Bartleby’s Occupation of Wall Street

October 11, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 39 9 min read

After a couple days of hemming and hawing, I decided to join the protesters of Occupy Wall Street. I was hesitant to go because until very recently, I worked as an administrative assistant at a prominent Wall Street law firm. I didn’t know how, in good conscience, I could rail against The Man when my primary responsibility had once been to keep track of incoming phone calls from Goldman Sachs. But then I heard one of the protest’s organizers on the radio saying that the Occupy movement wasn’t against capitalism, corporations, or even big banking. He was for income equality. And democracy. The reporter pressed him to be more specific, but he refused.

“Why do they have to be more specific?” I yelled at the radio. “Isn’t it obvious why they’re upset?”

coverI was getting annoyed at the way Occupy Wall Street was being covered — as if it was insane to gather in a public space and protest. As if it had never happened in America before. Wasn’t the whole point of passive resistance to just be there? To not make any demands? As I tried to come up with a good parallel, I found myself thinking of Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville’s short story about an office worker, Bartleby, who decides out of nowhere that he doesn’t feel like working anymore, but continues to show up at the office every day. Bartleby’s idleness baffles and then infuriates his boss, who begs Bartleby to give some reason for his behavior. But Bartleby refuses to disclose his interests, and over the course of the story, his needs become so few that he dies of starvation. It’s a bleak, mysterious story, and as I returned to my copy to reread it, I was stilled to rediscover its subtitle: “A Story of Wall Street.”

I first read Bartleby the Scrivener last summer, when I was completely burned out on office life. I actually read it at work, during a slow afternoon — “down time”, in office parlance — and was surprised by how funny and contemporary it seemed. The story is narrated by an unnamed, well-to-do-lawyer, who describes himself as “one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds.” In the narrator’s employ are two scriveners and one office boy — or, in modern terms, two administrative assistants and one intern. One scrivener is old, and something of a drunk; the other scrivener is young, and from the narrator’s description, something of a hipster: “Nippers, the second on my list, was a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man of about five and twenty. I always deemed him the victim of two evil powers — ambition and indigestion.”

One day, the narrator decides that he needs to hire a third scrivener. He interviews Bartleby, a “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn” man. Bartleby is of “so singularly sedate an aspect” that the narrator can’t help thinking he will be an exceptionally cooperative employee. And so he hires Bartleby, installing him at a desk in front of a window with an airshaft view and behind “a high green folding screen which, might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice.” In other words, he sticks Bartleby in a cubicle.

Bartleby’s job is to copy legal documents by hand, like a human Xerox machine. During his first couple days at the office, Bartleby works at a ferocious pace, and is always the first to arrive and the last to leave. But on the third day, when the narrator asks Bartleby to assist with some proofreading, Bartleby utters what will become his trademark phrase: “I would prefer not to.” The reply surprises the narrator, but he doesn’t become annoyed until later in the week, when Bartleby refuses a second time, with the same vague reply: “I would prefer not to.” Upon questioning Bartleby, the narrator learns that Bartleby would prefer not to do many things, including running errands, mailing letters, and talking to his co-workers. All Bartleby wants to do is copy legal documents. The narrator decides he can live with this, and assigns all proofreading to the other scriveners. This arrangement works well, until one Sunday when the narrator happens to stop by his Wall Street office on the way to Trinity Church. He is startled to discover Bartleby there, and even more startled when Bartleby asks him to circle the block a few times, so that he might conclude his affairs. When the narrator returns to his office, Bartleby is gone, but the narrator finds evidence that Bartleby has been living there, all along.

At this point, the plot of Bartleby escalates rapidly and absurdly, like a comedy sketch. Bartleby announces that he has “given up copying” and stops working entirely. The narrator cajoles Bartleby to “be a little reasonable.” Bartleby’s reply: “At present, I would prefer not to be a little reasonable.” The narrator then dismisses Bartleby, giving him his paycheck, plus twenty dollars — a kind of severance package. But Bartleby refuses to be dismissed. The narrator demands: “Will you, or will you not quit me?” Bartleby’s reply: “I would prefer not to quit you.” Eventually, the narrator decides to ignore Bartleby until he leaves of his own accord. But Bartleby never leaves. He stays at his desk, staring out the window, day in and day out. The narrator becomes accustomed to his unmoving presence, but when other lawyers visit, they are suspicious of Bartleby, and in turn, suspicious of the narrator, a man apparently unable to fire his employees. Gossip begins to circulate. And so the narrator decides he must leave Bartleby, if Bartleby is not going to leave him. He finds a new office to rent.

This tactic works; Bartleby does not follow the narrator to his new offices. Instead, Bartleby continues to lurk around the old office, even after new tenants move in. At night, he sleeps in the building’s entryway. Eventually, the building’s new tenants visit the narrator, to complain about Bartleby. “You are responsible for the man you left there. He refuses to do any copying; he refuses to do anything; he says he prefers not to and he refuses to quit the premises.” The narrator, who is not without pity for Bartleby, goes to visit him.

“Bartleby,” said I, “are you aware that you are the cause of great tribulation to me, by persisting in occupying the entry after being dismissed from the office?”

No answer.

“Now, one of two things must take place. Either you must do something, or something must be done to you. Now what sort of business would you like to engage in? Would you like to re-engage in copying for someone?”

“No; I would prefer not to make any change.”

The passage goes on, at length, with the narrator suggesting all sorts of work that Bartleby might do, and with Bartleby dismissing each suggestion. The exchange ends when Bartleby repeats: “No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all.”

When I first began working at the law firm, I was a temporary employee, but after a few months, I became permanent. Around that time, I had a dream that I got a tattoo of the word CHANGE on my right arm. The meaning was obvious: I was uncertain of my decision to settle down at the firm, and struggling with the feeling that what I was telling myself was a day job was actually one I would be stuck with for a long time. For a while, I considered actually getting a tattoo of the word CHANGE, to remind me of the dream, and of my fears, but then the Obama campaign happened, and the word change began to lose its meaning for me. I’m not saying I was never taken in by Obama’s promises — I was — but just seeing the word, everywhere, on buttons, on billboards, on T-shirts, on TV, turned the idea of change into a kind of golden fantasy, whereas before, I had thought of it as something I could do.

Bartleby is very sad in its final pages. After the narrator leaves him, he is arrested as a vagrant and taken to the Tombs, a prison downtown. The narrator goes to visit him there, but Bartleby refuses to speak to him. Feeling guilty, the narrator arranges for special meals to be brought to Bartleby, but Bartleby refuses to eat them. A few days later, the narrator returns to the Tombs again, to check on Bartleby, but he can’t find him. Another prisoner directs the narrator to the prison yard, where Bartleby was seen lying down to take a nap. The narrator finds him. Bartleby is not asleep; he is dead.

I went to Occupy Wall Street with my friend Maura, who at 57 has already survived one protest era. “People are complaining that it’s just a bunch of spoiled college kids, but that’s what it was like in the 1960s,” she told me. Having lived through the 1970s, when much of Manhattan was dirty and dangerous, Maura doesn’t spend much time wringing her hands over the hipster gentrification of Brooklyn and Queens. To her, the bigger story is the way the middle and working-class families that have traditionally lived in outer-borough New York are slowly leaving the city. She doesn’t think hipster kids are responsible for that particular migration; instead, it’s related to the corporate mentality that is taking over all of New York City.

“Everyone, even people in regular jobs, suddenly feels like they need to make a lot of money to be successful,” she says. “It wasn’t always like that. My father was happy just to own his house and support his family. He thought it was an honor to be able to pay his taxes, because he knew other people were worse off. I’m not saying you have to be a saint, but you should be able to be a normal person and live here.”

As we’re talking, a union organizer with a white beard hands us a flier and invites us to march with him the next day. After he leaves, I tell Maura that I would go, but I have dinner plans at seven, and I would feel bad cancelling. She laughs and says she would go too, but she’s too old to be arrested. “We’re not very radical are we?”

On our way out, we see a twenty-something guy in a suit holding a brown cardboard sign: I’M FOR REGULATING THE BANKS. APPARENTLY THAT MAKES ME A RADICAL.

covercoverMelville published Bartleby in 1853, at what was likely a personal low point. Not only had his masterpiece, Moby Dick, received mixed reviews, but his follow-up book, Pierre, was so universally disliked that one paper ran a review titled: HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY. His career as a writer was beginning a steep decline, and he must have known it. It’s easy to see Bartleby as Melville’s alter ego, the depressed writer who sees no point in going on. Bartleby even says that he has “decided upon doing no more writing.” But the interesting thing about Bartleby the Scrivener is that it isn’t told from Bartleby’s point of view, and so even if Melville intended the story to be an illustration of his own neglected genius, he also ended up telling the story of a Wall Street lawyer’s brief brush with despair.

The most moving passages of Bartleby occur around the story’s midpoint, after the narrator discovers that Bartleby is homeless, and has been living in his office. The narrator is struck, not only by Bartleby’s poverty, but also by his loneliness, which he imagines must be greater on Wall Street than in any other Manhattan neighborhood:

Of a Sunday, Wall Street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous… I remembered the bright silks and sparkling faces I had seen that day, in gala trim, swan-like sailing down the Mississippi of Broadway; and I contrasted them with the pallid copyist, and thought to myself: Ah, happiness courts the light, so we deem the world is gay; but misery hides aloof, so we deem that misery there is none.

The parallels between Bartleby’s peculiar form of rebellion and the protestors of Occupy Wall Street should be obvious. The point of Occupy Wall Street — and the Occupy movements around the country — is to put a face to America’s dwindling middle class. There is no need to be any more specific than that. In fact, it seems that the less specific, less reasonable, and less demanding the protesters are, the more likely they are to unnerve those who actually have the power to make a change. Bartleby is disturbing not because of what he says or doesn’t say, but because he seems to have lost some aspect of his humanity:

Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been any thing ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises.

Here’s the narrator again, when he is trying to convince Bartleby to help with the proofreading:

But there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.

A few pages later:

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance.

And finally, the story’s famous last line:

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle. Let the pundits complain about vagueness, and let the reporters ask their condescending questions. (As an example, here’s one I heard put to a young man standing near me: “Is it true that you want to put all the bankers in jail?”) Let them tease, let them pacify, let them cajole, let them argue. But don’t move, Occupy Wall Street.


Image: a.mina/Flickr

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Visions, among others. She writes about movies on her blog, Thelma and Alice and Read more at or sign up for her newsletter here.