My favorite fictional character when I was studying literature in college was Bartelby, the Scrivener. Before college my favorite TV character was Maynard G. Krebs. Everyone is apprehensive of the future, especially college students, wondering first if they can make it through school and then where they will end up in the job market. And my view of work was similar to Krebs, as played by Bob Denver as seen here in a clip from “The Many Affairs of Dobie Gillis.” Work indeed; it is scary. Which brings me back to Bartelby.
Bartelby is not a beatnik like Maynard, and his aversion to work is also different. In the short story Bartelby has lost his job due to administrative change and now finds himself working in law office as a scrivener, a scribe, who is hired to copy legal documents. On his third day on the job when told by his boss what he wanted Bartelby to do, my hero Bartelby said “I prefer not to.”
And what employee in a dead end job does not want to say that. He said the line with calmness and matter-of-factness. He did not defy in hostility, he simply with great sadness said, “I prefer not to.” And he got away with it. Bartelby became a fixture in the office, a mournful, sad presence, often looking out the window at a brick wall. In fact it turned out he ended up living in the office, much to the surprise of his boss. Day after day, “I prefer not to.” Sadly Bartelby was forced to leave, his presence became not intolerable, but embarrassing. Bartelby ended up in the Dead Letter Department of the post office, but I shall not reveal the ending.
From time to time when I lived in the real world with a real job I would say to my boss, “I prefer not to.” For some reason it never worked. I guess I never ran into a boss like Bartelby. I either received a stare in return or laughter, or “I don’t care, do it anyway.” Preferring not to do something is valid, but not caring is a bad attitude. Though maybe that is the Bartelby within me speaking.
Maynard had an aversion to work because it was unhip, uncool, and it was . . .well it was work. I had the same aversion in my youth. Today like Bartelby, as I look at a blank page in Word, attempting to write the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph of my new novel, my mind says, “I prefer not to.”
Bartelby fell into an existential trap, but I deal with dysthymia or melancholy, depending on which counselor or therapist I listen to, but I think both forms of depression overlap, blend, merge, and swirl into each other. I took medication for a few years, but it had side effects and given the choice, I “prefer not to” take pills.
It has been suggested that the narrator of “Bartelby” is mask for Melville and that Bartelby is a darker side of the writer Melville. If that is true then both must have been depressed, but if you get enough literary critics together they will debate, argue and interpret the story in diverse ways. I just like a guy who says, “I prefer not to” when asked to work.
After I publish this blog I may or may not write, or work on my new, yet to be online website. I will see what I prefer to do, if anything.
Meanwhile in this e-book of supernatural short stories for $2.99 you will find two more literary characters, Frankenstein and his monster, created by Mary Shelley, and reimagined by yours truly in an alternate ending.