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.


  1. Excellent work, Hannah. I think you said it best here: “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle.” This may not be a welcome proposition – isn’t the world unsettling enough? – but there’s a difference between the vague anxiety promoted by a 24-hour news cycle and the precision of planting one’s feet in the ground or, as you so eloquently put it, being “stilled” to rediscovery through literature. The latter are moments that define us. (And I especially enjoyed the “Herman Melville Crazy” tidbit – very funny!)

  2. Indeed, Occupy wall street and never, ever, move. I’m hoping to see reports on the conditions at the protest outdoors in deepest January. I certainly hope they don’t get plowed in.

  3. As “Bartleby” is one of my favorite stories, this is hands-down the lousiest synopsis of that, or of any story I’ve ever read. A) Bartleby never leaves the office. B) The proprietor finally moves away. C) Bartleby dies in a prison yard. D) the proprietor repeats a rumor that Bartleby once worked in the dead letter office. E) the quality of this analysis of what’s going on with these amorphous hang-around protests is just as shallow and mentally wobbly. Good lord.

  4. Great thought provoking article. One thought: Bartleby is often behind a “screen” of semi-transparency (indeed he is walled in while a scrivener, squatter, and later, inmate). At Zuccotti Park it is the OWS group out defiantly in the open while the bankers sit concealed. Any thoughts on this?

  5. I loved this piece. I’ve read a number of articles on OWS so far, and have visited the occupy camp in the city I call home, and Gersen’s piece has been the one–in my view–that’s done the movement the most justice. Thank you.

  6. Ask most people down there what their goal is and you get cliquey answers. And jumbled ones. Quiz them on the bailouts and exactly WHAT banks got money and why 98% would not be able to tell you. On top of that. they are peppered with pro-Palestinian/Anti-Israeli activists. HAVE A POINT, I say to these protesters. If the discussion of what a rally’s goal is is an issue, there is a problem. And the millionaire march–dumber than dumb. Most of the protesters there do not even know who Bartelby is, also.

  7. Why cannot Americans accept responsibility for their own failings? Our economic malaise is due to much more than corporate or banking malfeasance and greed. It is due in no small measure to greed by large chunk of the 99 percent. It is due to people spending beyond their means, saving no money, and failing to due their due diligence when signing mortgages. For some reason the Left refuses to acknowledge the sins of the individual. Why? Is it because it is more politically expedient to damn faceless entities than to challenge the American people to mend their ways? I believe is to be so. The Left is a bunch of cowards. They are not willing to lose political points to reLly address our problem–a nationwide financial recklessness that goes from Wall Street to Main Street.

    PS, I wait with baited breTh for the mass movement to combat that worst of our national problems–murder. 16,500 Americans are butchered each year. Where are the protests? Where is the outrage? We ought to be concerned far more about this than economic concerns that can only be solved with time and reorganization. Murder ought to be our number one issue as a nation. 16,500 people a year. Think about that.

  8. How can mass murder bring on outrage when the outrage in lower Manhattan is all about “Hey, I didn’t get mine like I wuz promised by all my teechers. I wuz robbed!”

    And in passing I will note for the record that Herman Melville, after his career as a novelist didn’t quite work out, went and held down a job at the Customs office on Gansvoort street just a bit north of the slackers on Wall Street for 19 years. However he did manage to crank out Clarel and Billy Budd so it wasn’t a total loss.

    But why did Melville subsume his genius to a “job?” Turns out he had debts and a family to support.

    It’s a damn shame he didn’t stiff his creditors, abandon his family, and take to the streets with a hand lettered sign demanding people buy his books, isn’t it?

  9. In statements such as these–

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

    * Wasn’t the whole point of passive resistance to just be there? To not make any demands?

    –I feel the author may have revealed some of her own misunderstandings, in the midst of arguing, in effect, against other people’s. So, many of the OWS protesters are in favor of income equality and democracy; that’s the impression I’ve gotten anyway, and it’s what an organizer was quoted here saying. Fine. The question that immediately arises in my mind when I hear some kind of goal or ideal announced is: What do we do? If one is upset about inequality, there’s nothing wrong in expressing that, but expressing it alone won’t banish inequality. (The belief that “spilling it”–expressing yourself, letting your feelings out–has some value in itself is encouraged by the modern helping professions, but it may be to a degree illusory. Regardless, in the therapy process, one is often called on to work out what action should follow.)

    Yes, people have had protests and sit-ins before. Not all of them have been focused. But at the risk of sounding obvious, let’s remember: in the 60s, the anti-war movement had a very clear and specific goal, which was ending the war; so did women’s liberation, and civil rights. And this year in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the uprisings were no mere expression of discontent but demands for the end of authoritarian governments and the departure of oppressive leaders. Ending inequality is nowhere near as precise as those goals were.

    Re passive resistance, I believe the author is both right and wrong. Consider a dictionary definition: “resistance especially to a government or an occupying power characterized mainly by noncooperation.” That is a kind of “just being there,” but expectations are often implied if not stated. Passive resistance by Indians to the British colonial regime carried the hope that (to put it simply) the British would find things too difficult and leave. I’m not sure that occupying a public park and making marches is very effectively “resisting” anything; it’s not gumming up the works as I understand passive resistance did under Gandhi.

  10. Actually, passive resistance by the Indians rested on the belief (in this case well founded) that the British at that time would not be able to stomach the level of violence it would take to put it down. The Indians gambled and won.

    In the case of OWS it’s a bunch of white kids sitting around bitching and it will lead absolutely nowhere since it does not challenge the machine but underwrites it.

    To quote the Last Psychiatrist: “If you hold a protest and you aren’t throwing rocks it will fail. I’m not telling you to throw rocks, I’m explaining why your march won’t work. “

  11. Hannah,

    Beautiful article. One of my favorite book stores in DC closed earlier this year and was named after this Melville story. I’m going to send the proprietors your story.



  12. No fair changing things after I pointed them out. Then again, glad to have rectified it.

    Can’t seem to find any actual real “Occupiers,” just “spokespeople” on Twitter. Somebody’s designed and paid for this thing. It’s too fishy.

  13. Actually this is very much off the mark. Melville’s essay, like Hawthorn’s Wakefield, is searing early existentialism, way before it’s time in authors, like Kafka.

    Bartelby would have, by no means, attended a protest for the rights of the working class. The entire point of the story is the abject renunciation of effort to exist in the working world. The OWS protests are a populist middle and lower-class effort, with a slight mix of the dark peoples – angry about whatever they are always angry about.

    Bartelby is a brilliant story of complete and existential apathy in the face of the absurd need to show up and “do things” at a job. OWC is about people wanting to work (presumably) or just protest with their parents credit card in their back pockets.

  14. Poor Melville! To think of his life always breaks my heart. Perhaps a part of Bartleby stands as the kernel of the writer who must withdraw because the worth of his work is not recognized.

    And I agree with you that it’s okay that, for the moment, the message of the Occupiers need not be “clearer.” My writing is a story about the last disastrous crash, the one our grandparents endured, and one of the ways they survived it was to simply stand on the truth of their daily experience.

    That’s not a bad place to start.

  15. Great article… made me like both the story and the protest more, which is a nice feat.

    I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising to find people who are so quick to declare what Bartleby is or isn’t… or what Melville meant or didn’t mean. If the book was just was one thing or the other, would we still be reading it and talking about it so many years later? I think Melville was man enough for ten meanings.

  16. It’s interesting to hold up Bartleby as an example of passive resistance (which seems to be what’s done here) when he is benefiting from the system he’s in as much as resisting it, and also resisting change as much as anything else. From my perspective, OWS seems to be a request to change an empty system that perpetuates profit for a few and misery for many (like Bartleby himself). So I think Bartleby serves more to expose the emptiness of a system than the effectiveness of passive protest.

    However, I haven’t read the story, so I’m sort of just spouting off here. (

  17. Are you aware that Bartleby the Scrivener is widely considered the first (known) portrayal in literature of a character with autism/Asperger’s? Google it.

  18. An interesting comparison, but I think I’d see this more in terms of Ursala LeGuin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which the citizens of a beautiful utopian society are exposed to the suffering of a child upon which that utopia depends. Most of them deal with it and get on with their privileged lives, perhaps appreciating that privilege more, but accepting the system the way it is.

    Others find they can’t take that path, and opt out, leaving for somewhere else, though no one knows where. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

    I’m not sure the Occupiers have a clear idea, yet, of where they are headed, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t right in their refusal to accept the status quo. Their success will depend on whether they can find goals that are really achievable and authentically alternative to what we have now.

  19. Great article. Now I’ll definitely have to read Bartleby. It is interesting to compare this story with Dickens’ Christmas Carol, also about office worker and boss.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.