Bartleby’s mantra-like statement.
What is Bartleby saying when he so politely refuses all the lawyer’s attempts to communicate in a human way? Certainly the positivity of his negation is something that makes deciphering his words all the more difficult, he is never adamant about anything—he merely “prefer[s]” a different tack. What that may be is perhaps the greatest puzzle regarding Bartleby, and it is this inability to penetrate the character’s mind that continues to haunt us long after the story closes. There is perhaps a better way to approach Bartleby. Rather than attempting to decipher what he means we might instead look at what he, and his words, do. In this regard, it is striking to visit the words of another distant star of a figure from 19th century letters, that of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov. I would like to place Ivan’s definitive statement (just prior to “The Grand Inquisitor,” located in the aptly named “Rebellion”) opposite Bartleby’s. Bartleby says:

I would prefer not to.

And Ivan says:

I most respectfully return him the ticket.

Look at these two statements together for a moment. They each deny the speakers participation, but all the while maintaining that there is perhaps nothing objectively wrong with the thing which they are denying. The strength of these statements lies not in their logic, or their explainable nature, but instead in the personal truth of the denial. Neither Bartleby nor Ivan asks his interlocutor to submit to his view of the world. Ivan never asks Alyosha to subscribe to his world-view, and Bartleby, in his consistent rebuffing of the lawyer, does not allow the lawyer to be an active participant in his own “rebellion.” We may achieve a further understanding of this notion by looking at Ivan’s words in greater context. Ivan is wrapping up his tale of suffering, and in conclusion he states:

I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket. (268)

Here is the clearest window into the ghost of Bartleby that I have yet to discover. Bartleby, with his “preferring” does little to deny anything, he merely “return[s] the ticket.” I am not claiming here that Bartleby’s rebellion is based in the same denial as Ivan’s, but, instead, that each character civilly attempts to remove themselves from the coursing madness of human life. The result is tragic in both cases. To deny the kinship of humanity is to die. This is something that Alyosha learns, and it is something that Dr. Rieux, of Albert Camus’ The Plague, will further illuminate in his stubborn statement that, in the face of suffering and hatred, the only solution is “common decency.” In true Camus fashion, Rieux, like the final shout of The Brothers Karamazov, does not deny humanity’s frailty, and he does not even intimate that the battle may be won, he merely says that the “decent” thing to do is continue. This is the one thing that Bartleby and Ivan cannot do. They are both, in their own ways, paralyzed by their removal, by whatever secret losses they might feel. Denial of one’s inclusion in the human dilemma leads to madness and early death. Ivan loses his mind and Bartleby withers away into nothing. With this in mind we might listen once again to the lawyer’s final appeal, and feel something more (or perhaps less): “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

*Pagination for The Brothers Karamazov is from the Wordsworth edition (The Garnett translation. Always.)